A Study in Environmental Semantics: More Questions Than Answers

Part 1 - Guest Post by Espy Thomson, Heather Campbell Chaney Environmental Fellow

“We can’t manage what isn’t touched by humans,” a Colorado Springs ranger told me when I asked about the erosion management plan of a creek next to us on the public open space. This made me pause, even though all I wanted to do was get out of the 12 o’clock bright white summer sun. Haven’t humans basically touched, directly or indirectly, all aspects of the natural world, I thought. Given that this is the case, where do we draw the line about what we do and don’t “manage?” I took this question back to the office and through research came across three related terms that were not as easy as I thought to define: restoration, preservation, and conservation.


When I think of the word “restoration”, I think of the process of returning something to a former condition and time period. When I was seven, in a flood of emotion, I broke my toy horse stables. My parent, who is a restoration carpenter, made me sit down and nail the stables back together just how they used to be. It looked like nothing had happened and the new nails had no impact on the wood. But in the case of the environment, we can’t necessarily return the landscape to pre-human activity. Humans have been actively changing the environment for thousands of years. The Romans were one of the first civilizations to create significant environmental degradation and deforestation, which eventually led to the collapse of their civilization. In 1273, air pollution was so bad that King Edward I of England banned “sea coal” from being burned inside the city, creating the first pollution law. Native Americans modified plants and used controlled burn techniques that altered the landscape long before white settlers came. So, I found myself wondering what does environmental restoration look like and what would be considered restored to “good enough?”

Environmental restoration is an ever-evolving science, due to new research and a changing climate. It is not based on a time frame as I’d thought (i.e. “eliminate all presence of humans to make a landscape fully restored”), so much as it is based on a set of principles and goals. The Society for Ecological Restoration International defines restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” Basically, this means that ecologists, environmental engineers, forest fire managers and other groups involved in restoration are focused on making the ecosystems they are in charge of resilient enough to function without much human intervention. Or, to put it another way, we have been messing with ecosystems for so long that a number of them are severely damaged and essential species are struggling to survive in their traditional landscapes. People involved in restoration want ecosystems to be self-sustaining through biotic and abiotic diversity. 

This was starting to make sense; people involved in restoration work want ecosystems to be able to support themselves. However, I had another question. Because ecosystems have been so altered by humans, how do you decide what needs to happen to make them function “normally?” Apparently, people involved in restoration follow two paths. First, they acknowledge if the ecosystem they are helping is naturally or culturally formed or both (ex. sheep pastures in Europe). Then they decide on their goals, using available resources and reference ecosystems to design a restoration plan accordingly. 

I still don’t know when an ecosystem is considered “good enough” though. This is a bigger question. How do we know when we have accomplished our goals? When can we step away? Shifting weather patterns and temperatures are altering the landscapes that are being restored. When do we give up on restoring them in a particular way? Can we complete proactive restoration that can prepare for the changes in climate that we are currently experiencing (more extreme weather events, etc.)? These are the questions that I am not able to answer yet in this blog post.

Stay tuned for part 2 of "A Study in Environmental Semantics: More Questions Than Answers” for a continued discussion on what conservation and preservation mean. Meanwhile, feel free to reach out with thoughts or answers of your own. After all, restoration and environmental management are done best with community involvement and I’d love to hear your thoughts as I grapple with these questions. I can be reached at [email protected]


About the Heather Campbell Chaney Environmental Fellowship

This fellowship was started by Charlie Campbell upon the passing of his daughter, Heather, in 2001. It provides opportunities for two students each summer to honor Heather’s environmental legacy and work in either environmental education at Catamount Institute or in land conservation at Palmer Land Trust. The fellowship not only benefits the students, but also the nonprofits who gain engaged and passionate workers for ten of the busiest work weeks of the year.