04/14/2008 04:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Closing the Salmon Season

San Francisco -- For the first time in history there will be no West Coast salmon fishing season. The unexpected collapse of the Sacramento River's fall run chinook fishery led the Pacific Fishery Management Council to vote to cancel all commercial salmon fishing this year from the California coast to north-central Oregon. "This is a complete disaster by any standard," said Don Hansen, the council chairman.

The suspected culprits?  Diversion of fresh water to agribusiness by the federal government, and global warming's disruption of the ocean's food chains. In reality, the salmon season was only a shadow of its former self, because the other salmon runs on rivers like the Klamath and the San Joaquin had already been destroyed. An article in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle tells the story of how the mismanagement of the Klamath by the Bush administration had set the stage for this year's catastrophe, and how that mismanagement has devastated the Yurok people who live along the lower Klamath and rely on its fisheries.

There's a debate about whether it's too late -- in a scientific sense -- to bring this fishery back. But the more fundamental question is whether we can muster the moral will to restore natural ecosystems even when it is feasible. We know how to restore a great many landscapes and species -- we simply have to give natural processes more room to do what they are best at, which is create and expand life. Yet last week at the Global Philanthropy forum, in a panel on the problem of deforestation in places like Haiti, I asked for examples of large-scale restoration of forests or grasslands. I offered one example -- U.S. soil conservation programs launched in the 1930s did, indeed, dramatically restore the American heartland (at least, until the agricultural fence-post to fence-post policies of the Nixon Administration reversed that). And the Conservation Reserve program launched in the 1980s also worked -- until the corn ethanol boom tempted farmers to withdraw from it.

But those were successes born in an era of agricultural abundance. On last week's panel of very knowledgable people, not one could offer a story of large-scale success during a historical moment of scarcity -- which is what we are facing now, with so many of our resources. There are some smaller-scale successes with fisheries, but if we really want to reforest the world to help curb global warming, or restore the oceans to maintain our fisheries, we are going to need to act in a much more calculatedly self-serving way -- which ironically means being much more generous with nature. Leaving large-scale ecosystem restoration to The Market just won't cut it.