Ecology and Reclamation…How do They Fit Together?
I’m not an ecologist…but I understand ecology, as ecology was an aspect of my undergraduate and graduate degrees. In the world of reclamation, ecology has become the name of the game.
Ecology is defined as: “the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/ecology).
I would like to offer my thoughts regarding the relationship between ecology and reclamation.
In the reclamation industry there has been a shift…a shift in leadership…a shift I feel puts the reclamation industry at risk.
Reclamation is “the act of returning something (land in this case) to a former, better state.” (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/reclamation). This definition requires two criteria be met: 1) we understand and can define the former, better state 2) we understand and are able to implement the land management practices to return the land to the predefined, better state.
To be able to understand and define the former, better state we must reference the ecological history of the respective area. The ecological history of the land helps us understand and define the organisms, physical conditions, and their relationship to each other. Ecological Site Descriptions (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/technical/ecoscience/desc/) are a great free tool to help anyone understand the ecological history of a site. Ecology and the ecological history is the ideal way to establish goals of the reclamation process.
To be able to understand and implement the land management practices to successfully reclaim land requires understanding the ecological goals define in item 1 and being able to identify and implement the countermeasures to reclaim the damaged land. Identifying and implementing these countermeasures is a dynamic process…it is different every time. In order to build these countermeasures, one must understand the ecological goals. From there one has to understand the damage that has occur to the land and the many variables at play. For instance, was there the introduction of salts or hydrocarbons…was the topsoil removed…what is the soil temperature…what is soil fertility condition….was the topsoil blended with the subsoil/parent material…is the soil able to sustain plant growth…is there potential erosion problems during reclamation…when to expect rain…does the contractor’s timeline allow for success…does the contractor have the right equipment… does the contractor understand the intricacies of the process…does the budget allow for the project to be successful. This list can go on for days.
The fact that there is a tremendous number of variables in the reclamation process is indicative of a process led by individuals with an understanding of much more than the ecology and/or ecological history of the site. The group in which I am referring to are Agronomists. Agronomy is defined as “the science and technology of producing and using plants for food, fuel, fiber, and land reclamation. Agronomy has come to encompass work in the areas of plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, and soil science.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agronomy).
Ecology and agronomy differ in their goals. The goal of ecology, by definition, is to passively study organisms and their physical surroundings and document findings. The goal of agronomy is improvement. Agronomists are tasked with taking a problem (land reclamation, feeding the world, and clothing the world) and creating sustainable solutions.
Ecology has shifted into the leadership role of reclamation. Reclamation, by definition, is an improvement-oriented process; and therefore should be led by those who study the science of improving the land…and not by the passive study of the ecosystem.
Ecology and ecological history are the tools we use to define our goals. Agronomy is the tool we use to obtain those goals.
On your next reclamation project, consult with an Agronomist to determine the best approach to obtaining your ecological goals.