Reforming loose legal definitions of ecological restoration
May31

Reforming loose legal definitions of ecological restoration

Laws allowing open interpretation of ecological restoration undermine sound science in the recovery of self-sustaining living communities. Though mandates like the Clean Water Act have been powerful tools for instituting environmental protections in the United States, loose legal definitions of “restoration” mean that few mitigation projects install whole, functioning, and self-sustaining ecosystems. Likewise, programs aimed at recovery of endangered species do not necessarily prioritize the recovery of functional ecosystems to support them. Ecologist Margaret Palmer and legal scholar JB Ruhl examine the scientific and (US) legal bases for ecological restoration, considering how the two may be more fruitfully unified in “Aligning restoration science and the law to sustain ecological infrastructure for the future,” on page 512 of ESA Frontiers November 2015 (open access) special issue on “Preparing for climate change — infrastructure and other innovations.” Palmer, director of the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and Ruhl, director of Vanderbilt University’s Program on Law and Innovation received ESA’s 2016 Sustainability Science Award for this effort to review the legal basis for restoration, identify unintended consequences of imprecise policies, and offer solutions. They describe valid ecological restoration projects, which either remove sources of destruction or mitigate their effects by actively influencing the biophysical processes that make the local ecological communities self-sustaining, and conclude with pathways to creating national best practices and minimum standards for restoration projects. Margaret A Palmer and JB Ruhl (2015). Aligning restoration science and the law to sustain ecological infrastructure for the future. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13:...

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Islands of fertility in the sagebrush sea
Feb04

Islands of fertility in the sagebrush sea

Sagebrush ecosystem recovery appears to be hobbled by loss of soil complexity when topsoil is remixed at oil and gas development sites, losing the “islands of fertility” associated with mature shrubs. Related news stories: “Sage Advice: Couple’s research plants seeds for reclamation of sagebrush.” Dennis Webb. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Monday, February 2, 2015. “State should improve reclamation process.” Editorial. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Wednesday, February 4, 2015. In big sagebrush country, re-establishing the ecosystem’s namesake shrub may jump-start the recovery process more successfully after oil and gas development than sowing grass-dominated reclamation seed mixes typically used to quickly re-vegetate bare soil on well pads, report two Colorado scientists in the January 2015 issue of Ecological Applications, released today. Big sagebrush is often conspicuously absent at restoration sites decades after disturbance. Historically, grasses have dominated the vegetation recovery following development, offering limited diversity and poor quality habitat for the 350 wildlife species harbored by what was once the most widespread ecosystem in the western United States. “Successful restoration is more than establishing vegetation. To restore wildlife habitat so that it is self-renewing, it is critical that soils are returned to a healthy status as quickly as possible,” said the study’s lead scientist, Tamera Minnick, Professor of Environmental Science at Colorado Mesa University. The authors sampled two undisturbed reference sites and eight reclaimed or abandoned natural gas well pads in Rio Blanco County, Colorado. They found that none of the oil and gas well pads included in the study had returned to a reference, or pre-drilling, condition, even those that had had 20 to 50 years to recover. When a well pad is built, the topsoil and lower soil layers are removed and stored in piles in order to create a level work surface for drilling wells. Today’s well pads, often consisting of dozens of wells per pad, may require removing soil from an area of 3-10 acres. When drilling is completed, current reclamation standards require oil and gas companies to replace the soil and reestablish plants. However, the stored soils are now thoroughly mixed or homogenized and have lost the patchy pattern of soil nutrients that existed before the well pad was built. “Sagebrush modifies its habitat to create patchy soils that make the habitat more resilient and even better for supporting sagebrush and all the other plants and animals that depend upon this important ecosystem,” said Richard Alward, Principal Ecologist with Aridlands Natural Resource Consulting, and the study’s coauthor. Other researchers have documented that sagebrush shrubs trap decaying organic matter, moisture, and nutrients in the soil beneath  their canopies, creating “islands of fertility” in sagebrush habitat, which Minnick and Alward...

