Human Use of Restored and Naturalized Delta Landscapes

By Brett Milligan, Assistant Professor, UC Davis Landscape Architecture and Sustainable Environmental Design and Alejo Kraus-Polk, PhD Geography candidate, UC Davis


Ponds #9-13 of White Slough Wildlife Area. Ponds are borrow pits from building I-5 while beginning a Delta peripheral canal. When the peripheral canal was voted down in 1982, these lands were retained by California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife for “interim” management, today as part of the White Slough Wildlife Area for fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing and other recreational activities. Photo by Brett Milligan.


Restored Landscapes in the California Delta: Current and planned EcoRestore projects and other restoration projects completed, in progress or in planning. Data from the California Department of Water Resources and EcoAtlas. Map by Brett Milligan and Prashant Hedao.

Current legislation and plans for the California Delta call for restoring tens of thousands of acres of aquatic and terrestrial habitat, which will require large changes in land uses and cultural patterns.  In addition to planned ‘restoration’, unplanned ‘naturalization’ also occurs in the Delta, from the flooding of islands or the abandonment of previously managed land.  These newly feral or semi-wild landscapes will remain subject to human use and give rise to new scientific, economic, and recreational uses.

We recently completed a study of how restored and naturalized landscapes are being used by people, the effects of those uses, and how those uses might be better planned.  We surveyed or interviewed more than 100 land managers, scientists, landowners, law enforcement personnel, agency representatives and Delta residents and reviewed existing Delta planning literature, field work and case studies. In general, our research supports advancement of an ecosystem reconciliation approach, which seeks synergies between ecosystem needs and the desires of those who live, work and play in the Delta, now and in the future.

We found that:

Restored and naturalized landscapes are strongly affected by human use, presence and management.  These landscapes reflect their former domesticated states and uses, which were mostly agricultural. This newly feral quality, along with accelerated rates of climate change, ensure that these ‘restored’ landscapes will be novel and unprecedented ecologically.  These landscapes are human places as much as they are ecosystems and have a long history of use for subsistence, recreation, illicit and unregulated activity, and more recently, for science.  Combined with the extensive urbanization surrounding the Delta, human uses of these landscapes will remain diverse and pervasive.

Restored and naturalized landscapes are often subject to multiple and conflicting uses and values.  Experiences and cultural practices are typically marginalized in restoration planning, but have understudied effects on these landscapes. Politics, laws, accessibility, amenities, ways of living and territoriality all affect what these places will become.  There are different values related to the evolving Delta, beyond science and restoration goals. Diversity of values should be included in planning, design and management, as they affect the performance of restoration efforts.


Entrance Gate to Liberty Island. Photo by Brett Milligan.

Reconciling human uses with ecological restoration will require more comprehensive planning and design.  Plans and designs should serve multiple beneficiaries, both non-human and human.  Regional connectivity (landscape networks) also matters in terms of access and ecological functions.  Restoration planning and design should seek community involvement and stakeholder participation, critical for long term success.  Human uses should be integrated into restoration planning from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought, as these uses can increase the value and support for these projects, contribute to the local and regional economy and deter undesirable and unsanctioned uses.

Funding for recreation and human uses in restoration planning is an important long term investment, and is recommended in the Delta Plan.  Design and management choices at the beginning of a restoration project have a strong bearing on future relationships and conditions.  We should design and plan for pleasure, aesthetics and accommodate diverse user experiences, to build stronger constituencies and public appreciation.  Not accounting for public use and place values tends to lead to problems and unintended uses.  Designing for human uses at the outset of a project will cost more initially, but should reduce long term conflicts among the objectives of management, enforcement and desires of users.  Ecological restoration initiatives, such as Ecorestore, should continue to integrate and fund participatory restoration planning, such as the former Delta Dialogues and Delta Restoration Network projects and the current Delta Conservation Framework.


Floating Duck Blind, Franks Tract. California State Parks manages a duck hunting program on Franks Tract. Hunters apply for permits to build blinds at specific coordinates within a grid of evenly spaced locations across the lake. The blinds must be removed at the end of the hunting season. Photo by Brett Milligan.

Human uses of restored landscapes should be integrated into adaptive management.  The Delta Independent Science Board’s Adaptive Management review posits that a, “more holistic and integrated approach to science­ based adaptive management in the Delta is needed to face both current and future challenges” (DISB 2016).  Human uses can be compatible with restoration objectives through effective and creative adaptive management.  However, like the dynamic nature of the Delta’s ecology, human uses are not determinate, varying with geographic contexts and across time. Therefore, human use studies specific to the Delta’s landscapes — scientific, recreational, etc. — should be done regularly to better inform management.

The public is an overlooked asset and advocate for restoring and monitoring Delta landscapes.  The Delta’s novel ecologies and efforts to guide them should be highlighted in Delta literature, marketing and advertising.  In particular, citizen science offers a range of win-win methods to collect broader low-cost monitoring data.  It also offers science an avenue for greater public acceptance and understanding (McKinley et al. 2015).  Although citizen science is almost non-existent in the Delta it is widely and successfully practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Experimentation with citizen science should be a Delta science priority.  We should also experiment with the variety of interactive, real time, and geolocative digital media available to users and visitors of the Delta. There is much potential for the creative use and application of such media for fostering awareness and stewardship of Delta restoration efforts.


Native plant restoration. Native plant hedgerow maintained Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge by the Sacramento Tree Foundation, Winter, 2015. Hedgerow provides habitat and a buffer and natural fence to discourage trespassing onto adjacent, private farmland. Photo by Brett Milligan.

Our research suggests the need to shift how restored Delta landscapes are considered in planning, policy and design.  We advocate for including human presence integrally in these landscapes.  Doing so will make restoration efforts more realistic and effective.

Reconciling human uses with restoration objectives requires a broader view of stewardship.  Enhancing and planning for human use experiences could help reconcile multiple issues of concern.   Integrated adaptive management efforts with adequate resources should play a role in the present and future of restored and naturalized Delta landscapes.

This shift in approach is timely as restoration efforts gain momentum and expand.  A 2016 DISB report on adaptive management and the IEP Delta Science Agenda both signaled the need to integrate human factors in designing for ecological recovery in the Delta.  Yet there is a considerable void in the literature and in stakeholder conversations on the topic.  This study provides a rationale for why human dimensions of adaptive management are needed in restoration and broader management efforts, and why giving human dimensions more rigorous consideration can assist in meeting these goals.

Further reading

Human Use of Restored and Naturalized Delta Landscapes Report:
Human Use Report Executive Summary
Human Use Report for screen viewing (spreads)
Human Use Report for printing
Human Use Report Appendix

DISB. 2016. “Improving Adaptive Management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” DISB.

McKinley, Duncan C., Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, Heidi L. Ballard, Rick Bonney, Hutch Brown, Daniel M. Evans, Rebecca A. French, et al. 2015. “Investing in Citizen Science Can Improve Natural Resource Management and Environmental Protection.” Issues in Ecology 19.

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