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ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION

Ecological restoration is the process of reclaiming habitat and ecosystem functions by restoring the lands and waters on which plants and animals depend. Restoration is a corrective step that involves eliminating or modifying causes of ecological degradation and re-establishing the natural processes — like natural fires, floods, or predator-prey relationships — that sustain and renew ecosystems over time.

Even if all remaining wildlands in the United States were protected today, species decline would continue because of habitat destruction that’s already occurred. Thus, alongside unyielding ecosystem defense and tenacious endangered species protection, an effective restoration strategy is critical to addressing the extinction crisis.

The Center brings a potent combination of litigation, policy advocacy, and collaboration to ensure effective and biologically cautious restoration of degraded public lands. Our command of natural resource law yields a strong negotiating position with federal agencies, and our focus on species protection keeps restoration firmly rooted in biodiversity conservation. And our on-the-ground restoration experience affords credibility among rural communities, nongovernmental organizations, and policymakers alike.

The same forests that the Center began protecting 20 years ago are the focus of much of our restoration advocacy today. Southwestern ponderosa pine forests — once stately old-growth cathedrals frequented by grass fires — are often today biologically impoverished thickets of small trees, the legacy of more than a century of livestock grazing, industrial logging, fire suppression, and predator control. In addition to our on-the-ground efforts to safely restore beneficial fires in these forests, the Center’s restoration actions in southwestern forests include winning protection for the Mexican spotted owl, northern goshawk, and reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf as a top predator.

RESTORING PONDEROSA PINE ECOSYSTEMS

Among other restoration initiatives, the Center is working at the landscape scale on an innovative, collaborative on-the-ground project on the Gila National Forest to develop systems for restoring ponderosa pine forests, one of the Southwest's best-understood and most degraded forest ecotypes. With significant economic value and exceptionally high ecological value — home to endangered species like the northern goshawk and the Mexican spotted owl, both severely jeopardized by poor forest management — only about 5 percent of ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest remain as old growth.

The Center’s project involves small-tree thinning, prescribed burning, erosion control, and road removal, and is aimed at developing policy guidelines that will set rigorous standards for management in ponderosa pine forests and ultimately all publicly owned forests in the West. Along with local and regional allies, we’re developing both general and site-specific restoration prescriptions.

In April 2009, many of our efforts came to fruition when the Center, Grand Canyon Trust, and Arizona Restoration Products signed a landmark agreement committing mutual support to a plan to safely restore beneficial fires and conserve biological diversity in northern Arizona ponderosa pine forests. The agreement, focusing conservation and industry groups alike on a common goal of conserving species and ecosystems, calls for a combination of community-protection activities and strategically placed restoration projects to facilitate restoration and re-establishment of natural fire regimes across entire landscapes.

In our broader forest restoration program, we’ve prepared a series of Geographic Information Systems maps on land uses within Forest Service Region 3; the Center is using GIS technology to analyze the effects of the government's fire-reduction program on sensitive species and develop comprehensive recommendations for alternatives to the harmful practices that are now standard in forest management. We’ve instigated an exhaustive review of photographic archives to understand historical conditions in ponderosa pine. In 1996, along with our allies at the Southwest Forest Alliance, the Center produced an historical review of ponderosa pine based on early forest surveys conducted in the region. Presettlement Conditions of Ponderosa Pine Forests in the American Southwest remains the most comprehensive look at the subject to date.

We also co-authored a cutting-edge regional restoration plan, Forests Forever: A Plan to Restore Ecological and Economic Integrity to the Southwest’s National Forests and Forest-dependent Communities. And in 2002 we — along with a number of southwestern fire-ecology experts — published “Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Ecosystems: A Broad Perspective” in the prestigious Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecological Applications.

Fire and Ecosystem Health

Fire is a natural, vital component of most western forest ecosystems. In dry forest types like ponderosa pine, fire was historically present as a frequent, low-intensity disturbance. Fire is necessary for the health of forests, which have evolved to depend on fires to clean out underbrush and maintain biological diversity. Dead trees serve as important wildlife habitat and contribute to the nutrient cycle, and patches of dead trees allow for forest succession. Even stand-replacing fires have historically occurred at some level in almost every forest type in the West. Unfortunately, the fires of recent years have been burning large areas with relatively high severity, as well as burning into communities.

For more information on fire and forest management, please click here.

Photo © Robin Silver