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It's Not Easy to 'Fix' Nature

November 03, 2002

Biologists taking the first steps toward restoring wetlands at Bolsa Chica and in the Bay Area express a deep sense of humility about the work ahead.

They don't know whether their plans will work fully. They know that success could be so far off in the future, they might not live to see it.

A federal restoration manager put it best, in words that should ring into the future whenever people monkey with the environment: "It's so hard for man to create nature."

Decades ago, humans had little idea how much damage they were doing when they "improved" what they viewed as swamps.

Duck hunters cut off Bolsa Chica from the sea, creating ponds to make their hobby easier. Subsequent oil drilling polluted the soil.

Later, when the public had a better idea of wetlands' value, developers offered "mitigation" in exchange for building rights along marshes. Their plan: to make it up to the environment by building artificial wetlands elsewhere. But the experiments often ended in failures that became obvious only after the damage was done.

Now we realize that wetlands are more than natural treasure troves, home to migrating birds and other wildlife. They also filter urban runoff and renew commercial fisheries. And now that we have ruined most of the state's coastal wetlands, we discover that nature, in all its complications, is very hard to fix.

Walk inland from the wetlands and it's evident that the nature of humans is to monkey with nature -- and to continue to make mistakes.

Toll road agencies built tunnels under their speedways for the wildlife, then found that many animals didn't get the message: "Wildlife Crosswalk This Way." The animals continued to walk where they'd always walked and were hit by cars.

We cannot help messing with nature. Ardent environmentalists wear clothes, live in buildings, use energy, eat food. Organic food is raised on land that once was wild. And though our knowledge of and respect for nature grows, even the best efforts to minimize our impact may have consequences we cannot foresee.

Development plans are moving forward for Saddleback Meadows, known to be an important wildlife corridor, and for Rancho Mission Viejo, one of the last giant swaths of undeveloped land in the county.

Governments and agencies have other long-term decisions ahead about balancing the needs of people and the needs of nature.

Humility--acknowledging how little we know--provides an important source of wisdom in these matters.

"It's so hard for man to create nature."

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