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A decade on ecosystem restoration: Protecting planet Earth for future generations

September 04, 2019

By George Athanasakes

How we’re confronting the global issues of climate change, biodiversity, and population

On March 1, 2019, the United Nations (UN) officially declared the years 2021 to 2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. As someone who has been working in the field of ecosystem restoration for over 25 years, this is music to my ears. While we have done a lot to restore ecosystems over the last quarter century, we have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done.

The Hatchery Creek Stream Restoration project in Russell County, Kentucky.

The connectivity of our ecosystem

The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) defines ecosystem restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” That all sounds nice, but it doesn’t affect you—does it?

I think John Muir, the father of National Parks, wrote it best when describing the connectivity of an ecosystem. Muir stated that: “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” For years, the goal of our society was industrial progress. We rarely stopped to evaluate our impacts on the environment and how that might threaten our progress—or quite frankly, our survival.

We pick certain natural resources or accomplish certain tasks and ignore what they might be “hitched” to. That is, until those consequences blatantly stand in the way of further progress. 

The Dust Bowl and a river on fire

Let’s look at some examples in the United States. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, caused by extensive tillage for farming in the Great Plains, drove the creation of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service). This helped the government to assist landowners with soil conservation efforts.

Further, poor water and air quality—a by-product of industrialization and agriculture—was such a wide-scale challenge that it drove the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water and Clean Air Acts in the 1970s. For example, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire because of major water pollution. That was 50 years ago. Now, we face the following issues on a global scale:

  • Climate change
  • Reduced biodiversity
  • Growing population

In the coming years, we will need to provide food, clean water, and energy to more people with the same amount of natural resources—in some cases, less resources! This impending lack is what is driving the urgent need for ecosystem restoration today.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire because of major water pollution. That was 50 years ago.

In the coming years, we will need to provide food, clean water, and energy to more people with the same amount of natural resources—in some cases, less.

A warming globe and a moving target

Ecosystem restoration doesn’t just mean more pretty landscapes and improved recreation. It means cleaner water and fresher air. It means improved native species habitat, flood and erosion protection, higher crop yields—and that’s just to name a few.

Scientists refer to these benefits as ecosystem services. In order to show value to society, the ecosystem service benefits are being monitored and quantified. This all sounds promising, but another factor to consider is the very thing that drives the upcoming Decade on Restoration: climate change.

A warming globe can affect present ecosystems. How? By changing an ecosystem into one that is more tolerable to these new climatic conditions. In other words, what species exist in an ecosystem today might not be what exists years from now. This “moving target” makes it more difficult to restore an ecosystem.

In hindsight, we should have put our planet first right from the beginning. And, we certainly shouldn’t stop our efforts once the Decade of Restoration ends.

The Deer Grove East Forest Preserve in Cook County, Illinois.

Restoration: A team effort

Ecosystem restoration is a team effort. It requires a dream team of specialized environmental scientists, biologists, ecologists, engineers, landscape architects, and contractors to develop and install great designs.

The good news? Stantec is already way ahead of the UN—we’ve had an Ecosystem Restoration group for more than 25 years! Our restoration approach is guided by first understanding the natural processes that drive the ecosystem. Then, we replicate these processes in our designs. Our talented, multidisciplinary team has the expertise to restore natural communities around the world. From our rivers and wetlands, to our coasts and upland areas, we’re looking to restore all natural landscapes. I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead, but it takes a team and many people to make a difference.

Learn more about Stantec’s Ecosystem Restoration group.

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