Donate | Print Page | Sign In | Join

Volume 30 Issue 4 | August 2016

 Previous article  Next article

Letter from SER Executive Director Bethanie Walder


Did you know that SER has a code of ethics? We do, and it’s a core part of who we are as an organization. Ecological restoration, by definition, raises numerous ethical issues. SER defines ecological restoration as, “the practice

of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that is damaged, degraded, or destroyed.” As soon as we begin to design, let alone implement, ecological restoration, we are faced with numerous ethical questions, for example: what damage, degradation or destruction has occurred; what type of, and how much assistance is appropriate; what goals to define for the project and whether those are aimed at “returning” an area to its natural trajectory, or not; and how the impacts of climate change might affect restoration.

In addition to these questions, the final bullet in our code of ethics raises yet another ethical concern related to ecological restoration projects: “Because ecological restoration sometimes involves causing harm (e.g., removal of invasive species) to achieve greater ecological benefits, we believe difficult choices should be acknowledged, aired and undertaken with care.”

As SER members, we know that you deal with these difficult choices and other ethical questions on a regular basis. Thus, the theme of this issue of SERNews is focused on ethical issues within the field of ecological restoration. We cannot and do not try to cover every ethical issue in the four featured articles, but they do cover a variety of ethical topics, ranging from the foundations of ecological restoration to SER’s recently approved ethical guidelines for corporate sponsorships.

For example, in his article, “Ethics and Restoration: A Fascinating and Vexing Time,” SER Board member Dan Spencer does a fabulous job walking readers through some of the complex ethical debates that have challenged restoration ecologists, beginning with philosopher Robert Elliot’s “Restoration Thesis.” He then moves on to Eric Katz’s argument that restoration further illustrates human efforts to dominate nature. As Spencer states in his article, “These critiques did not go unchallenged. Andrew Light drew an important distinction between ‘malicious’ restorations – those that fit the restoration thesis and are used to justify further degradation of natural places, and ‘benevolent’ restorations where we take responsibility for previous ecological harms.”

Spencer’s article continues by providing a very interesting take on the highly controversial question of novel ecosystems and the ethical questions it raises. He clearly and succinctly articulates the differing opinions in the novel ecosystems debates and closes with his personal views on how we should move forward.

Following Spencer’s introduction is a thought-provoking article by Colorado College philosopher Marion Hourdequin addressing the uncommon challenges of restoration of former military sites. Among other specialties, Hourdequin has spent several years assessing the reclamation/restoration of such lands to more natural conditions. Hourdequin points out that many former military lands were long off limits to the public and experienced only very limited development, so they provide a paradoxical combination of high quality wildlife habitat alongside/inside severely contaminated landscapes and water sources. This article includes several compelling examples of such landscapes, and asks “how might one approach restoration and ongoing management of a site like this, with its bewildering juxtaposition of contamination and ecological richness?” She also raises the social histories of these places and the important intersection between the social and the ecological, “…it can be helpful to understand these areas as layered landscapes, calling attention to the ways in which their uses, their meanings, and their ecologies have changed over time, and how prior uses, meanings, and ecologies shape possibilities for the future (Hourdequin and Havlick 2016).” SER, as an organization, often struggles to connect the social with the scientific. Hourdequin’s examples remind us of how important it is for us to continue to make these important connections. If Hourdequin’s article inspires you, you can learn more by reading “Restoring Layered Landscapes,” a 2015 book on this topic edited by Hourdequin and David Havlick. In addition, we’d also like to thank Dr. Hourdequin for presenting on this topic at SER’s Central Rockies Chapter symposium.

In our third thematic piece, Lillian Pearce and Ella Furness discuss restoration as an act of gift giving. Pearce and Furness claim that by engaging in restoration we are creating a “reciprocal relationship with nature.” They argue that “participatory ecological restoration practices… provide alternatives to dominant contemporary narratives of crisis, fear and commodification, and nurture relationships between people and place through change.” While we often note that SER has members from many different types of academic and practical backgrounds, this article from Pearce and Furness reminds us of the diversity of thought within the field of restoration. Their article asks us to perceive the relationship between humans and nature –especially as practiced through restoration – through a different set of filters.

The final thematic article in this issue of SERNews comes from two of Dan Spencer’s graduate students from the University of Montana. Tom Sentner and Lindsay Wancour spent the spring 2016 semester working with SER to develop ethical guidelines for SER to use when considering corporate sponsorships for our organization and/or for our conferences. At SER’s June 2016 board meeting, the board adopted their proposal as official guidance for the organization. We’re delighted to share that guidance here, including the decision tree they developed to help SER and our regional Chapters consider corporate sponsorship opportunities in an ethically responsible way. Their work draws heavily from concepts about “the restoration thesis” and malicious and benevolent restoration addressed by Spencer in his opening article.

Like the field of ecological restoration itself, the environmental ethics of restoration are dynamic and fluid as we face new and more significant challenges to implement our work. As such, we hope you find these articles not only thought-provoking, but applicable to your daily work in restoration. Thanks to all of the authors for their time and energy to put together these articles.

Happy Reading,
Bethanie Walder