Restoration Ecology: The Study of Applied Optimism


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If your pet could talk, what would it say to you?

I think if my cat could talk she would say “You think I love you unconditionally, but since I am a cat, I only love you because you feed me, scratch my favorite spot, and drag the string around the house. Don’t worry though, I show my love by singing you songs in the morning to wake you up peacefully and I only sit on your computer because I know you’d rather pet me than make those click-clacky sounds and stare at the screen.”

Restoration.

The word feels soothing as it rolls off my tongue. It reminds me that all is not lost and there is a slight opportunity for hope instead of watching the world burn - literally. A quick Google search of the term “restoration” reveals photos of old bits of machinery returned to their shining glory and biblical passages about God restoring health to His people. But for me, the word “restoration” conjures images of vast landscapes of deserts, once overrun with mines and cattle, supporting a thriving community of wildlife and plants. Or of a wetland, once mowed over and turned to a landfill, now full of life and diversity, proving vital functions to our community.

Restoration is the Holy Grail, the saving grace, the superhero that swoops in on the brink of disaster and saves the burning city. Although it is poetic, restoration is the practical process of restoring hope. 

What does it mean to restore something? To make it like new? To regain functionality?

This is a question that has divided restoration ecologists for half a century. As one of the leading organizations in the field, the Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) defines restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” Many definitions have been posed alongside SER’s but all with the same message: we have the tools, understanding, and capabilities to reverse some of the damage our species has inflicted on Earth.

Prescribed burns of forests have been used for centuries to manage and restore environments.

Prescribed burns of forests have been used for centuries to manage and restore environments.

Restoration ecology is young for a scientific field, having found its humble roots in the mid-twentieth century, but indigenous people have been practicing restoration for centuries, using intentional burning and understanding how the rotational grazing of large mammals impacted seasonal food sources. 

The scientific field however, grew out of a century of wars, famine, economic instability, and environmental crisis. It grew from applied optimists who not only wanted to understand the trials facing our ecosystems but wanted to fix them. It grew from a generation of scientists who wanted to change the world and thought they could.

Take Aldo Leopold, the shining star of restoration and author of the book that jump-started my own restorative interests, A Sand County Almanac. In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, he began restoring native prairies along the Wisconsin River which is now part of the acclaimed Curtis Prairie and managed by the University of Wisconsin.

Today, a new generation of restoration ecologists are making a name for themselves (see #iRestore on Twitter), faced with a new set of environmental challenges in addition to the old:  budget crises, government shutdowns, and ecosystems degrading before our eyes. But how are we addressing modern restoration?

Enter, the decade of restoration.

September 2018, Fire scars in a northern California grassland after the Mendocino Complex Fire. Restoration ecologists are studying how more frequent and more high severity fire impact the recovery of ecosystems.

September 2018, Fire scars in a northern California grassland after the Mendocino Complex Fire. Restoration ecologists are studying how more frequent and more high severity fire impact the recovery of ecosystems.

North Table Mountain, CA, April 2019. The super bloom draws thousands of visitors and boasts some of the highest plant diversity in California grasslands. Restoration ecology is about conserving these landscapes and creating more of them.

North Table Mountain, CA, April 2019. The super bloom draws thousands of visitors and boasts some of the highest plant diversity in California grasslands. Restoration ecology is about conserving these landscapes and creating more of them.

The decade from 2021-2030 has been dubbed the “decade of restoration” by the United Nations. A decade devoted to restoring our most damaged ecosystems. A short decade to undo centuries worth of human damage on our environment. To put this in perspective, a decade ago I was in that awkward transition summer between eight grade and high school where my biggest worries were whether my eyeliner was symmetrical and whether the hottie down the street noticed my new tank top. A decade later, my biggest concern is the 415 ppm levels of atmospheric CO2 recently recorded at Hawaii’s atmospheric monitoring station at Mauna Loa. 

Humans have altered our environments to a point where many are unrecognizable. We have pushed the CO2 levels in the atmosphere to numbers the earth hasn’t experienced in 400,000 years. We are losing species left and right; it’s predicted that over a million species will go extinct by 2050. Regulations are shunned. Water is poisoned. Fires plague my beloved American West. And hurricanes pummel the eastern shores of the U.S. Can a decade of restoration give us enough hope to continue?

2021-2030. One short decade to restore the planet.

The aim of this “decade of restoration” is to scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems to aid in the fight against climate change, and increase food security, water supply, and biodiversity.  

Oysters provide a critical ecosystem service to watersheds by ‘filtering’ out contaminants and pollutants from the water.

Oysters provide a critical ecosystem service to watersheds by ‘filtering’ out contaminants and pollutants from the water.

This plan is based on the relatively new idea of “ecosystem services,” things ecosystems directly or indirectly provide for humans. Some notable examples are pollination, water quality, and clean air. Restoring ecosystems and thus restoring the services they provide, can improve the lives of billions of people and other organisms.

According to the United Nations, the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded land between now and 2030 could generate $9 trillion worth of ecosystem services and sequester 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases. That’s equivalent to restoring more than one million areas the size of Central Park that sequester about 25 times the amount of carbon emitted by US cars annually. Is this enough reason to hope?

I’m trying to be an optimistic restorationist, not a pessimistic millennial scared for the future of our world. Restoring our lost ecosystems will take the persistence of dozens of nations, and much of the responsibility lies on the back of the citizens. A restoration ecologist can restore a wetland, but it is up to the rest of us to keep that wetland clean and functional. Whether that be through public policy or through community engagement, we need a cohort of glass-half-full people to take on the task of restoring and maintaining our ecosystems. 

The author running transects to monitor a rare plant species, Goose Creek milkvetch, to understand how their population may be affected by restoration efforts in the area.

The author running transects to monitor a rare plant species, Goose Creek milkvetch, to understand how their population may be affected by restoration efforts in the area.

In my state of California, for example, the California Society of Ecological Restoration (SERCAL) brings together scientists, industry workers, government organizations, and the public with a common goal -- to restore the natural places in California. There are numerous volunteer opportunities through the SERCAL and the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), local private and public agencies happily recruit volunteers to help with planting, weeding, and general upkeep of the restored sites.

If you are not a California resident, check with your local native plant nurseries or peruse the list of SER regional chapters to find a restoration project near you. Restoration happens on all scales, from a backyard pollinator garden to the revegetation of a wetland

Thanks to the hardworking scientists and citizens working on the front line of restoration, when I look at my trusty reusable water bottle and think about the future of our planet, as I often do, I think about the decade of restoration and look forward to living in a place full of hope.  

-Brianne

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