Restoring degraded ecosystems around Seattle – and giving them a fighting chance to stay healthy – can be as much about PR as the right plants. That's what students learn through the University of Washington's Restoration Ecology Network, a program of teaching and research recognized nationally in this week's issue of Science magazine.
Canvassing neighbors, finding and managing volunteers, preparing educational materials, posting signs and attending neighborhood meetings can be crucial to the success of the restoration projects undertaken by teams of students. "Through this process, we have watched students come to understand that science is necessary, but not sufficient for successful restoration," writes Warren Gold, associate professor at UW Bothell and lead author of the Education Forum piece, "Collaborative Ecological Restoration" in Science.
The Restoration Ecology Network, established in 1999, is a three-campus program. Among its offerings is a yearlong series of courses that gives UW the chance to connect with the surrounding communities and students the chance for real-world experience working with local parks and agencies, utilities, non-profits and private firms, according to Kern Ewing, professor with the UW Botanic Gardens and a co-author on the piece in Science.
Working in groups of four to six, student projects this year ranged from finding ways to make a rambling corner lot in Laurelhurst more inviting for birds and neighbors to removing a 10-foot wall of blackberries in order to reclaim a streamside area for native plants in the UW Botanic Gardens.
Without stewardship, restored ecosystems will only degrade again, which is why it's so good for students to learn how to do community outreach and work with clients, Gold says. Teams craft stewardship plans, train their clients in the plan and galvanize community support to ensure long-term project success.
Gold said the group working in Laurelhurst, for example, recruited community members to stop by the site and reported about their project at the annual neighbors' meeting. The president of the Laurelhurst Community club wrote in a letter, "Neighbors were glad to have the opportunity to meet you all in person and to see the commitment and inspiration you have provided in undertaking this important project."
Along with removing invasive species and installing native ones, seating was added and the students created "habitat art," including 3-foot globes fashioned from Himalayan blackberry canes.
Project sites are generally less than 1 acre, although larger project sites have been restored by multiple student teams working in sequential years. Students are responsible for analyzing what's at the site, developing a proposal for their client, creating a detailed work plan and putting in the sweat equity and recruiting volunteers to make it happen.
The streamside restoration in the Washington Park Arboretum, a part of the UW Botanic Gardens, required students to carefully consider the hydrology – how water moves across a site – because the level of Lake Washington is manipulated in the summer and rises two feet, according to Sheri Kim Davis, team member who will graduate this summer with a bachelor's in environmental studies. The resulting changes in the stream and groundwater in the summer influenced the kinds of plants the students selected.
She said the group gained experience working with clients. The students had wanted to plant the site thickly so the new native plants would have the upper hand over non-natives and to create shade that would discourage plants like blackberries, she said. But there were safety concerns and they were told that view corridors were needed to avoid creating hiding spots for criminal activity, so the students went back and removed six of the cedars they'd planted.
"This capstone project engages students in interactive hands-on learning, revealing the complexity of real-world solutions and creating bonds between the university and the public," the co-authors write in Science. Other co-authors are John Banks, associate professor, UW Tacoma; Martha Groom, associate professor, UW Bothell; Tom Hinckley, professor, UW Seattle; David Secord, associate professor, UW Seattle; and Daniela Shebitz, teaching assistant who just earned her doctorate from UW Seattle.
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