Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type



Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Jonathan Phillips


This paper looks at the intersections of nature and culture through a study of forest ecosystem restoration efforts in the Ouachita National Forest (Arkansas and Oklahoma). Ecosystem restoration goals are often informed by a pre-European settlement (PES) condition, with an implicit (and occasionally explicit) assertion that such conditions are both more natural than and preferable to the contemporary state. In many cases resuming pre-suppression fire regimes remains a key mechanism for achieving this restored condition. This study’s three main objectives include: (1) determining how PES benchmarks arose in restoration thought, (2) examining how the choice to use a PES benchmark is influenced by culture, and (3) evaluating the pragmatism of including a PES benchmark in restoration projects.

The issues of the naturalness of PES conditions, along with the cultural implications of adopting a PES benchmark, are critically examined against the backdrop of historic legacies of fire suppression and paleoecological change. Normative balance-of-nature ideas are discussed in light of their influence on natural resource management paradigms. Linkages are drawn between PES conditions and forest health. Evidence supporting the ecological resilience associated with PES vegetation communities is considered alongside the anticipation of future forcing factors. The idea that restored forests represent an ecological archetype is addressed. Finally, an alternative explanation concerning the tendency of ecosystem restoration efforts to converge on a single historic reference condition – a point of equifinality – is weighed against notions of: (1) anthropic degradation, (2) a regional optimum, and (3) a socially-constructed yearning for a frontier ideal.

Because of the unique convergence between historical human activities and natural processes, contemporary culture has conceived of the PES time period as a sort of frontier ideal. The creation of PES benchmarks appears to be an unintentional consequence of attempts to restore forest health rigorously defined by biometric standards. This study offers, to restoration thinking, a framework for critically evaluating the inclusion of historic reference conditions and a means of responding to criticism surrounding their use. This study's findings rest on evidence gathered from paleoecological and historical biogeography data, interviews, archival materials, cultural landscape interpretation, landscape and nature-based art, and complexity theory.



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