Restoration as big as Texas
Submitted by Brandon Bestelmeyer on Wed, 11/05/2014 - 16:17
What is restoration? Well, its big. It’s about people, money, policy, technology, history, biology, belief, and faith. Restoration is the primary mode of deliberate intervention in our environment to improve it, often taking a lifetime or more to fully unfold. It means that communities of people come together, define what they want to change, and then go about trying to change it as the technology, money, and effort will allow.
The magnitude of this enterprise became visible to me at the Society for Ecological Restoration Texas & Southwest Chapters meeting in Alpine Texas. I thank my hosts Gwen Thomas and Kelly Lyons for the invitation. I had never attended a regional restoration meeting. The meeting, deep in west Texas and far from airports (although remarkably accessible by Amtrak train) had a strong local emphasis. This afforded a view of the many associated concerns and interacting restoration efforts within one region. There were presentations on brush management to achieve grassland restoration, rare plant species translocations, region-wide efforts to restore populations of bighorn sheep and pronghorn, channel and spring engineering, removal of invasive pasture grasses with native seeding, forest thinning efforts, and creating a "green infrastructure" for large cities. Several of these efforts take place in similar, or the same, landscapes.
What is striking to see in one day is the bewildering array of currencies by which we evaluate ecosystems. Some currencies may conflict--for example those who revile old world bluestem grasses as invasives vs. those who regard them as a decent forage and excellent soil stabilizers. Others view ecosystems predominantly through the lens of endemic plants and animals, game habitat, or even specific ecological processes. For some, the effects of burning or grazing are inherently good because they are regarded as natural processes. These visions often conflict, but it seemed for the moment that they could coexist and even complement one another. Restoration practitioners with varying interests were working, or at least thinking, together with the common purpose of making ecosystems better. We ought to be having region-level meetings everywhere. We should all be able to visualize the totality of our attempts to transform our landscapes.
I had a couple of other epiphanies during the meeting, knowing that the substance of them will come as no surprise to many of you.
1) You can do a lot of restoration on Texas ranchland. Dr. Bonnie Warnock, of Sul Ross State University (who, not coincidentally, won the Excellence in Ecological Restoration Award) is doing some amazing work on the O2 Ranch with continued funding from the owners. Such arrangements facilitate long-term, adaptive restoration rather than the usual “restore and run” that seems typical of public lands where resources are stretched.
2) I overheard restoration practitioners lamenting the lack of a system for cataloguing, comparing, and learning about how the effectiveness of similar restoration actions vary with the contexts of climate and soils. I wanted to say, “Have you heard of Ecological Site Descriptions (ESDs)”. For those of you who don’t know what ESDs are, they comprise a land classification and information delivery system intended to do precisely what the practitioners described. I think most of them had heard of ESDs, but the truth is that ESDs do not yet adequately serve this function, nor are they, apparently, presented such that they are directly useful to many practitioners. I certainly believe in the potential utility of ESDs, but if we want them to be the go-to resource for land management and restoration, we have a lot of work, and imagining, left to do.