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'Rewilding' California: Restoring resources and species

I love ideas that seem outrageous at first blush but make more sense the deeper you delve. I think we should repopulate the wilds of California with the big, magnificent animals that used to live here.

Humans long ago eradicated most of the large California megafauna in two great waves of activity, the first beginning when the first humans, the Clovis people, arrived over a land bridge from Siberia about 13,000 years ago. The second wave of extermination occurred with the arrival of guns around 300 years ago. Let's bring the animals back.

"Rewilding" is not a new idea. Tule elk, which once roamed the state in droves, were hunted to extinction. A perspicacious cattle rancher in the 1850s saved the last 20 or so tule elk. Today, after reintroduction, they are thriving by the thousands in locations throughout the state, most notably at Point Reyes, north of San Francisco.

In 1827, grizzly bears could be seen in herds only 20 miles outside San Francisco. The grizzly so epitomized California that it was put on the state flag, where it remains today. Unfortunately, the flag is the only place it remains. The California grizzly was driven to extinction.

Top predators are important to an ecosystem. We've learned much from the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone Park. After being eliminated from Yellowstone in 1926, the wolf's reintroduction has had a surprisingly positive impact.

The aspen tree was disappearing in Yellowstone. No new aspen trees had grown in the park for 70 years. With the reintroduction of the gray wolf, aspens began to sprout up in large stands, especially in river valleys. It turns out the elk no longer forage in areas where they can be easily ambushed by wolves. Trees along riverbanks reduce topsoil erosion, providing both cleaner riparian habitats and richer upland soils. The wolf, by indirectly allowing trees to grow, also led to the resurgence of the historic beaver population in Yellowstone. The impact of beavers, with their industrious dams, is now being studied. A mere 12 years after reintroduction, the positive trickle-down impact of the wolf has amazed scientists.

Only 100 years ago, tule elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and grizzly bears were endemic to California. If we go back before the arrival of humans, California's biodiversity was much richer still. The first humans to arrive in North America decimated the megafauna. Within 1,000 years of humans entering a new world ecosystem, most of the major megafauna had been exterminated. Climate change, which was occurring at the same time, was the nail in the coffin. Human extermination and climate change led to their complete extinction. Sounds like the toxic cocktail we have created today, doesn't it?

California had eye-popping megafauna. The Golden State teemed with wildlife similar to East Africa's, including lions, camels, mammoths, wild horses, rhinoceroses, cheetahs and many more magnificent beasts.

Questions arise. Who would support reintroducing predators that might want to eat humans for lunch? Wouldn't rewilding cost too much money and take too much land? We need jobs and land for humans.

Let's chew on the issue of human predation. Alaska is a good example. Alaska has a vast expanse of wilderness supporting every fearsome type of bear imaginable. In 102 years of recordkeeping, only 56 deaths can be attributed to bears. In the year 2004 alone, 102 deaths in Alaska were due to motor vehicles. In terms of risk, 100 years of bear attacks equals six months of driving around. Megafauna is not risky - driving is.

Then there's the issue of forest fires. California had bountiful ecosystems that grew a diverse fabric of plants and animals that appeared to be much more fire resistant than the thin and torn wilds left today. Earlier this year, a horrible fire burned uncontrollably for two months in the Los Padres National Forest, torching 240,000 acres. Scientists have tracked a strong correlation between human impact on the environment and the increase in intensity and damage caused by fires.

The animals that populated the wilds of California have close genetic relatives elsewhere on the globe. Most of these animals are struggling to hang on in their last surviving ecosystems. They tend to live in Third World countries where protection is difficult because of deforestation, poverty and population growth.

California, by restoring its wilds, could do its part to protect these spectacular animals, many of which may otherwise be lost entirely. California has been at the forefront of many environmental causes that have now spread across the globe. If not Californians, who will pick up the mantle of restoring Earth's biodiversity?

Unlike most conservation ideas, rewilding is singularly proactive and optimistic. Rewilding aspires to more than mere preservation of the meager biodiversity - it wants to restore the rich fabric humans inadvertently destroyed. Had we been present 12,000 years ago and known what we know today, who would have killed the last cheetah? We now have a chance to right this terrible mistake.

It wouldn't be such a bad thing for the economy, either. Tourism is already three times the size of agriculture as a percentage of California's economy. Could you imagine the increase in tourism if we embark upon rewilding with big, exciting megafauna? Good jobs would surely follow. Scientists will be needed to study the successes and failures of our efforts, as will park rangers and jobs catering to the inevitable tourists.

We should consider utilizing a portion of the fire-scorched Los Padres National Forest or surrounding wilderness areas to begin an intensive rewilding program. If we encompass an area of mature forest along with the larger fire-damaged land, we could provide a chance for a more complete ecosystem to grow primarily in lands of marginal value due to fire. The area is sparsely populated. Fencing could separate the few homes near the rewilding area.

Virtually all the damage humans have done to California wilds took place before we really understood the problems we were creating. Now we know. We are now faced with something new in our history. Mankind has always considered itself superior to animals in our ability to conceive of and plan for a better future. We believe we have the wisdom and ability to forgo immediate rewards for our longer-term interests. Now we can discover if humans really are more than mere brutes scratching out a living with no thought of our future. Will we manage and restore Earth's resources like we mean to stay on the planet or will we blindly decimate that which gives us life?

I think we are up to the task. Who's going to convince the governor?

Forrest Linebarger is CEO and chief designer at VOX Design Group Inc. He lives in Los Altos and has been designing and building sustainable homes for more than a decade. For more information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 694-6200.

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