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August 31, 2004

Tri-campus UW program on restoration ecology earns international recognition

A University of Washington program that brings together students from all three campuses to restore damaged landscapes has just received the Society for Ecological Restoration’s highest service award.

Students from diverse academic backgrounds, such as forestry, engineering, liberal studies, geology, and landscape architecture work in teams to design and implement projects for local governments, schools, community groups, and other clients outside of the university. Student teams have led projects from the conversion of a gravel pit to a wildlife forage area along the Nisqually River to the restoration of various city parks and school grounds around the Puget Sound.

UW Bothell associate professor Warren Gold, and UW Seattle’s Kern Ewing, professor with the College of Forest Resources, helped establish the university’s Restoration Ecology Network in 1998 as a three-campus program to bring together students and faculty from different academic disciplines in classes and research on restoration ecology. Faculty from different departments on the UW Tacoma, Bothell and Seattle campuses have provided leadership and oversight for the Network.

“Restoring ecological systems is often a complex undertaking that requires contributions from a variety of experts. The Restoration Ecology Network is intended to provide a forum to link interested faculty with diverse backgrounds and train students in a multidisciplinary atmosphere”, says Gold.

They received the John Rieger Award last week in Victoria, B.C. from the Society for Ecological Restoration International, the world’s primary professional organization for restoration ecology educators, researchers, practitioners and environmentalists. The award recognizes major contributions to the theory, practice or public awareness of restoration.

Repairing damaged ecosystems goes far beyond just replacing non-natives with native plants, say Ewing and Gold.

The recovery of both plants and animals don’t stand much chance without first considering and restoring the physical and chemical attributes that form the foundation of a site’s ecological functions, such as an area’s topography, hydrology (the way water moves through or pools in an area) and its soils.

The recent restoration of a 58-acre area of floodplain wetlands and stream channel along North Creek on the UW Bothell campus is a great example of that approach. These wetlands occupy nearly half of the campus site and the project has been praised for its detailed recreation of the physical form of the floodplain and stream channel and the intensive application of hydrological, geochemical and ecosystem principles.

Successful restoration also relies on public reaction and support, particularly when it comes to maintaining a site once it’s restored. Long-term stewardship of a site is the biggest challenge for such projects, the researchers say. That’s why student teams are required to prepare a realistic maintenance and monitoring handbook for each project and work with their clients to establish community stewardship. In some projects, students have worked with local community volunteer groups while others have involved teachers and their students from local K-12 schools.

“The long-term prospects for restoring damaged ecosystems will be greatly enhanced by an upcoming generation of experts with experience in working together effectively to solve complex problems that stretch beyond the boundaries of traditional disciplines. Equally important for success is the incorporation of local knowledge and community involvement to build long-term stewardship. The UW Restoration Ecology Network is training students in hands-on, multidisciplinary ways that will lay the foundation for such success”, says Gold.