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December 2nd, 2013

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09:00 am - Intelligent Tinkering

Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap between Science and Practice
Robert J. Cabin
Island Press, Washington, DC, 2011
216 pp., with index and selected bibliography

The tropical dry forests of Hawaii are an extremely endangered environment, threatened by almost everything. They were slow to evolve, because of the dryness and frequent interruption by lava flows. Plants and wild life had evolved together for thousands of years before the Polynesians arrived. There was so little competition in the benign environment that roses had lost their thorns; some birds had lost their flight. The Polynesians began shaping the land to their needs, resulting in the extinction of some local species and introduction of many others.

The catastrophic shocks, though, were felt when the Europeans arrived, and began removing forests for plantations and farms. Today, all four counties in Hawaii are in the top five counties for federally listed endangered and threatened species. Some remnants are so small with no regeneration or succession that they’re considered living dead ecosystems. Hawaii is an ecological disaster.

Is it even possible to restore these endangered ecosystems? Is it “worth it”? There are about 12,000 species that exist nowhere else in the world. More new species are being discovered, and supposedly extinct species rediscovered, regularly. 90% of the flowering plants and 80% of the birds are endemic to the islands. Most of the climates and ecosystems of the world exist somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is also one of the most racially diverse places in the world – and also, unfortunately, one of the most economically stratified.

Cabin spent several years in Hawaii, performing both the science of restoration ecology and the practice of ecological restoration on the tropical dry forests, an ecosystem so endangered you might not have heard of it. An early experience with a restoration work party had a strong resonance with me:

As the morning progressed, I couldn’t help noticing how different we all were. In almost any other situation, most of us would have little if anything to say to one another, and if for some reason we did strike up a substantive conversation, we probably would have discovered that we had radically different opinions about such things as politics and religion. Yet here we were, donating our time on a beautiful Saturday morning and working harmoniously together.

That is exactly my experience, right down to the Saturday morning. Volunteer-driven restoration brings people together in a way that rarely exists in the United States any more. I frequently think that we’re restoring the idea of community built through shared work (as in quilting bees or barn raising) as much as we’re restoring ecological functions.

But a problem with volunteer-driven projects is we are, to some degree, amateurs. On the other hand – on the other side of the wall, to some degree – there are all the scientists doing research into restoration ecology. Cabin asks the question, what can we do to bridge the science and practice gap?

This is a big and important question, but frankly, I was more taken with his stories of the on-the-ground restoration: the physical details of working in a tropical climate to eradicate, even over a few hundred square feet, something as pernicious as fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). How much political effort it took to build a six acre exclosure. The reward when you return to a spot after a couple years and are surprised and gratified at how well it’s doing. And the disappointment when you return to a spot and nothing has established, or it’s not doing nearly as well as you’d hoped.

The practice of ecological restoration is holistic; you have to be aware of many of the influences – the water, the soil, the aspect of slopes, the surrounding mosaic of land uses – that can affect your project. The science of restoration ecology is necessarily reductive, with its need for clearly delineated experimental design, replicability, awareness of control factors, and a falsifiable hypothesis. There is also the short-term cycle of much scientific research. A grant might only be for a couple years, a master’s or doctoral research project will only last for a few years. Ecological processes can take decades .

Despite these differences, I think research in the science of restoration ecology can have a positive effect on the practice of ecological restoration. For instance, it was a Master’s thesis at the UW that provided a lot of the background for GSP to institute its target forest types. Other research can settle the “obvious” questions that might otherwise be a source for endless debate. Which is best for a cedar seedling: mulch, irrigation, or irrigation gel? (Mulch.)

I think my own practice could benefit from a much more methodical approach, and better record keeping. The truly successful projects, the restoration work that has been going on for ten years and more, are all methodical in their plans and record keeping. (Well, the ones that I know of, at least).

Cabin suggests a model that he calls “intelligent tinkering,” a phrase from Aldo Leopold. It relates to keeping all the cogs and gears of a car as you take it apart. You don’t know what’s essential to the machine, what’s sacrificeable. Your first actions are small and cautious, but as you learn more about the machine, you can take bolder actions.

I think this is happening all over Seattle, in all the different parks and nature areas being stewarded by GSP volunteers. Some of the parks are large, with many different habitat types (Carkeek, Golden Gardens, Discovery). Some are very small, less than two acres (John C. Little). North Beach Park, at 9 acres, is about mid-sized.

It may not be the case that a restoration ecologist could come into one of those parks, and do a specific experiment that has immediate results. But I think it is the case that the general work being done, in all environments and look at many different questions asked by the science of restoration ecology, can have a positive effect on the practice of ecological restoration.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.


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