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Old forests store new nitrogen–and may soak up nutrient excesses
Oct23

Old forests store new nitrogen–and may soak up nutrient excesses

Ecologists working in central Pennsylvania forests have found that forest top soils capture and stabilize the powerful fertilizer nitrogen quickly, within days, but release it slowly, over years to decades. The discrepancy in rates means that nitrogen can build up in soils, David Lewis, Michael Castellano, and Jason Kaye report in the October 2014 issue of ESA’s journal Ecology, published online this week. Forests may be providing an unappreciated service by storing excess nitrogen emitted by modern agriculture, industry, and transport before it can cause problems for our waterways. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, required for all living things to live and grow. Though a major component of the air, it is largely inaccessible, captured only through the metabolism of certain microbes or washed to earth in the form of ammonia, nitrogen oxides, or organic material by rain, snow, and fog. On land, microbes, fungi, and plants incorporate what doesn’t wash away into proteins, DNA, and other biological components. Organic matter in the soil – the remains of fallen leaves, animal droppings, and dead things in various states of decay – can also capture newly deposited nitrogen, holding it stable in the soil. Mature forests store nitrogen more efficiently than young forests recovering from clear-cuts the authors found, because they have been accumulating organic matter on the forest floor for a century or more. When a forest is clear cut, erosion soon follows, washing away top soil. A young stand of trees a decade old is beginning to rebuild the organic layer, but it will take many autumns to accumulate. The orderly succession of changes in resident species as a forest grows and ages is a classic preoccupation of ecological theory. The exchange of nutrients among the species and the non-living landscape also changes with succession, and the discovery that nitrogen accumulates in the organic soil indicates something important about how an ecosystem’s nutrient economy ages. It was thought, up through the 1970s and early 80s, that an ecosystem grows like a person. At some point, forests, like people, stop getting bigger and adding new biomass. Ecologists argued that the ability to capture incoming nutrients stopped with the end of growth. But by the mid-80s, it was clear that mature ecosystems did continue to absorb nitrogen, mostly in soil. By showing that nitrogen capture is much faster than its release, Lewis and colleagues suggest a mechanism by which old ecosystems can accumulate new inputs of nutrients. Because soils rich in organics can quickly incorporate nitrogen, forest soils have the potential to absorb excess nitrogen that has been newly added to the biosphere through human activities. Application of synthetic nitrogen...

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River Flow By Design: Environmental Flows Support Ecosystem Services In Rivers Natural And Novel
Oct09

River Flow By Design: Environmental Flows Support Ecosystem Services In Rivers Natural And Novel

“When the sun peeped over the Sierra Madre, it slanted across a hundred miles of lovely desolation, a vast flat bowl of wilderness rimmed by jagged peaks. On the map the Delta was bisected by the river, but in fact the river was nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf.”

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ESA donates $16,615 in carbon offsets to Minnesota re-forestation project
Oct04

ESA donates $16,615 in carbon offsets to Minnesota re-forestation project

Two years ago, Lee Frelich was sitting in a committee meeting when the idea came to him: the Ecological Society should plant a forest. ESA sets aside $5 for every person attending the Annual Meeting to offset the environmental costs of travel to the meeting location. This year, on Frelich’s advice, the Society wrote a check to a Minnesota non-profit devoted to restoration of local lands and waters.

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Managing water with natural infrastructure: win-wins for people and wildlife

By Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst The US Senate is moving forward with a new Water Resources Development Act, a comprehensive bill that authorizes funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects related to flood management, environmental restoration and other water resources infrastructure issues. The bipartisan legislation (S. 601) is sponsored by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA). In light of this, the Consortium for Aquatic Science Societies recently held a congressional briefing that highlighted problems with aquatic invasive species and “natural infrastructure” solutions. David Strayer, Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies discussed the varied ways in which invasive species can harm ecosystems, recreation and tourism for communities living alongside major waterways. Invasive species cost the US economy $100 billion a year and cause significant lasting ecological changes, often hindering  recreation and leading to proliferation of less desirable  wildlife. Among the most costly of these is the zebra mussel, which has cost industry and business billions since its initial introduction to the United States several decades ago. The mussels damage boats, invade water treatment and power plants and clog pipes. Strayer also highlighted nutria, plant-eating rodents that can severely erode river banks,  leaving surrounding communities more vulnerable to floods; Japanese knotweed, which crowds out native plants and damages existing infrastructure; and didymo (commonly known as “rock snot”), which – in addition to its obvious aesthetic damage to otherwise scenic landscapes – alters streambeds and cuts out food sources for native aquatic species such as trout. Strayer noted that reservoirs, alteration of water flows in rivers and streams and fish stoking (which can unintentionally include contaminants and undesirable wildlife) can buttress proliferation of invasive species. He praised language in the new WRDA legislation that would establish a program to mitigate invasive species in the Columbia River Basin and manage invasive plants in the northern Rockies and urged support for an amendment recently incorporated into the bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would seek to restrict invasive species from dispersing into the Great Lakes. Emma Rosi-Marshall, also with the Cary Institute on Ecosystem Services, focused her presentation on the general ecology of rivers. Many animals, including salmon and sturgeon, adapt their migration and breeding patterns on the dynamics of rivers. She also expanded on the important role of natural infrastructure such as wetlands and floodplains in mitigating floods and controlling erosion. Dams, while providing services such as water storage and power generation, can also disrupt wildlife migration and alter the manner in which sediment and nutrients are delivered along waterways. These alterations can impact fish abundance as well as...

