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Ecological Restoration for Community Benefit: People and Landscapes in Northern California, 1840-2010


Restoration has important ecological work to do, particularly maintaining biological diversity and repairing impaired ecological functions. In addition, many people anticipate and hope that restoration will also produce changes in and provide benefits to human communities. Although these expectations are widespread, relatively little is known about how well restoration projects achieve their goals generally, and even less about the social and cultural consequences of restoration work.

This dissertation draws on the experiences of two communities in northwestern California--the American Indians and non-Indians who are part of the United Indian Health Services (UIHS) and the resource managers, scientists, and landowners who work together to implement restoration projects throughout Humboldt County--to explore the impact of ecological restoration on human communities that undertake, use, or are home to restoration projects. I used qualitative interviews along with a review of historical and contemporary documents to develop an understanding of restoration goals and outcomes that is grounded in the experiences of UIHS community members and members of the broader Humboldt County restoration community.

UIHS community members share a vision of restoration that is rooted in cultural understandings of the relationship between people and the environment and in historical changes to the local landscape and American Indian communities that have affected their ability to enact this relationship and to apply key cultural values. In the contemporary cultural landscapes of northwestern California, UIHS community members' access to culturally significant places and natural resources is restricted. Restoration offers one way to restore a role for American Indians in the landscape through active management, traditional activities, and applications of cultural knowledge. I find that the process of restoring and using the Ku' wah-dah-wilth Restoration Area has had at least six outcomes that contribute to community wellbeing. These are: encouraging healthy behaviors; offering opportunities for cultural and environmental education; serving as a source of inspiration; facilitating community interaction; providing a culturally meaningful place that produces a range of positive emotional responses; and acting as positive symbol of living American Indian cultures. However, the Restoration Area's potential for meaningful change is constrained at present by the limited number of people who access the site or receive information about it and the relatively small number of opportunities to actively engage with the site.

Members of the Humboldt County restoration community are also motivated by the hope that restoration will benefit communities culturally and economically. Although restoration contributes significantly to the county's economy and has led to relationship building and improved knowledge about local ecosystems, general uncertainty about restoration's community impacts suggests that restoration goals are not necessarily reflected in restoration outcomes. Taken together the experiences of these two communities indicate that restoration has a range of social and cultural outcomes. They also suggest that more effectively realizing cultural and social goals will take active planning, engagement with the broader political and social forces that have contributed to current conditions, ongoing involvement with restored sites to create opportunities for education and use, monitoring and evaluation of social outcomes, and attention to who is and who is not benefitting from restoration.

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