Major in Ecological Restoration at Virginia Tech

By Leighton Reid, Assistant Professor of Ecological Restoration in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Now is a great time to start a career in environmental restoration. Worldwide, society has degraded an area of land larger than South America with disastrous outcomes for biodiversity, climate, and human wellbeing. More than a million species face extinction, and ongoing deforestation is second only to fossil fuel emissions in driving global climate change.

Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of damaged ecosystems, and this profession is at the heart of a worldwide movement to solve the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. During the past few years, dozens of countries, including the US, have pledged to restore an area of the Earth’s surface bigger than the state of Alaska. There are now three different initiatives to plant a trillion trees, and the United Nations recently launched the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to amplify the critical role that restoration must play in preventing climate change and species extinctions right now.

Starting in December 2021, Virginia Tech offers a major in Ecological Restoration through the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. Students who graduate with a BS in Ecological Restoration will be trained broadly in environmental science, ecology, botany, soil science, and human dimensions (download the course checklist). They will learn about ecological restoration projects happening in Virginia and around the world, and they will get hands-on experience designing restoration plans for degraded sites.

Undergraduates in Plant Materials for Environmental Restoration (ENSC 3644) plant an oak tree along Holtan Branch, a tributary of Stroubles Creek on the Virginia Tech campus. Photo: JL Reid.

Virginia Tech has deep roots in environmental restoration and continues to be in the vanguard. For decades Virginia Tech faculty have been research leaders in restoration monitoring, mine reclamation, river restoration, and endangered species recovery. Today faculty from across campus specialize in many more areas related to ecological restoration, including tropical forest restoration, grassland restoration, plant propagation, fire ecology, agroecology, environmental history, natural resource economics, and philosophy. Several faculty members and students have recently formed a Restoration Ecology Working Group to address the interdisciplinary nature of environmental problems.

A tropical forest restoration site in northwestern Ecuador. An undergraduate researcher in summer 2022 will measure the survival of native tree seedlings planted in this former cattle pasture.

Virginia Tech was the first university in the United States to formally align its Ecological Restoration curriculum with the Society for Ecological Restoration, the largest professional organization of ecological restoration professionals worldwide. This alignment means that students graduating with a degree in Ecological Restoration will have completed the knowledge requirements to apply for professional recognition as in the Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner in Training (CERPIT) program. Professional certification clearly communicates to employers that graduates of this program are recognized within the profession as being knowledgeable in ecological restoration and committed to a high standard of practice.

A Virginia Tech research intern and staff of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation search for a federally threatened orchid in a woodland restoration site in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo: JL Reid.

Undergraduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech can also get involved in restoration through a new student organization. The Society for Ecological Restoration Student Association at Virginia Tech (SER-VT) is student-led and aims to connect students with restoration projects and provide networking opportunities. For example, students who join SER-VT are eligible to apply for free membership in the Society for Ecological Restoration. Students can also get involved with the Virginia Tech Environmental Coalition, a student-run organization that advocates for a sustainable future and organizes events, including The Big Plant, an annual event to improve habitat and water quality in a local creek by planting native trees.

The Environmental Coalition is a student-led organization that organizes native tree planting events and other sustainability efforts on campus. Photo source: https://gobblerconnect.vt.edu/organization/ec.

Job prospects for ecological restoration professionals are already good and likely to improve given the huge scale of land and water degradation worldwide. As of 2016, the US restoration economy employed >126,000 workers and produced $9.5 billion USD in economic output. In terms of workers, there are more professionals working in ecological restoration than in iron and steel mills (91,000 workers in 2016) but somewhat fewer than in motor vehicle manufacturing (175,000). Many different sectors require restoration to comply with state and federal regulations. As such, ecological restoration professionals are hired by architectural firms, construction companies, state and federal government agencies, environmental consultancies, environmental education organizations, public/private/NGO land management organizations, state highway departments, mining companies, forestry companies, universities, and others.

PhD student Jordan Coscia measures plant community composition in a recently restored native grassland on the northern Virginia Piedmont. Photo: JL Reid.

Virginia Tech’s location in the New River Valley provides access to a wide variety of natural areas and restoration projects. One important site within walking distance of classroom buildings is the StREAM Lab, a restoration experiment designed to test different strategies for improving water quality along 1.3 miles of Stroubles Creek (watch a 7-minute video about StREAM Lab). Restoration courses also visit sites managed by the town of Blacksburg, The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to develop hands-on skills in plant identification, community ecology, seed collection, invasive species management, tree planting, and ecological monitoring.

Masters student David Bellangue sets up an experiment focused on improving native wildflower establishment at McCormick Farm near Raphine, Virginia. Photo: JL Reid.

