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Madison Hosts Global Conference on Ecological Restoration

1200 people filled Monona Terrace last week to discuss the latest in ecological restoration.  Attendees from around the globe  share their perspectives.

The international gathering was the World Conference on Ecological Restoration.  Madison was a fitting location, since the organization that put the pieces together - the Society for Ecological Restoration - came to life there twenty-five years ago.

Advocates are quick to say, the movement is not about celebrating the past but rather saving ecosystems and habitats for the future.

Some attendees dug in to help with a little habitat restoration at the UW Arboretum.  That's where we find Tara Davenport.

The UW student is taking the lead on a bit of “refurbishing” on a small bit of a 60-acre prairie – the world’s oldest restored prairie called “Curtis” within the Arboretum.

“I’m the local person here. We’ve got South Africa, Columbia and Florida.”

Davenport’s specialty – and the topic she’s funneled her graduate thesis energy into at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. use legacy effects on fens – a type of wetland native to Wisconsin. But this afternoon, she is teaching the art of Big Blue Stem seed collection.

Davenport’s Columbian crew member abandoned his seed collection duties. Instead the lanky biology undergrad has dropped to the ground to photograph an astor.

“I am Rubén Darío Palacio, I study at Icesi University. I’m really passionate about the tropical Andes. I want to work in the restoration and conservation of the Andes because it’s the most biodiverse place in the world.”

Palacio arrived in Madison with a wishlist – and a well-thought out one at that.....

“I’m trying to make my university known, so people can know the research we are doing. Also I also want to talk with some specific researchers I think are doing a great job. And maybe after talking with them, do my graduate studies with them.”

Phumza Ntshotsho’s speciality and career are firmly established. The restoration ecologist traveled from Capetown, South Africa and was preparing is slated to speak at the conference. Back at home, Ntshotsho is part of a team of researchers. She aims to bridge the gap between applying science-based research in the restoration field.

“There’s quite a tendency to criticize practitioners for not using science. But then we don’t know what the practicalities are on the ground. It helps to take some time out and learn more about those people and what their realities are; why they are not using our science.”

A native of Florida, Gwen Eyeington’s professional path took rooted in biology and grew into environmental science in the field. She has since moved into the world of publishing.

“So I love to come to conferences to meet all the different scientists, find out what’s going on as far as cutting edge research and applications for future books.”

Eyeington wears yet another hat – as an accomplished oil on canvas painter. She was asked to help lead a conference panel, called “eARTh without ART is just 'eh'.”

“About how to bring art into the restoration community and use it to build advocacy. It’s kind of a neat bridge. I’m going to have to separate the science part of myself and just talk about the art part of myself.”

Madison resident Brenda Baker is not on the conference speaker list, nor is she looking for scientists whose lab she might join. Baker is here for artistic reasons.

“I’m an artist and I was invited to do a piece for the Society of Ecological Restoration’s world conference. So I have a piece outside of Monona Terrace – between the Capitol and Monona Terrace – that’s made all out of local invasive species. It’s made out of buckthorn and honeysuckle and autumn olive.”

Named “seed pod” it stands 7 and ½ feet tall and 10 feet in length.

“And it probably weighs between 800 and 1,000 pounds.”

With the help of family and volunteers, Baker harvested the materials and then carefully pieced together an intricate skeleton of carefully cut “non-native” branches. Baker chose the piece’s materials, design and name with equal care.

“I wanted to work with invasive species for this conference – partly because I think the work of restoration ecologists is getting rid of invasive species and then planting seeds, you know getting rid of the the bad seed and planting the good seeds. So for me the seed pod was a really good metaphor.”

UW professor Evelyn Howell hadn’t yet seen Baker’s Seed Pod when we met, but ecological restoration became her passion even before – she says – the term was coined. Howell joined the Landscape Architecture Department in the 1970s.

She has observed interest explode over her nearly four decade career. Yet, for all they’ve learned, Howell says much remains to be understood – not simply battling exotic species that compete with natives.

“Our challenges are finding enough natives species that we can use in the plantings that we have. We don’t understand how all the native plants work and what their mutualistic interactions area. We’re finding more and more information about microbes in the soil and how important they are in interacting with the higher plants. So what I teach about restoration is we have to have flexible targets, we have to have the ability to switch if something unexpected happens.”

The challenges and unknowns don’t diminish Howell’s passion for her field, nor for its potential.

She was to lead a workshop at the world conference on teaching restoration.

“And what I’m interested in is finding out from the people attending the conference what are the key themes or talents or skills or information that someone who wants to be in this field needs to be exposed to, needs to understand.”

Howell will likely try out some of those ideas back in her own classroom.

“ I always trouble how am I going to get this across, how am I going to get people to understand what I’m talking about in a way that will pique each person’s passion.”

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.