Repairing nature’s infrastructure with ecological restoration

chicago wilderness

Ray Mathis

There has been a lot of talk lately about the nation’s crumbling manmade infrastructure, such as failing bridges, aging highways and faltering transmission lines. But what about our failing natural infrastructure -- our polluted air and waterways, diminishing biodiversity, and unhealthy forests that are the result of unfettered development and short-sighted planning?

People tend to worry about human-built infrastructure because it is important to a strong economy, but when our natural infrastructure fails, society pays a high cost in terms of lost ecosystem services like food production, water filtration, climate regulation, and recreational opportunities, not to mention dramatically higher costs for built infrastructure. Nature is far better than we are at designing the most efficient means of absorbing wastes, purifying water, buffering coastlines and riparian corridors, and sequestering carbon dioxide; so restoring our failing natural infrastructure is vitally important.

If economics is the dismal science, then restoration ecology is the hopeful science.  Although nature can never be precisely replicated, it can be conserved and restored to repair damage caused by human activity.  Ecological restoration aims to return natural structure, functions, and processes to ecosystems that have been degraded by people.  Restoration is a unique tool because it is the only form of active management that aims to return naturalness to the land.  In this sense, restoration is an attempt at “re-wilding” an ecosystem.

The Wilderness Society is involved in furthering ecological restoration efforts across the United States.  We continue to lead protection efforts, but we also focus on rehabilitating degraded public lands while nurturing a land ethic that must also look at repairing nature’s infrastructure.  Indeed, restoration is an integral component of the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold, one of our organization’s founders.

As an economist for The Wilderness Society, I recently co-edited an Island Press book titled Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration: Integrating Science, Nature, and Culture. In this book, we tell a story of how restoration is dependent on the appropriate blend of economics, ecology, collaboration, policy, education, and cultural land ethics.  In many ways, these components are mirrored in The Wilderness Society’s approach to restoration and conservation.

Throughout the country, we are heavily invested in the decommissioning of roads, the removal of culverts that block salmon streams, improving watershed health, and the re-establishment of natural fire regimes.  And we do this through science, policy, collaboration and education.

The Wilderness Society’s research department provides economic, ecological and mapping expertise to a number of restoration projects on U.S. Forest Service lands.  In combination with our conservation research, our staff scientists are building the groundwork for preserving intact wildlands and restoring adjacent degraded landscapes to leave a legacy of sustainably functioning, large ecosystems.      

Research is a primary component to restoring our degraded public lands, but it’s only one part of the solution. Our researchers work side by side with policy experts and collaboration leaders in regions such as Southeast Alaska, the Northern Rockies, Central Idaho, the Northeast, and Central California.  This unique integration allows our researchers to investigate the most pressing science questions and ensures our science is incorporated at the ground level.

While working with contributors from around the world on this new book from Island Press, I realized how fortunate I am as a scientist to be working directly with experts at The Wilderness Society who are primary pieces to this “human dimensions” puzzle.  Too often in academia, research results languish on the shelf.  At The Wilderness Society, our research is immediately integrated into the collaborative and policy efforts required to move large-scale restoration projects.

Restoration is not a substitute for the preventive measures of land protection, but it’s a critical part of the larger picture of conservation.  Incorporating The Wilderness Society’s expertise into restoration efforts helps provide a network of large, wild landscapes that can be the backbone of our nation for generations to come.

Additionally, given the jobs associated with restoration, increases in ecosystem services, and the savings of tremendous costs required for more manmade infrastructure, restoration can play a major role in rehabilitating our economy now.

To read more on TWS restoration work and how we blend science, policy, and collaborative efforts please see our work on: