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Restoration is hard—and rewarding

In last Friday’s Washington Post, William Booth recognized Arbor Day by pointing out the “brutal reality” that “planting a tree is a lot harder than it looks.” Booth’s story, about tree-planting programs in major cities across the country, is a forthright look at the challenges of planting millions of trees in metropolitan areas. Eye-opening, sobering, and also (I thought) inspiring. What caught my attention was the “harder than it looks” phrase. So true—and that applies to other restoration projects as well. Here in the Coast Ranges of northern California where I live, most of the native perennial grasses have long since been displaced by aggressive annuals introduced along with cattle in the sixteenth century. For many ecological and aesthetic reasons, we decided to try to reestablish perennials on our ranch, starting conservatively with a half-acre of the main meadow. We did background research, consulted with experts, selected native species that should grow well in this area, prepared the site (by burning, following the practice of Native Americans in these hills) during the right season, and experimented with several different planting techniques. Year one results: many happy well-fed birds and a few lonely seedlings. The good news is that the science and practice of ecological restoration are fast coming of age, which means that there are more and more resources available for people at all levels of expertise. The Society of Ecological Restoration International (SER) was formed in 1988; the organization now has more than 2,300 members in thirty-seven countries. In addition to its informative website for members, SER hosts the Global Restoration Network, a comprehensive web-based information source available to everyone anywhere with Internet access. There are two well-established journals for the field—Ecological Restoration and Restoration Ecology—that publish a steadily growing list of excellent papers and reviews. And the restoration bookshelf is beginning to fill up, including our series (in cooperation with SER), which will have fifteen titles in print by June. The SER Restoration Reader is a free download of excerpts from all fifteen books, to give readers a sample of the impressive breadth and depth of the field. The thing about restoration is that it offers us all a way to do something positive (and personal) to repair ecological damage. It offers hope. True, it’s not easy. But the rewards of the hard, challenging, creative work of learning the science of how the natural world works and putting that knowledge into practice are unbeatable. What inspired me about William Booth’s story is the commitment of the tree planters to solve the problems and nurture healthy trees in the urban ground. Likewise, here at home, we are re-planning our native grass project. Because the bottom line is that, with good science and careful planning (and re-planning), restoration works.