I've been participating in a community-based restoration project in my neighborhood. The agreed upon objective is to restore and maintain a mature (probably old-growth)oak-hickory woodland. The woodland is part of a city park, and the city has had a hands-off management approach. About once a year, paths are cut through the largest deadfalls blocking trails, and the city will take down dead trees that threaten structures on the neighboring properties. The park has dense networks of trails, and it is heavily used in all seasons.
It's also ecologically distinctive. It contains a number of mature butternut trees, which have become rare in the northeast, and some other rare tree specimens. Its majestic red, black, scarlet, and white oaks are close to 200 years old. There are also large tulip trees, hickories, and black cherries, as well as two glacial kettles. Archival photographs and maps indicate that it was never logged.
And, not surprisingly, it contains many, many Norway maples. Lots of autumn olive. Banks of black swallowwort. And garlic mustard looms on the edges. Invasive species are a real problem. Knocking out all the Norway maples, though, would quite possibly cause a noticeable impact in the understory. Members of the project are passionate and, in many ways, knowledgeable about natural history. The project itself, though, is not data-driven.
One of the things that has interested me about the public response to the project has been frequent opposition on the grounds that any form of maintenance or intervention is akin to gardening and therefore "unnatural."
I've heard several people say that they do not mind the idea that the oaks would be overcome by Norway maples fifty years from now. One said that one tree is as good as another--as long as the woodland is green, it's essentially the same. But others have said that they wouldn't mind the transformation because they see that change as part of the natural order. Things change, and as long as the change is "natural," it can be welcomed. Keeping Norway maples out of this grove is viewed as manipulation, and the specific kind of manipulation as driven by nostalgia, a desire to treat this woodland as though it is a museum piece.
What are the politics behind these views? I sense a kind of anti-intellectualism that identifies science with elitism. The concept of "invasive species" is a scientific concept, not a folk category. Moreover, perhaps there is the feeling that a negative judgment against this grove that they have always enjoyed and perceived as perfectly healthy is a judgment against them for not being as attuned as others have been to its ecological fragility. There is resistance to the idea that this grove--or any part of nature--is or could be fragile.
There seems to be an identification of these 50 or so acres as wilderness, despite their location inside the city limits of a large city. Since they're perceived as wilderness, the legitimate response is seen as neglect, not management. Perhaps more trust is put in nature as manager than humans as managers.