Tom's Blog

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Research and Restoration: A conflict of interests

Research work and restoration work are often in conflict. It is the purpose of this note to make a plea for the application of common sense in the selection of sites for research purposes. For instance, in southern Wisconsin we have very few high quality sites, and those that we do have are jewels deserving of constant care. Most are completely unsuitable for manipulative field research.

As an example of what I would consider an inappropriate research study is one on removal of aspen (Populus tremuloides) in one of southern Wisconsin’s highest quality sites, a State Natural Area. In this justly famous site, aspen had become a significant invader. The solution to this problem, girdling of the aspens, is well known. However, a decision was made by the managers of the site to do research on this aspen clone using a variety of control methods. Because of this, volunteers interested in preventing aspen spread were refused permission to carry out any aspen control work. In the meantime, the aspen clone continued to expand. What a waste, since in southern Wisconsin there are large numbers of aspen clones on sites of little or no ecological interest, which would have been perfectly suited for this research. Why should this high quality remnant be allowed to become degraded? Common sense would suggest otherwise.

Another example involved a study on the ecology of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a highly invasive exotic. Garlic mustard is widespread in southern Wisconsin and there are numerous highly degraded sites where it can be studied. However, the study in question used a high quality site where efforts by volunteers to remove this plant had been underway for a number of years. The researchers appropriated a significant portion of this site and part of the research involved allowing garlic mustard plants to remain intact (as controls). In addition to permitting the plants to remain on the site, this research sent an inappropriate message to volunteers, who had been working diligently to remove every vestige of this highly invasive plant.

On the other hand, here is an example of what I would consider appropriate research in a high quality site. In another State Natural Area, a researcher interested in population genetics of a particular plant species was interested in obtaining leaf samples for DNA analysis. Small samples were taken from a number of plants on this site. The plants were barely disturbed and there was no manipulation of the site as a whole.

Land managers responsible for the control of high quality natural areas should consider carefully the appropriateness of manipulative research on their sites, especially if the research requires that needed restoration work be held in abeyance. Most high quality natural areas require on-going maintenance and are not suitable research areas. Restoration ecologists should be challenged to find and set aside field sites where manipulative research is possible.


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