Four Lessons from Restoration Research


"Restoration ecology is not for the faint-hearted!" Wheeler 1995

Through the course of completing my doctoral work at wetland restoration sites in North Carolina, I learned first-hand Wheeler is absolutely right. Ecological research at restoration sites has important benefits for the field of ecology. Conducting research at restoration sites can be a great opportunity because restoration sites often permit large-scale manipulations (Ehrenfeld and Toth 1997), including significant modifications to hydrology, soils, and plant communities (Figure 1) enabling ecologists to ask research questions and design treatments which might not be possible in undisturbed ecosystems. Restoration has also been called an acid test of ecology (Bradshaw 1987) because we can test how well we understand how ecosystems function by trying to put them back together. At the same time, restoration projects can benefit from the ecological research completed at a project site. Ecological principles can be used to design, explain, or predict the outcome of restoration and research results can provide a more mechanistic understanding of how ecosystems develop and function, which can be applied to improve future restoration projects. Therefore, ecological restoration research has the potential to be a great win-win situation for restoration practitioners and researchers alike.

Restoration Site
Figure 1: Examples of ecological modifications possible at restoration sites: (Top, left) Soil Amendment treatments with added organic matter in the foreground and stream channel modifications in the background; (Top, right) Topographical changes to modify the hydrology as well as plantings to design the desired plant community; (Bottom, Left) Hydrological changes such as a new stream channel; (Bottom, right) Plant community manipulations such as species diversity treatments (1, 4, or 8 species). Photos by A.E. Sutton-Grier

Nevertheless, given that a significant portion of my research program has focused on wetland and stream restoration sites, I have a great appreciation for the limitations and challenges of doing research within a restoration context. Ecological research is often constrained by project budgets, timing constraints and the physical, spatial extent of restoration projects. There can also be issues with lack of replication or pseudo-replication. Finally, there can be a frustrating lack of control over the research site, which can at the very least slow research progress and at the worst ruin entire projects (Figure 2).  Based on my experiences, below are lessons learned from doing research at active restoration sites.

Restoration Site
Figure 2: An example of one’s research area being completely out of one’s control. While I was visiting my plots in Charlotte, NC, to collect soil and plant samples, a person came to mow a path around the site (left) and ended up moving over half of one of my plots (right) making it impossible to collect the aboveground biomass data I had been planning to collect. Photos by A.E. Sutton-Grier
Lesson 1: Be a common presence at the restoration site during construction.

When you live a couple of hours away from a restoration site, it is difficult to be present during all of the site construction. And yet, if you are not present, changes in the restoration plan can occur that can have important impacts on your research. The types of modifications that occurred at the restoration sites at which I worked included 1) stream depths were modified from the original plans changing the flooding frequency of the adjacent riparian wetlands; 2) plans to fill sections of old stream channel were canceled leaving “ponds” in unplanned areas; 3) vegetation was planted at different densities than specified in the original plans; and 4) planned soil modifications were not implemented as designed. None of these issues ended up being a major problem for my study, but there were a lot of modifications and frustrations that might have been avoided if I had been present to observe and discuss changes to the restoration plans.

Taking Samples
Figure 3: A. Sutton-Grier and B. Roberts sampling soils from the clayey soils at a newly planted restored wetland site.

Lesson 2: Get to know the construction crew manager as well as the project manager and communicate clearly with all involved parties. Also, be on site during restoration construction and treatment application.
I met and spoke on the phone several times with the project manager for the city at one of my field sites. He was completely supportive and excited that I wanted to do research at his restoration site. He eagerly discussed my research design plans and understood what needed to be implemented in the field for me to ask my research question: “How do different levels of soil amendments impact soil processes and plant community development?” However, the details about my carefully designed, replicated, and balanced soil amendment study and the importance of following the exact design were not passed on to the construction manager. As a result, when the soil amendment treatments were applied, they were not applied as had been specified in my research design. Due to cost-constraints, the construction manager decided to cut back the amount of organic matter added to two of the three “high organic matter” treatments. This resulted in me having one very large “outlier” plot with much higher soil organic matter than any of my other plots which meant I no longer had the replicated study design I had planned.  As a result, I had to change my research design and statistical analysis. If I had been in better contact with both the project manager and the construction manager and had been on site the day the treatments were applied, I could have made sure they both understood the importance of following my research design and that my treatments were properly applied.
Summer Camp Students
Figure 4: A. Sutton-Grier with a tour of elementary and middle school students on the road adjacent to the restored wetland in Durham, N.C. These students were part of a summer camp that focused on wetlands and they came to take a field trip to learn more about field research and restoration.

Lesson 3: Be creative, flexible, patient, and prepared.
Because restored ecosystems are disturbed, doing ecological research at these sites is more challenging than in natural ecosystems. Therefore, one needs to be creative, patient, and ready to handle problems that arise. For example, one of the restoration sites I worked at was in an urban area and had previously had houses built on the site. But because the houses were in the floodplain, they kept flooding. So, as part of the restoration, the houses were removed as well as six feet of fill soil, which was added to the site when the houses were constructed. As a result, the soils remaining at the site were very disturbed, high in clay, and low in organic matter. This made them very difficult to sample. At times it felt as if we were trying to extract bricks (Figure 3). Sampling these soils was hard on our soil sampling equipment which would often seize up or even break during our sampling. Therefore, it became critical to have extra samplers with us and tools to help loosen the samples when they got stuck. We also had to plan extra time for sampling due to these common problems with our equipment.

Aerial View
Figure 5: Aerial view of one of my stream and wetland restoration sites taken from a helicopter.

Lesson 4: Enjoy the bonuses of working at a restoration site!
The rewards from doing research in restoration sites are great, too. Restoration is something that really interests people. It is fun to give tours of my research plots to students and adults where I discuss how urban stream and wetlands become degraded and how to mitigate some of these problems (Figure 4). There was also the occasional perk of being involved in large projects, such as having aerial photographs taken of my research plots (Figure 5).
Overall, I would definitely recommend to others, if you have the opportunity to do research in a restored ecosystem, DO! The challenges I faced were largely logistical and could have been avoided if I had been more pro-active and more involved in the construction phase of the restoration. So, my advice to anyone thinking of doing restoration research is to make sure you know the people in charge, communicate well and frequently with them, and be involved in the whole process as much as possible. You will surely find your experiences both challenging and rewarding. Good luck!
  • Bradshaw, A. D. 1987. Restoration: an acid test for ecology. Pages 23-29 in W. R. Jordan, M. E. Gilpin, and J. D. Aber, editors. Restoration Ecology:A Synthetic Approach to Ecological Research. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Ehrenfeld, J. G., and L. A. Toth. 1997. Restoration ecology and the ecosystem perspective. Restoration Ecology 5:307-317,
  • Wheeler, B. D. 1995. Introduction: Restoration and Wetlands. Pages 1-18 in B. D. Wheeler, W. J. Fojt, and R. A. Robertson, editors. Restoration of Temerate Wetlands. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.


Wetland restoration, construction, communication, on-site presence, flexibility, preparedness

Article Copyright:

Creative Commons License This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

Article Disclaimer:

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of Johns Hopkins University or the Johns Hopkins University Global Water Program.