Ecological Restoration Viewed Through a Policy Lens

As I’ve learned, there is usually more to ecological restoration than meets the eye. There is a lot of policy involved—policy that influences, and is influenced by, ecological restoration.   This truth has been learned on the job, over and over, and mostly the hard way.

Salt marsh restoration along San Francisco Bay near Crissy Field at the Presidio

Salt marsh restoration along San Francisco Bay near Crissy Field at the Presidio in a vast urban area where public involvement is a key ingredient to sound policy formulation. Photo by Steve Glass.

Policy is a factor, say Bliss and Fischer (2011), because, “Just the claim that an ecosystem is in need of restoration—let alone deciding upon the restoration target—or the choice of methods used to achieve restoration goals—is to engage in choices based upon competing human values, preferences, and views about naturalness, and a whole suite of conservation topics.”

And as Baker and Eckerberg (2013) suggest, ecological restoration is fundamentally a values project and a social-political project, as much as it is a scientific and technical task. Because of this, ecological restoration is heavily embedded in policy formulation, and the job of ecological restoration essentially becomes a negotiation about whether or not restoration should take place and over what the restoration targets should be.

Viewed through the policy lens, say Baker and Eckerberg (2013), restoration is a continuing negotiation about policy even when there is broad agreement about the need to manage or conserve nature.

Why Should Restoration Ecologists Pay Attention to Policy?

If, as restoration ecologists, we think about policy at all, we may regard it as something external to our work, or that we are immune to its workings. But policy is everywhere—in laws, regulations, and past practice—and dictates and defines the ways in which we can and cannot operate.

For example, even routine and essential ecological restoration practices such as prescribed burning are subject to a range of policy decisions: Will burning be permitted or not?  If so, where and what conditions—of weather, air quality, and public safety—will apply?  Who—both organizationally and individually is qualified to burn?  What should be their training requirements?

WHA Radio tower in the Arboretum's SE Marsh.

WHA Radio tower in the Arboretum’s SE Marsh. Photo by Steve Glass

I know I was generally unaware of the daily impact of policy, until the day that I got my first inkling that there was more to ecological restoration than just ecological knowledge and technical skill. It’s when I learned what it meant to have a radio tower in the middle of your restoration project. It meant that the tower owner—the flagship station of the statewide public radio network, and a part of the same university I worked for—would not permit a research burn for fear of damage to a buried copper wire antenna, 6 miles of it, 6” below the surface.  (Not to mention that nobody, other than WHA, knew there was a hurried copper wire antenna.)

What is Policy?

Policy can be defined as “a course of actions adopted and pursued by a government to solve a problem.” (Baker and Eckerberg, 2013). The term policy can also refer to a specific proposal, a policy, or a series of concrete measures taken by government to address a specific public issue,” such as clean air, clean water, storm water management, endangered species protection, etc.

Policy is also composed of laws, regulations, and rules at the local, state, and federal levels and how they are interpreted and enforced. Think of the Clean Air (particulate matter and smoke management from prescribed burns) and Clean Water Act (storm water management for example); the Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact assessments in certain situations; the Endangered Species Act; and federal, state, and local regulations governing the manufacture and use of pesticides and herbicides.

What Restoration Ecologists Should Know About Policy?

Baker and Eckerberg (2013) give us some guidance on how to think about policy formulation and interaction, what’s going on and why? “In the murky world of public policy making, they say,  a policy is rarely faced with a given, or a single problem, but is best seen as a complex intermeshing of related concerns.”

Baker and Eckerberg (2014) suggest, “Ecological restoration initiatives will typically encounter policy concerns about:

  • The purpose of the restoration or
  • Whether or not there will be a restoration project
  • Subsequent use of the site
  • The type and extent of public access
  • Site management strategies

These potential concerns are overlain by, or in context of:

  • Various interest groups and actors
  • Power and authority differentials
  • Varying visions, missions,
  • Legislative or policy mandates

Policy Affects Ecological Restoration in Unexpected and Incremental ways

The impacts of human activities can greatly alter and disturb ecosystems. Joy Zedler reminds us “Nature reserves, biological field stations, and parks with remnant natural vegetation can be greatly modified by nearby urbanizing lands. Urban wetlands are especially altered by upstream watersheds that are undergoing urbanization, because runoff changes in quantity and quality.” Zedler, 2012.  The impacts on restoration sites that Zedler describes can be attributed to policy decisions.

