Last week I attended a lecture on this topic given by Dr. Steven Handel of Rutgers University. In his time as a restoration ecologist, he’s worked on some big projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge Park, Fresh Kills Park, and the Orange County Great Park, in CA.
Dr. Handel talking at Fresh Kills Park in 2010.
All these sites presented unique situations, plant palettes, climates, and microclimates.
But they all had one dream: Restoring a highly degraded site to ecological function and services. And they all had so much glass on site that Handel and his students felt like they were planting in vitro. (Kind of a joke.)
The dream of restoring a degraded site to ecological function and services is common to everyone who works as a forest steward or practices some form of ecological restoration. The specific aspects of the restoration — getting plants, improving conditions, adapting plans, securing funding, working with stakeholders, effects of land-use changes outside the work site — is where the nightmares come in.
The first question he dealt with is “how far back do you go?” Every restoration project has to ask this question on some level. For North America, it’s a relatively simple question: we try to restore to a state before European contact, as best we can reconstruct it. But there’s no true “going back.” In the Northwest, beaver hunters had extirpated local beaver populations (drastically affecting hydrology) before there was any systematic biology. Before the beaver hunters, smallpox and other European diseases wiped out the majority of Native American populations. In the course of those events, plant and wild life communities that had been stable for perhaps hundreds of years were disrupted.
Luckily for us in the Pacific Northwest, there are still some relatively intact areas where we can get an idea of what goes with what in our projects. But we still can’t recreate exactly what was here before, and to some degree, shouldn’t even try.
The main goal Dr. Handel suggests is the restoration of self-sustaining ecological services: food for birds and wild life; a more-natural hydrology (another speaker I saw last year pointed out that cities are built on watersheds but designed as sewers); self-sustaining plant life that can suppress weedy invasives.
Full restoration is often affected by land use changes outside the project area. Sometimes this is positive: for an early project, Dr. Handel managed to get topsoil from a Manhattan construction site and compost from Teaneck, NJ. The soil on site was basically dead from compaction and lack of biotic processes. Without the topsoil and compost, the project would have been much less successful and taken longer.
Another surprising interaction for this project was pollinator visits. Handel’s team measured pollinator visits to the nearby clumps of plants, and as expected, those clumps located closest to the woodland and other stands got more visits from pollinators, with number of visits lessening as the distance increased. But then, there was a large spike in pollinator visits very far from anything other than other nearby restoration sites. What could be causing that?
Part of the landfill had failed and was degraded to bare soil. An engineering failure, but a boon to native ground-nesting solitary bees. The engineers wanted to repair the failure, of course, but Handel convinced them to install raised beds of bare dirt to preserve the nesting habitat.
Sometimes the interaction is not positive: That same project had great seed dispersal by birds, much higher than expected… until an adjacent woodland was cut down for a strip mall. Then bird seed-dispersal plummeted.
This same thing could happen in Seattle or anywhere. Nearby unprotected lands might be contributing to the success of our projects and we have to be aware of the repercussions if they’re redeveloped. As Seattle redevelops to increase density, with resulting canopy loss, our natural areas and the connections between them become even more important.
Is it worth it? Yes. Along with the functioning ecology comes many services that have calculable economic benefits: stormwater retention and filtration, habitat corridors, and increased local contact with nature among them. The projects help develop a sense of place, as we get our hands in the dirt. We learn about the processes of the immediate world around us. Not the processes we impose with exotic ornamentals in our gardens, but the true seasonal cycle of flower blooms, birds nesting, butterflies and beetles pollinating, and more.
The lecture was given to an audience mostly composed of Landscape Architecture students, although there were a couple other forest stewards from GSP and other MEH students there. Dr. Handel’s suggestion to us was to be naturalists — to know about wild life and hydrologic cycles as well as plants.
Another suggestion: Make sure you secure funding. The aftercare of a project is continuous. The forest doesn’t end, neither does stewardship. If it’s possible to have a continuing organization, or a funded conservancy, that would be extremely important. His example was a luxury condo built on Brooklyn Bridge Park with a view of lower Manhattan. It takes one acre out of a large park, but funds the entire park in perpetuity. I don’t think I’ll build a condo in North Beach Park, but funding and aftercare are something to keep in mind.
Handel’s talk made me feel a little optimistic and relieved. Relieved because even though North Beach Park was something of a wreck, it’s not nearly as degraded as any of the sites Handel has had to work on. (I don’t think any site in Seattle outside of the Duwamish superfund area is.)
Optimistic because the sight of his projects at their initial planting and a couple decades later, looking like “natural” woodlands, made me want to see North Beach Park in about 30 years.
I found a recording of a talk Dr. Handel gave in 2010 to the Fresh Kills Park organization. It’s basically the same talk, with some minor differences. Here is the link. You miss the slides, but his words are all there.