An excellent way for students to get more out of their degree is to participate in a research experience or an internship. By working with a graduate student, a faculty member, or a local land manager, undergraduates develop new skills and perspectives as well as personal relationships with working professionals. Students can also broaden their horizons through a wide variety of study abroad programs.

Undergraduates who participate in research gain new skills (like plant community monitoring) and personal relationships with professionals in the field. Photo: JL Reid.

In a nutshell, the Ecological Restoration Major at Virginia Tech is designed to launch meaningful careers for students who are passionate about the environment and want to move the needle on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and ecosystem services.

To learn more about majoring in Ecological Restoration at Virginia Tech, contact Dr. Leighton Reid (jlreid@vt.edu) or Karen Drake-Whitney (kdrake@vt.edu).

Post-Mine restoration, the Gondwana Link, and SER Australasia – helping Australia transition towards a restoration culture

In their fourth and last report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss promising approaches and programs squarely facing the conservation issues that threaten western Australian ecosystems.

Nothing is simple these days: everything is subject to trade-offs. For example, take Australia’s mining industry. The country has long drawn on its enormous mineral wealth, which sustains a significant part of its economic growth. But this takes a huge toll on biodiversity. Kingsley Dixon, with whom we spent a week in the field, helped us understand the situation, and noted that the miners do not have a very good track record of cleaning up after themselves. Today, there are around 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia – sad testimony to the boom and bust pattern that seems to characterize all too many extractive industries everywhere.  However, the pioneering work of Kingsley and his colleagues and students, in the areas of seed science, conservation biology, and restoration ecology, is helping advance the science and technology of restoration. This is difficult business under any circumstances, but especially so in a biodiversity hotspot. He is also extremely active in trying to persuade the mining industry and Australian government to do more and do it better in these areas.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

The Mt Whaleback mine has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

The Mt Whaleback mine, in Western Australia, has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars. (And, make no mistake, just about every plant growing on the slopes on the right are exotic invasives.)

Happily, despite the complexity and the obstacles, a few Australian conservation organizations are also engaged in ecological restoration – whether at the site level, or much broader scales.

Many people told us that Australians are truly proud of their unique natural heritage, and the “outback”; it only remains for the government to play a larger role, and support those who are already working towards sustainability and a restoration culture.

One of the largest players is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), linked in a small way to the US-based organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The AWC is making significant investments not only in land acquisition for conservation but also conservation research and outreach to the public.

Another example of an outstanding initiative is the 13-year old Gondwana Link, a unique and inspiring venture in the southwest. Indeed, they aim to create a biodiversity corridor 1000 km long, spanning 8 different ecosystem types. We spent several days with Keith Bradby, Chief Executive Officer of Gondwana Link, as well as Mike Griffiths, recently posted to Kalgoorlie, and veteran consultant and restoration practitioner US- born Justin Jonson, learning about the wonderfully exciting work of this coalition. They work both by acquiring pristine fragments, as well as degraded land which they restore, to provide connections between patches of habitat protected in national parks. But even more than their goals, it is their approach that is unique. Instead of coming in and telling everyone who isn’t a conservationist they they’re wrong and evil, they work with the miners, and the farmers, and the various NGOS, to achieve a vision of the landscape where humans and biodiversity can co-exist. For more information, see the chapter on Gondwana Link in Paddy Woodworth’s book Our Once and Future Planet , the first book to present the world-wide scene of ecological restoration to the general public.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

They also have a strong commitment to work with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, of both the Ngadju and Noongar peoples. Aboriginal Australians represent only 3% of the national population of 24,000,000, but finally, and bit by bit, justice is being done. Following the 1993 Native Title Act, and 18 years of shameful litigation, Aboriginal Australians are at last being granted “native title” in their own land, and control a growing percentage of Australian outback. On these recovered lands, some communities are trying to reconcile their truly ancient traditions with sound ecological management appropriate to the new lifestyles they have taken up, and the future they desire for themselves.

Another remarkable actor is the 400 – strong Australasian chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SERA), led by its chair Kingsley Dixon. The challenges they face are daunting, but important and encouraging steps forward are being taken and the network is successfully raising money and doing projects. If one’s government is not helping, after all – as is the case with the current administration in Australia, social networks – of people and institutions – are the key. As we noted in our blogpost from Jordan, last April, another source of hope is the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens.

To conclude, as Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest,

If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.

What unnamed movement? He was referring to the thousands of independent non-governmental groups of people working for joint environmental and social change – not one or the other, but both.

As we discovered, in Australia there are plenty of clear-eyed people in conservation and restoration who do have a heart and who are working for what we would call a restoration culture for the 21st century. There: that’s a name then for the unnamed movement of this century that Hawkins referred to.