The Difficult Case for Assisted Plant Migration

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Climate change will drastically alter the distribution of the earth’s native plants and animals. In California, ancient sequoias that have lived in the mountains for thousands of years could find their landscape uninhabitable. In an effort to save these iconic giants, a group of eco-rebels are ignoring the predominant scientific thinking by helping the species establish new habitat in Oregon. Called “human-assisted migration,” this extreme movement isn’t something the species can do on its own. But is it the right thing for people to do?

For The Believer, journalist James Pogue visits the mountains with the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, to understand assisted migration’s philosophical complications, and to rethink genetics, cloning, and what it means for an organism to be native to a place, versus naturalized. “The state is among a group of climatic regions that have become cradles of biodiversity,” Pogue writes.

But for how long? A drastic portion of California’s plants may go extinct without some kind of intervention. And since we have already intervened on the climate that these plants depend on, perhaps it’s silly to think of a pure, untouched nature. Silly—and uncomfortable. I began to wonder about how we apply the idea of nativeness to humans. This seemed rich, in a country where we have done our damnedest to extirpate the native population, and where blood-and-soil nativism among the whites who displaced them led to the election of Donald Trump, whose policies make it all the more impossible to address the environmental cataclysm wreaking destruction upon the plants of California. These questions are not actually new: the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed the notion of native superiority as “romantic drivel” in 1997. Alwin Seifert, a German botanist once described as “one of the leading landscape architects of National Socialism,” took the idea to a grotesque extreme, writing in 1929 that he “wanted to bring garden art into the struggle”—in other words, to use native plants to fight rootless cosmopolitan globalists. I still loved my native plants, but an ecology that embraces the jumbled world as it is seemed worth exploring.

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