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What is Ecological Restoration?

Author: Liz Clift

Every so often, someone asks me what ecological restoration is—and I’m always thrilled to answer this question, because it’s a term that’s both fairly intuitive and also not at all.

Ecological restoration, according to the Society for Ecological Restoration, is an “intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity, or sustainability.”

That clarified everything, right?

In more concrete terms, ecological restoration includes projects ranging from erosion control, re-grading stream banks or reconnecting floodplains, reforestation, daylighting streams, adding sinuosity to streams and rivers, removing nonnative species, revegetating disturbed areas, re-introduction of native species, shoreline stabilization, wetland creation, and more. These types of restoration projects are considered active restoration, but restoration can also be passive, such as shutting down a trail to let it naturally revegetate. For this blog, I’m going to focus on active restoration.

The process of restoring an area can first look like a lot of undoing—and that can cause people concern, especially when it’s seen from afar—which for the average person, it is.

Actively restoring a site may include a variety of actions, depending on the goals for the site. Actions may include:

• Removing a lot of understory vegetation (i.e., if there is a lot of nonnative or undesirable vegetation);

• Tree removal;

• Soil removal;

• Reconnecting a floodplain through actions like laying back a bank or other forms of grading;

• Daylighting a stream;

• Revegetating an area with native species;

• Adding microtopography;

• Shoreline restoration activities, such as revegetation, shoreline stabilization, beach nourishment, or adding sinuosity to a stream;

• Controlled burns;

• Returning specific animals to an ecosystem;

• And many more actions.

The fact that restoration can take so many different forms can make it even more confusing—or concerning—because restoration might look very different from one site to the next—or even on different parts of the same site.

Maybe you’ve even felt some of this alarm or confusion when you see an area being restored.

Restoration projects begin long before they’re visible to the public. This includes large-scale restoration that includes earth-moving equipment and large budgets, but also smaller, volunteer-led projects. Early in the process, restoration goals and objectives are established. From here, a restoration project enters the evaluation, planning, and design phases, which may be relatively quick—or could take years. This can include establishing performance indicators, which are necessary for determining whether the project objectives have been fulfilled. Depending on the location and scale of the project, this phase may also include public engagement or comment period. It is important to have community buy-in on restoration projects because patience is of needed to see the final result and people need to understand and agree with the goals and objective of the project so that they too can be stewards of the place. Once design is complete and the necessary permits are in place, the restoration activities can take place. Restoration activities could take months or even years depending on the scale and complexity of the project, or it could be done in a weekend. Restoration takes all shapes and sizes. After that, monitoring and management activities occur. This is a critical time for a restoration project as germinating seedlings can be very vulnerable to climatic variables, like drought or frost, and competition from non-native or noxious species. After a period of time, with appropriate monitoring and management, the restored ecosystem should be established.

Let’s break that down further.

In addition to understanding the client’s goals, understanding the concerns of potential additional stakeholders is important. This might include understanding people’s existing concerns about the site—or concerns about the restoration project, how people currently use the site, what rumors exist about the site, and more. Stakeholders can include the general public—but also municipalities, property owners, regulatory agencies, universities, and more.

The planning, design, and evaluation phase may include:

• A pre-restoration site assessment, which can include soil sampling, vegetation analysis, and looking for signs of degradation such as erosion or patches of bare soil where we’d normally expect to find vegetation, and other determinants of current site conditions—all our projects include this phase;

• Desktop analysis (e.g. of how a site has changed over time; possible threatened or endangered species in the vicinity; how conditions upstream may be impacting site conditions; etc.); and

• Establishing a reference site, if needed, to help understand how development or degradation changed a site over time relative to a site that is, by comparison, fairly undeveloped. Reference sites also help establish “bio-benchmarks” for things like vegetation communities, planting zones, habitat features, and more.

More complex projects likely begin with conceptual designs and presentation of alternatives, which can help shape both the overall final design for the site as well as inform what (if any) permitting might be required for the project (e.g. to stay in compliance with the Clean Water Act [CWA] or the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] or local permits, like grading and stormwater control). Understanding what may be required by permits—such as mitigation for impacts to sensitive areas—can also help inform the design of a project. For smaller projects, the design phase may be much more limited and could be as simple as deciding on the most appropriate planting plan for the area.

As I noted above, the planning, design, and evaluation phase can be relatively quick—or take years. This depends on a variety of factors, including the size and complexity of the site, whether or not there are delays in permitting, legal issues which may slow or delay moving into implementation, gaps in project funding during the design phase, and more.

Preparing the site for restoration can look a variety of ways, depending on the qualities of the site and the degree of restoration needed. On some sites, this may be fairly minor—for instance selective weeding or seed removal from opportunistic plant species, while on other sites preparation may be more extensive. This can be a point when the general public really notices that restoration is taking place on the site. This step may also include removing disturbances—such as cessation of mining, elimination of or reductions to grazing pressures (e.g. by placing fences or changing rotation schedules).

During the implementation phase, restoration actions occur. Restoration actions might include:

• Adding green infrastructure, such as vegetation to the areas along stream banks, introducing rain gardens, or adding bioswales;

• Seeding with native plants; planting native cuttings or containerized plants;

• Reconfiguring a stream or river’s flow pattern to daylight it or add sinuosity;

• Supplemental watering or the addition of soil amendments to support vegetation establishment; and

• Habitat creation, particularly for species of concern. This could take many forms, and includes the addition of large woody debris into or alongside rivers, oyster shell reefs or artificial reef structures, beaver dam analogs, and creating basking areas.

Soil sampling may also take place again during this implementation phase to help support a successful outcome. During this phase, the public will almost certainly notice changes, as this is the point when any construction activities—which could include grading or site clearing—occur. This can also provide another opportunity for public outreach—because interested neighbors may ask questions about what’s happening at the site, or in the case of volunteer-led events, may even ask if they can get involved.

Monitoring and adaptive management help assure restoration success. The expected duration for monitoring will likely vary site to site and based on which vegetation communities are being restored—and may also have regulatory drivers to help ensure successful mitigation for any impacted habitats. Ongoing, proactive monitoring and management can include assessing for and addressing noxious weed populations, responding to the formation of “social” or “user-defined” trails, measuring the development and functionality of newly created wetlands, checking for stressed plants that may need additional supplemental water or additional organic matter, or to be reseeded or replaced, and more.

Unfortunately, it’s during this stage when people who were perhaps mildly concerned at earlier points can become very concerned. They may notice the presence of noxious species—and without knowing the weed management plan—assume nothing is being done. Or perhaps they don’t recognize that the “weedy” look of native grasses isn’t an issue with the mowing schedule, but is instead the intent for that portion of the site. Maybe they realize that more of the area is “marshy” than what used to be true for that site and view that as a nuisance rather than as evidence of a reconnected floodplain. Or they notice new plants appear to be dying.

Often, people are working hard behind the scenes to make sure these things citizens are noticing are either being resolved (if a resolution is needed at all) through adaptive management or are resolving themselves through vegetation establishment and spread. It’s common, for example, for newly established grasslands to look thin for a year or two, while the seeded vegetation grow, mature, and reseed themselves, which contributes to the native seed bank over time.

And we do appreciate this concern—because it means people are paying attention and they care about the spaces around them! We, like you, want to see these spaces be successful, which is why we, as ecological consultants, integrate long-term monitoring and adaptive management into as many of our projects as possible. We understand the importance of the entire project life cycle and guide restoration projects from assessment to design, permitting, implementation, construction oversight, and adaptive management while working to achieve site goals for restoration.