By Jesse Rock, VIC Summer Naturalist


Photo of a candidate restoration site, the “Break Wall”, on Lower St. Regis lake within Paul Smith’s College campus.

So, what is ecological restoration? At the core of its practice, ecological restoration follows the most basic form of the scientific method. One must firstly observe a site deemed degraded through human use and gather as much “useable information” from the site as possible; formulate a hypothesis as to what can or should be done to make the site subjectively better; design an experiment/restoration to test the hypothesis; carry out said experiment/restoration; and monitor and record the results of said experiment. In other words, one must exhibit a strong knowledge of and demonstrate the ability to follow the scientific method.

While most forms of science follow this set path of experimentation, ecological restoration differs in one major field, the definition of what “useable information” is. It is here that an understanding of more than just the hard facts of biological and ecological processes becomes a necessity, and the realm of human philosophy and our relationship with the natural world takes center stage.

How does one take a philosophical approach to understanding humanity’s relationship with nature and apply it to the science of restoration? Let us explore this idea through an example. Bringing a forest back to a once-great wilderness area through the planting of trees is what some may define as restoration. The science of what trees to plant, where to plant them, what conditions are necessary for optimal growth, and how they will interact with the current ecological community are essential elements that need to be understood if the trees planted are going to rebuild what was lost. It should be made clear that anyone who views this type of work as restoration is not wrong, for in a direct analysis one is bringing back the primary element that was lost and essentially adding to the restoration of what was once whole. However, the planting of small neatly organized saplings across a landscape otherwise devastated by human degradation doesn’t hold up to the principles of restoration as an ideal. I will argue that ecological restoration is something else entirely. It is not simply the planting of trees, but, instead, a striving to bring that forest back to “wilderness” and, with it, restore what made the land “wilderness” not only in scientific definition but in the hearts and minds of human understanding. In essence, the ecological restorationist is striving to bring back, through the unique lens of the individual, the essential elements that initially deemed a piece of space and time attractive and desirable.

Ecological restoration has the ability to impact not only the physical science-driven aspect of a site, but the emotional, ethical, and spiritual influence that as individuals, we all perceive through different and unique lenses shaped and contoured by our experiences and personal relationship with nature. In order to grasp the entire aspect of a restoration project, a realization of human relationships with the land is a necessity. This relationship is not so much the experiential aspect or the monetary “value” that the land has by human determination, but more how we as individuals view the nature of the land itself.

To quote Max Oelschlaeger (2007)”… a restoration project constitutes a mirror in which we see ourselves. That is, we begin to catch glimpses of the memetic complexes, the symbolically encoded conservations, the stories that frame us and govern our behaviors” (p. 158). To be a good restoration ecologist, one must not simply restore the ecological processes of nature, but the part of humanity that is reflected in the definition of what makes that place nature, what makes wilderness, wilderness.

In this approach to restoration, the use of one’s personal mirror, one’s own philosophy regarding the existence of and our involvement with nature, while properly directed in the steps towards restoration success, is

not necessarily enough. Such a narrowminded approach of only exploring personal philosophy is essentially to be selfish, stubborn, and ignorant in the egotistical assumption that your personal viewpoint is to be deemed “restoration” across the broad spectrum of human lenses viewing the nature that you now control. Understanding your craft is to understand the range of diversity and types of lenses that will view your work, your restoration, and cater that work to the greatest inclusion of the spectrum. As a restoration ecologist, you are given the power to please humanity and in order to use that power, it is essential that you present a deep knowledge of humanities’ relationship with nature. This constitutes a respect for the diverse feelings and emotions expressed in nature by the individuals who perceive it along with everything that defines a restoration site not just as a place but as a part of the human condition. These factors of restoration must be taken into consideration to achieve the optimal outcome of the restoration’s intent.

So, let’s readdress the question “what is ecological restoration?”. In essence, ecological restoration is a science embedded in a body of knowledge that is defined by both the objective realm of the natural world and the subjective realm of the human observer. As much as core ecological and biological science is embedded in the process of restoration work, so is the necessity to understand the human experience and how we relate to nature as a species; the human philosophy of nature. To be successful in conducting restoration is to work with an open mind and hold the ability to approach a situation regarding humanities relationship with nature from multiple perspectives understanding the value behind accommodating for alternative lenses to your own. It is only with this open mindset that the restoration ecologist can guard themselves from bias, release the ego, and venture out aware of the impact that they will have on the surrounding world.

Oelschlaeger, M. (2007). Ecological restoration, Aldo Leopold, and beauty: an evolutionary tale.
Environmental Philosophy. 4:149-161.