Because each restoration site is unique in terms of its original ecological attributes, kinds, extent, duration and intensity of human disturbance, and management activities, each restoration solution must be unique. There is no silver-bullet: what works (or is claimed to work) at one place may not work at another. This is why restoration ecology uses an iterative problem-solving approach that results in a unique solution that is appropriate for each site and each of its management needs.
Many land managers acknowledge this fact of life, at least intellectually, but, when it comes to daily, on-the-ground-work, old habits are hard to break and the illusive search for the one-size fits all solution persists. I was reminded of this the other day when I saw the results of a weekend volunteer restoration work party aiming apparently to control woody pest species—a long windrow of stems of cut buckthorn, box elder, sumac and honeysuckle stacked along the sidewalk. (See photo below).
Brush cutting of woody pest species is a typical and popular management activity for some restoration projects but its effectiveness as a control or containment strategy is dependent upon many variables, including the unique conditions of the site at which it is practiced. It is not a silver bullet and is not a one-size-fits-all management solution.
Brush cutting at this particular site is what I call wishful thinking restoration. Wishful thinking restoration because the managers of this site must hope that if they continue to do more of the same futile activity every year, eventually it will work and they will get rid of the buckthorn and honeysuckle.
Well, time and experience have shown (at this particular site, at least) that dormant season brush cutting (especially without timely herbicide application) may make the situation worse. The stem density and distribution of woody pest shrubs at this site appears to be on the rise. This is so because a single cut stem (if not killed) will yield 5 or more the next year—it’s simple math.
Now, the restoration site pictured here has had good outcomes in many areas, it’s just that it has not developed an effective and efficient protocol for the control or containment of certain woody pest species. What would it take to develop such an effective and efficient management prescription?
Start With the Fundamentals
Well, first off start with the uniqueness of the site and ask what are the underlying causes of the pest species invasion. A restoration will not achieve its desired outcomes if it ignores the fundamental causes of the pest species invasion and just treats the symptoms (often the pest species). Perhaps the underlying cause is altered hydrology, or soil disturbance, or increased soil fertility. If the underlying cause is not dealt with, then continued frustration will be likely.
You can think of restoration as a repair job and you can approach each new situation with these basic repair principles in mind:
- Assess the situation.
- Avoid making the situation worse, if possible.
- Minimize harm if changes are necessary.
- Mitigate damage if change is unavoidable.
A Problem Solving Checklist
A restoration problem is solved like any other: start with what you know, what you don’t know, and what you will need to learn to solve the problem. Like me, you may find it helpful to start problem solving with a basic checklist of questions. Here, we focus on a typical, hypothetical urban restoration situation involving a complex of pest species and soil erosion. But the checklist questions can be customized to address any kind of restoration situation.
• Define the management problem. How, or why, does the pest species cause a management problem?
• Is it known that the pest species is the cause of the problem, or is the pest species a symptom of a more fundamental underlying disturbance?
• Will removing the pest species make the problem worse by destabilizing the soil and leading to increased soil erosion, for example?
• Are the tools available to solve the problem?
• If erosion is the problem, do you have native plants that will grow in the situation?
• If yes, do you know that they will solve the erosion problem?
• Will the desired plants grow in existing site conditions need to be altered first?
This is an easy way to jump-start problem solving. You may also find it helpful to develop some alternative solutions (including the hands off approach) and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. More about this topic later.