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ESA Policy News: February 1

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: CONGRESS PASSES BILL TO SUSPEND DEBT CEILING TEMPORARILY On Jan. 23, the House passed H.R. 325, the No Budget, No Pay Act. The bill would temporarily eliminate the debt ceiling until May 19 while temporarily suspending pay for Members of Congress until the House and Senate each pass a budget. The measure prevents the nation from defaulting on its debt, potentially into August if the US Department of Treasury takes extraordinary measures. The bill gives additional breathing room to a series of fiscal debates set to occur in March concerning budget sequestration and continuing appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013. A trigger of automatic across-the-board spending cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending programs will occur on March 1 unless Congress can come up with a plan to reduce the debt beforehand. Under H.R. 325, if either the House or Senate fails to pass a budget by the April 15 deadline, all income earned by the members of that chamber would be set aside. The members pay would be received in full once a budget is passed or on the final day of the 113th Congress at the end of calendar year 2014. The technical decision to withhold members pay as opposed to eliminating it indefinitely seeks to minimize conflicts with the 27th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prevents Congress from changing its pay after it has already convened. The bill also does not require both the House and Senate to pass the same budget, unlikely to occur, given the current party division between the two chambers. Murray takes Senate Budget Committee reins A new key player in federal debt talks this year will be Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who assumes the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee. Even before the House legislation was finalized, Chairwoman Murray had pledged that the Senate would put forward and pass a budget this year, which would mark the first time the Senate has passed a budget since 2009. The Senate Budget Committee has posted a site that allows individuals to solicit their ideas on how to achieve fiscal reform as well as share stories of how federal investment has impacted them. To view the site and offer comments, click here. WHITE HOUSE: PRESIDENT EMPHASIZES NEED TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE IN SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS After a year of relative silence on the issue of climate change, President Obama gave the topic center stage in his second inaugural address. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the...

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ESA Policy News: October 26

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: REPORT FINDS SPENDING CUTS POSE THREATS TO PUBLIC SAFETY, CONSERVATION EFFORTS ON PUBLIC LANDS A recent report from several conservation organizations concludes that the automatic spending cuts, set to take place in January 2013 under the Budget Control Act, would adversely impact efforts to protect public health and safety in public parks, forests and natural recreational areas. For National Parks, the study concludes that budget sequestration would force a loss of park rangers, jeopardizing public safety for park visitors and hindering the promptness of emergency response personnel. The cuts could also spur increases in vandalism and looting in public parks and impede efforts to monitor endangered species. For the  Forest Service, the cuts would decrease the agency’s ability to respond to wildfires. Inadequate campground maintenance would also lead to park trail closures, increasingly unkempt bathroom facilities, halted restoration projects and unprocessed recreational permits. All of this would adversely impact revenue brought in from tourism. The automatic cuts would also hinder the agency’s ability to manage  invasive species. The report was led by the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and Defenders of Wildlife. View the full report here. ENDANGERED SPECIES: INTERIOR VACATES CRITICAL HABITAT DESIGNATION FOR SEABIRD Department of Interior officials have agreed to vacate nearly four million acres of critical habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet until 2018 as part of a settlement agreement with the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), a prominent timber industry advocate. The designation would have included parts of California, Oregon and Washington states. The agreement must be approved by the US District Court for the District of Columbia before it is final. According to court documents, defendants agreed that vacating critical habitat would not significantly impair conservation efforts for the species. Conservation groups, however, differ with this opinion. According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), marbled murrelets have been declining by roughly four percent per year since 2002. This decline is mainly attributed to continued habitat loss due to logging, particularly on state and private lands. On Oct. 24, CBD joined with several environmental groups in sending a letter to the Obama administration requesting that it withdraw from the agreement before it becomes final. To view the CBD letter, click here. For more information on federal conservation efforts for the marbled murrelet, click here. GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT: SCIENCE EXEMPTION SOUGHT FOR TRAVEL BAN LEGISLATION A legislative effort to curb participation of  federal employees at national conferences has spurred an effort from several organizations to seek an exemption...

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