Restorationists gather in Santa Cruz


Last week I attended the 27th annual conference of the Salmonid Restoration Federation. Restoration scientists, restoration technicians and young people enrolled in the California Conservation Corps gathered in Santa Cruz, California for four days of field trips, plenary addresses and workshops which showcased watershed and salmon restoration programs and projects from throughout California. You can read session abstracts and the detailed proceedings at the Federation's Website.

Back in 1982 when the first SRF conference took place, Restoration – the idea that we humans can rehabilitate the damage we have done to land and water and thereby facilitate the recovery of wildlife species, fisheries, watersheds and even rivers – was a new idea which agency managers, elected officials and most economists looked upon with skepticism. Nearly thirty years later Restoration and the Restoration Economy are widely accepted. Elected officials now compete to bring restoration dollars home while the restoration economy is hailed as an important and dynamic element of the total economy.  New economic concepts like Natural Capital and restoration as an investment in Ecosystem Services have been developed to explain how the restoration economy works. By these and other measures it appears that Restoration has arrived and is firmly ensconced in the mainstream of American life and economy.

Along the way from the margin to the mainstream Restoration has faced several significant challenges. Like most movements, the Restoration Movement developed an ideology which quickly became orthodoxy. There developed an unwillingness to be self-critical: program and project evaluation was rare; restorationists claimed they wanted to put as much funding as possible on the ground rather than into monitoring and evaluation. Funding agencies proposed standards and performance evaluation but over time these were weakened or eliminated. Agency managers discovered that if there were no standards or evaluations, restoration funds could be diverted to other agency purposes: for example, t0 mitigate the impacts of  new development rather than to rehabilitate legacy impacts.

But at the 27th Salmonid Restoration Federation Conference, standards and results evaluation were popular topics.  There is a growing sense among restoration scientists and practitioners that science-based standards are needed to guide program development and project design and that funding must be reserved for independent evaluation of project and program performance.  

I take these developments as a sign that the Restoration Movement has matured. Confidence in the efficacy of restoration has grown exponentially and this has led to a greater willingness to engage in self and societal evaluation. Restorationists now realize that performance is key to the willingness of society (taxpayers) to continue to fund investments in watershed and habitat restoration work.

Another sign of maturity is the growing recognition that restoration is not a substitute for regulation; that both must proceed with integrity in order for restoration goals to be realized. Recently this key recognition received national attention when restoration advocates and organizations which have been engaged in the 25-year effort to restore Chesapeake Bay declared that the effort had been a failure due to its over-reliance on voluntary efforts. The organizations and activists say that pollution – and especially non-point pollution from farms and pavement – must be “aggressively regulated” if we hope to restore the Bay and its fisheries. This sentiment has been reinforced by the Washington Post and other media.

But while the Restoration Movement appears to be maturing there remains a long way to go if we are to reverse the cumulative degradation of our watersheds. Farm Bill Conservation Programs like EQIP, for example, have become little more than subsidies for development and modernization of on-farm irrigation systems. In the Klamath River Basin EQIP - which stands for "Environmental Quality Incentive Program" - has been used by some irrigators to exploit groundwater which is connected to surface flow resulting in more consumptive water use on farm at times when streams are already de-watered to the point where salmon can not reach traditional spawning grounds.

The trend to convert Farm Bill Conservation Programs into farmer pork devoid of real conservation benefit must be reversed if big restoration – restoration of entire river systems and recovery of aquatic species and ecosystems – is to succeed in the West and elsewhere. Perhaps a newly mature Restoration Movement will step up and take on this key task.

Stay tuned.