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Forging a Climate-Smart Approach

Restoration Works

Tom Gardali

In a world where rapid environmental change is rewriting the ground rules for conservation, certain practices that have been effective up until now need to be reevaluated—and new approaches tried. This is especially true when it comes to restoring ecosystems that have been lost or damaged. Today, returning a stream to healthy function may not mean recreating what it was like in the past. Instead, we must ask how to meet the needs of wildlife and humans in a climate-changed future.
Wild rose is a shrub native to California that has great value in climate-smart restoration designs. Creative Commons photo.

Given the predicted climate conditions in the decades to come, and their likely impacts on natural systems, new restoration projects need to be “climate-smart.” No formal definition yet exists for “climate-smart ecological restoration,” but there is a pressing need to not only define the critical characteristics but to also implement, test, and share them.

Consider that about 90% of California’s wetland and river habitats have been lost, accompanied by severe losses both of wildlife (e.g., salmon, Yellow-billed Cuckoo) and of benefits we rely on (e.g., flood control, clean water). While we definitely need to restore these essential habitats, to date practitioners have relied on the past as a guide, asking “What used to be here, and what did this area look like?” to make decisions about restoration design. Climate change forces us to reconsider these decisions—specifically how to plan for changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather events such as more frequent drought, extreme heat, and intense rainfall.

Here at PRBO, we are pulling together ideas about what a climate-smart restoration project might look like. And our new capacity to actually do on-the-ground restoration (explained below) provides a real-world laboratory for testing these ideas!

We suggest that a restoration project is climate-smart when it:

• Is forward-looking: focuses on future rather than past climatic and conditions.

• Considers the larger landscape: is designed in the context of broad geographic scales and a range of projected impacts, including non-climate-change stressors.
Three sets of criteria, simplified in this diagram, form the basis for choosing which native plants to include in a climate-smart restoration design.See the figure large..

• Builds in ecological insurance: is planned to succeed across a range of possible future scenarios.

• Increases ecological diversity: includes more and denser planting of species, to buffer against ecosystem collapse.

• Include people: engages students, teachers, and the public to better support projects and expand influence.

This is a great starting point, but there is no substitute for putting these ideas into practice. Through our Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed (STRAW) program, we designed and completed our first climate-smart restoration project in 2011. We are using this project, planted by STRAW classrooms, as a learning experience to develop the climate-smart approach and be able to share it with others.
Students participating in a PRBO restoration plant future habitat. PRBO photo.

Our goal was to design a restoration project that provides critical wildlife habitat and improves water quality in a world where droughts and floods will be more frequent. For wildlife—such as migratory birds that may arrive earlier and/or depart later—the plant community should provide food and shelter during more months of the year. We used three sets of criteria (see figure above) to rank trees and shrubs and draw up a “planting palette” with our target characteristics. Shrubs—such as coffeeberry and wild rose—contribute significantly to the amount and timing of available food and cover, and they also tolerate wet and dry climate conditions, making them good climate-smart choices.

From climate-smart restoration theory to practice, PRBO is forging a learning process so that we can teach and share this approach, empowering others to implement climate-smart restoration projects and then, in turn, learning from them.