Clark Fork Collaboration

Clark Fork River photo by Erik Stenbakken

UM group works to inject science into river restoration efforts

UM students listen to Amy Sacry, an ecologist with Geum Environmental, discuss restoration activities at the Milltown Dam site. As a young scientist in the early 1990s, Maury Valett thought he knew the meaning of ecological restoration. He first became intrigued while doing postdoctoral research along the Rio Grande. The enormous and storied river has been manipulated for centuries to irrigate farms and provide drinking water to cities. And for some time, dikes have kept the river from reaching the floodplains. That’s been good for people who have built on the floodplain but not so good for the ecology of the river. Fish use floodplain habitat for spawning, for instance, and the plains serve as ecological cleansing systems for the river.

“Floodplains only work if the rivers flood them — that’s why they are what they are,” Valett says. “You lose a lot of what the river is when the river can’t communicate with the floodplain.”

Valett jumped at the chance when Fish and Wildlife gave him and his University of New Mexico colleagues the opportunity to artificially flood the plain to see how the river responded. It was a scientific investigation that got Valett thinking — and intrigued — about how rivers might be restored. But it wasn’t until years later, after he moved back to his home state of Montana, that he found that outside of academia restoration projects rarely involve scientists.

“Ecological restoration is a procedure executed by people who own businesses,” says Valett, now a UM professor of aquatic biogeochemistry. “They follow formats laid out by the state or the federal government to introduce a certain structure and hope that it makes the natural system work in a certain way. There’s really been no place for scientists. And so I started looking into it.”

Scientists rarely get the chance to experiment with large-scale ecosystems because there’s no funding. Restoration projects, on the other hand, especially Superfund sites, often receive millions of dollars from the government. But these are projects that Valett says require fast-tracking protocols.

“Agencies don’t have the time and money and opportunity to test alternatives,” Valett says. “They can’t. They’ve got contracts and deadlines, and they’ve got money they’ve got to spend. They can’t say, ‘Let’s use a different approach’ — especially one that hasn’t even been tested.”

Valett decided he wanted to find a way to bring science to the restoration equation. The project that caught his eye was the $200 million cleanup of Milltown Dam, part of the largest Superfund site in the nation. Starting in 2010, Valett gathered a team to investigate the issue. Last year, with help from seed money through the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, he and his group of UM professors and graduate students collected data and submitted a multimillion-dollar proposal to the National Science Foundation. Specifically, they applied to the Coupled Natural and Human Systems program, which promotes interdisciplinary analysis of relevant human and natural system processes, as well as the complex interactions among human and natural systems at diverse scales.

But this was no ordinary proposal. Although Valett’s goal began with a sole focus on his passion for science, the scope and direction of the group’s research changed over time in surprising ways.

“We started to think about what ecological restoration is, and ultimately it’s about people and their perspectives and priorities,” Valett says. “There’s a social-ecological system there, and that’s what piqued my interest. I want to do the science. But in developing this proposal, I became interested in the people.”

The first person Valett recruited for his team was Jakki Mohr, UM Regents Professor of Marketing. Right away, he was intrigued by her perspective.

“That conversation started my foray into social sciences,” Valett says. “Did you know that marketing is a social science? I didn’t. I started talking to her, and I asked if she’d be interested in the project. She said she was.”

Mohr recommended Ray Callaway, a world-renowned ecologist at UM, known by his colleagues as an innovator in biological sciences. Whereas Valett’s role focuses on aquatic-based ecology, Callaway’s role on the team was on terrestrial-based ecology, exploring plant communities as key aspects of restoration. Cara Nelson, a UM ecology professor and chair of the international Society for Ecological Restoration, also came on board. From the outside, the team clearly was a super-group of top-notch academics with different strengths — a little like the Avengers but without the costumes. But in reality, getting things off the ground was challenging.

“It took us probably a good year of biweekly meetings for two to three hours each to simply learn how to communicate with each other about our respective disciplines and the lexicon of our disciplines,” Mohr says. “Just getting the project going was difficult for all of us, but it was exciting at the same time. What we encountered in our communications during the meetings was simply a microcosm of the dynamics the restoration projects themselves encounter on a much bigger scale.”

It was those social science dynamics — the ones involving stakeholders such as managers, businesses, the public, contractors and consultants — that kept coming up in the group’s conversation.

