Can We Make a Difference?

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Introduction to Winter 2014 Ecesis, Volume 24, Issue 4

I have had the great opportunity to work in the world of ecological restoration for over 20 years. During that time I have worked on hundreds of projects with some of the finest ecologists in California. A common theme over the years has been how successful are the projects we design and implement? It can be argued that a successful project is the result of meeting all of the permit requirements in terms of target goals. My argument is that of the “Field of Dreams” concept…”build it and they will come.”

Undoubtedly we have a commitment to meet the standards set by the regulatory agencies, I certainly would not suggest that should be ignored. However, I have witnessed projects that have been scrutinized for lacking in the original goals of the project when it pertains to mitigation. Does that mean the habitat value is not functional?

Oftentimes the target goals of a project are not reasonable in the timeframe allotted for the work. The sites can be challenging, and the resources limited. The challenges of dealing with unforeseen issues can be costly. Even the best laid plans for a project do not account for all the possible outcomes or shortfalls. 

As an industry we have amazing resources, incredibly talented people with an abundance of experience, and because of this I believe we are making a difference! We attend workshops, network with colleagues, and continue to hone our skills and increase our knowledge sets with the latest research. We have developed protocols such as Adaptive Management to provide a mechanism for unforeseen constraints. 

I have had the opportunity to work on the Trinity River the past couple of years, providing wetland, riparian, and upland mitigation for fish-rearing habitats. The sites are located in and around tailing piles amassed from years of mining. The soils are depleted of nutrients, with little or no soil stratification. The sites are remote, have issues with access, and typically do not have a power source. Soil amendments, solar power, and over-planting with all the appropriate species are a few of adjustments that have been planned based on past experiences with similar projects. However, as you might expect, the sites are having difficulty meeting the success criteria. The design changes have provided additional constraints, growing larger container stock in an area with short growing season and planting window have increased the cost to accomplish the work. Adaptive management features have been implemented and are on-going. Does all of this mean we are not making a difference?

First, consider the alternative: Tailing piles have provided little or no ecological value to the river and insignificant habitat support, regeneration is nearly impossible, and these conditions have existed for years without change.

Then realize, it’s not all as bad as it sounds. I have visited some of the less successful projects — still unable to meet the goals of the original design or permit requirements — yet there is well-established vegetation, the fish are using the rearing channels, deposition is shaping the landscape to aid in regeneration, and adaptive management features are being implemented based on what we’ve learned from our failures. When you stroll through these sites, you will find a lot of very good qualities; and the numbers are showing trends with a positive trajectory toward developing valued habitat. I would suggest this shows that we are making a difference. It may not be in the allotted timeframe that is expected, but it is positive, and we are learning everyday how we can improve the opportunities for accelerated success. I have been told by many long-time restoration ecologists that they have learned more from their failures than from their successes. I am guessing that many reading this article are nodding their heads, and also that most of us feel we are making a difference. As long as we keep learning, and accept that our failures are there for us to learn from, we will always make a difference. There are many more obstacles and unforeseen constraints just around the corner, so keep the faith. — by Ralph Vigil, Director of Habitat Management, Restoration Resources.