Wildland restoration is like marriage: An imperfect work in progress

 

When I first joined Wildland Restoration Volunteers, I had the naive idea that helping the environment was a lot like a blind date: You get together and hope you click.

Some of the projects were just like that: We'd carry tools in, rebuild a trail so it no longer interfered with endangered plants, and go our separate ways, feeling good. After the first weekend I was involved, the trail I worked on was solidly in place and the plant saved, all in a day or two of work. Some of my other trail dates involved building fences around a wetland, blocking unnecessary roads, and cutting down obnoxious Russian olive trees or Siberian elms along waterways.

Many Westerners love this kind of work because we get out there with our loppers, chainsaws and shovels, and then we get to move things around until they're right. Whatever the problem is, we fix it, and we like to think that once we've taken action, the problem stays fixed.

But most restoration projects are nothing like this, and in fact, they seem much more like a long-term relationship. It takes patience, commitment and optimism to begin fixing the land, along with sweat and the occasional pulled muscle. It has its bad moments along with its genuine pleasures, and it's rarely as exciting as a date.

Here's what I mean. Years ago in a national forest, there was an open expanse of hard-packed dirt on the side of a mountain, and it had become dense as concrete. Motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles had been pounding it for years. Erosion channels as deep or deeper than I am tall choked the creek below with silt. My crew of volunteers broke up the hard pack, spread wild seed and straw over it, planted some ponderosa pines, stapled down erosion mats and built check dams across the channels.

A few years later, it had become a different place, a grassy meadow strewn with flowers. Erosion channels are now silted up, with plants growing in them, and the rainwater has been slowed and diverted so the creek below looks clear. This is a success story, correct? A few days of work, and voilà! Restoration!

Not really. The meadow has alfalfa and mullein growing in it, and neither plant is native. The alfalfa was probably mixed in with the straw we spread, and it is true that the mule deer probably love it. The grass was made up of three or four native species and the flowers were native gaillardia and townsendia. But in a montane meadow not suffering from human impact, there ought to be hundreds of different plants growing, including sand lilies, pasque flowers and paintbrush.

A long study of prairie restoration that began in 1975 has found that species richness always declines in restored places. It's not like restoring a car that then ends up just as good as new. Many native species need fungi and other constituents to germinate, and our volunteer work could never provide that.

The reality is that we don't know how to restore an impacted area the way we know how to restore an automobile; we only know how to make it function better or look prettier. Once it's gone, we cannot get it back. OK, that's a bit of exaggeration; in another 50 or 100 years, if we do not stomp it down again, the land and stream might come back. But the land would have fixed itself; we just provided a temporary cosmetic boost. In my cynical moments, I think we should call ourselves Wildland Beautification Volunteers instead of Restoration Volunteers.

Some people say that what volunteers like myself have been doing is silly anyway. We are putting enormous effort into a small part of the West while the rest of our public lands are going to hell with gas and oil drilling, water pollution, overgrazing, off-roading, and a long list of other insults. We should look at the big picture, they say, not a single small meadow on the side of an insignificant mountain.

Well, the big picture is too much for me, and being silly is something I do well. So I'll keep doing what I do, and I hope other people elsewhere will do their silly thing as well, and together we will help fix what we have done to the land we love, a little bit at a time. Restoration is really like a marriage: You work on your own arrangement and don't worry about the state of matrimony in the United States. Marriages aren't perfect, and neither are attempted restorations of the land. But you aren't doing it for yourself anyway; you're doing it for the kids.

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He draws political cartoons and does a lot of volunteering from the Front Range of Colorado.

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