“The questions we started asking didn’t have anything to do with the ecology of the river system itself but more about the fundamentals of how ecological issues interact with social character to guide success,” Valett says.

The IoE also played a role in the way Valett and his team began to think about their approach. The original goals of the IoE were to integrate environmental research between UM and Montana State University. But one of its other main features was integrating social sciences into the research.

“It specifically incorporates social science,” Valett says. “The idea of integrating social science into the field made us start to look at what are called social-ecological systems, a field related to the notion of sustainability and resilience.”

They also realized their team was not complete. They needed, Valett says, a “dyed-in-the-wool” social scientist. And so they brought in Libby Metcalf.

Metcalf was, at first blush, a surprising addition to the group. But as a researcher of the human dimensions of natural resources, Metcalf had an angle the rest of the group didn’t: the knowledge of how to look at the social aspects of natural resource projects, crunch the data and build models.

“She’s a young, new professor,” Valett says. “She was green. But Jakki said, ‘That doesn’t matter. We’ll push the social part where it’s never gone before.’”

Workers release a channel to bypass Milltown Dam in 2008. In addition, Laurie Yung was added to the team, given her expertise in qualitative research in the social science area of conservation and restoration. Once the group got the IoE seed money, they began conducting research on the Clark Fork River. Mohr, Metcalf and Yung brought on two graduate students — doctoral candidates Peter Metcalf and Dave Craig — to aid the team.

Mohr’s role in the project was to look into the perspectives of the contractors, consultants and business owners responsible for implementing the restoration work. She wanted to see where the gaps in communication were. For example, scientists might know the precise mix of vegetation for restoration, but does the person installing the vegetation know where to place the plants? Do they care?

“As academics, we’re always interested in building the bridge between academic sciences and research and applying those new techniques in the field,” Mohr says. “Given my expertise in commercializing innovation, it was a really natural thing for me to ask these consultants and agencies who were designing the plans how did they even pick the approaches they were using? What new techniques were they aware of, and what would urge them to try something new?”

Metcalf also spent time talking with people to gather data. She found that time was a factor in the way landowners and residents perceived and, ultimately, engaged with a restoration project.

“One of the big frustrations they have was the time it took to get things accomplished,” she says.

She also talked with natural, biological and ecological scientists to gauge their take on the social science aspect of restoration.

“It kept coming up that it was people who mattered in this process,” she says. “And that goes back in mind to our group’s original feeling that if restoration is going to be successful the social element needs to be understood, so it was kind of a confirming factor for us.”

Mohr and Metcalf focused on factors that benefit people. Nelson’s focus was, like Callaway and Valett, ecological benefits and how people impact them. Many times restoration projects aren’t monitored, which limits our understanding of the factors that lead to project success. And even when monitoring does occur, it often lacks the rigor needed to answer questions about project effectiveness. Nelson’s focus is not just the efficacy of the restoration but also — and this starts sounding complicated — the efficacy of the tools used for evaluating restoration success. In other words, when monitoring is being done, how effective is the monitoring itself?

“If we want to understand project outcomes, we’re going to have to monitor using efficient and effective protocols,” Nelson says. “And oftentimes, protocols are not adequate. We really need to bring a higher level of scientific sophistication to monitoring.”

Valett’s group has emerged at a prime time. Restoration is an $81 billion industry in the U.S., and in Montana there are projects aplenty. In addition, natural-resource management is moving toward a collaborative agenda. For instance, in 2009, Congress established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program to provide funding for and direct agencies toward “collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes.”

Like true scientists, Valett’s group is waiting to see the evidence as to whether collaboration leads to success in ecological restoration. If their proposal is funded by the NSF, they will explore social-ecological factors in restoration success in three locations — the Clark Fork, salmon fisheries in Washington and national forests in the Sierras. It will likely be one of the first such integrative research projects of its kind.

There are very few academic programs in the U.S. that train students in the science, practice and human dimensions of ecological restoration, but in that regard, UM is ahead of the curve. Nelson directs an innovative undergraduate program in ecological restoration that trains students as ecologists and as managers, giving them the skills necessary to contribute to the repair of degraded ecosystems in an evidence-based way and to effectively engage relevant stakeholders in the process.

“I don’t think that it’s an overstatement,” Nelson says, “to say that UM is emerging as a leader in ecological restoration based on this program, the expertise of our faculty and — with the IoE’s support — these kinds of collaborations.”

— By Erika Fredrickson

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