Gardner Marsh in the UW-Madison Arboretum where storm water runoff drive an invasion by hybrid cattail.

Gardner Marsh in the UW-Madison Arboretum where storm water runoff drive an invasion by hybrid cattail (brown vegetation in foreground. Photo by Steve Glass

Here are additional examples of policy decisions that impact natural areas and restoration projects:

 “Open spaces in general, and those on public lands in particular, are priority locations for installing facilities that are easier to build on flat land that has already been purchased for the public good. The (UW-Madison) Arboretum accommodated a highway and power lines, despite its mission to restore woodlands, prairies and wetlands. Even a copper-wire radio antenna (~170-m-diameter 3 mile) was buried in a large wetland to avoid interference from trees, despite scientific arguments that the copper would become toxic in waterlogged soils. Flat, undeveloped public lands, especially, are vulnerable to the siting of public infrastructure.” Zedler, 2012.

This fact goes counter to the notion that public lands are the most stable and nurturing environments for conservation in general, and restoration in particular.

Germaine Greer, the author, turned rainforest restoration ecologist in tropical Australia, suggests that public lands are probably the last place one would want to try to preserve and restore remnant ecosystems.

“The received wisdom is that only plant and animal species surviving on public land can be protected. In fact, public nature reserves generally suffer from systemic lack of funding. They are usually poorly staffed, poorly equipped, and poorly managed. What little funding they receive has to be justified by providing a public amenity. National parks are obliged to spend their slender means on parking, toilets, picnic tables, barbeques, signage, and may even choose (or be dictated to) to provide facilities for off-road bicycles, and four-wheel-drive-vehicles, before investing any energy or resources (if they have any of either left) in protecting and maintaining their plant and animal assemblages.” Greer, G. 2013. White Beech, The Rainforest Years, page 341.

Lake Eacham office of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Lake Eacham office of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, not far from Greer’s restoration project. Photo by Steve Glass

Recommendations and Conclusions

To summarize, I’ve learned these simple truths about ecological restoration:

  1. It is not a straightforward march from planning to implementation.
  2. Ecological restoration should be viewed not only as a technical challenge, but also as a social and political project.
  3. Ecological restoration is a negotiation about restoration outcomes.
  4. Ecological restoration operates in a complex and dynamic interplay between technical decision-making, ideologies, and interest politics.

Here are a few suggestions for what to do going forward to make us competitive in the policy arena:

  1. Being aware of, and involved in, the policy aspects of ecological restoration will go along way towards improving outcomes.
  2. Beyond that, we need to be the best restoration ecologists we can be.
  3. Don’t’ over promise what you can deliver.
  4. As restoration ecologists, we need to state what we know, and what we don’t know.
  5. We need to be specific about the outcomes our projects strive to achieve and to do that we need to monitor the results.
  6. Don’t use terms success or failure, as these are not objective truths but only have meaning relative to what we set out to achieve, so, be specific and clear about what those desired outcomes are and the objectives used to measure progress.
  7. We need to state clearly what we achieved and what was not achieved; then state what we will do differently to get different results.



Baker, S., and K. Eckerberg. 2013. A policy analysis perspective on ecological restoration. Ecology and Society 18(2): 17.

Bliss, John C. and A. Paige Fischer. 2011 Toward a Political Ecology of Ecosystem Restoration IN Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration, Egan, Hjerpe, and Abrams Editors, Island Press, Washington, D. C.

Greer, Germine, 2013. White Beech, The Rainforest Years. Bloomsbury London, England.

Zedler, J. B., J. M. Doherty, and N. A. Miller. 2012. Shifting restoration policy to address landscape change, novel ecosystems, and monitoring. Ecology and Society 17(4): 36.








About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Ecological restoration, Ecological restoration as a values and social-political project, Ecological restoration in Australia, Ecological restoration in Queensland, Negotiating restoration outcomes, Policy, Restoration ecology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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