Adopting a Process-Oriented Perspective to Appreciate Natural Riverscapes

Jessica Doran1

1 EcoMetrics, Breckenridge, CO

The popularity of process-based restoration (PBR) is rising at breakneck speed as the potential for substantial ecological health improvements is widely recognized.  Successful application of PBR hinges on our ability to appreciate natural riverscapes as complex, ever-changing systems and be capable of enabling natural functions to heal complex systems.  This presentation will explore the underlying ideas behind traditional river restoration approaches and how specific language and communication can help us adopt a perspective allowing restoration on nature’s terms.

Process-based restoration requires a new perspective oriented on the natural processes of riverscapes.  It requires a shift in thinking from rivers and streams as resources that can be designed and built to function a certain way to riverscapes as ecosystems that come with their own processes and functions.  Stream restoration has been traditionally approached as an engineering, design-build process aimed at optimizing particular functions or presumed habitat needs for target species.  This can be an adequate approach in predictable settings where background conditions are highly managed.  But in most settings, conditions are changing all the time, especially in the face of increasing human pressures.  It is becoming clear that to be sustainable, riverscapes must be able to adapt and adjust as conditions change.  Fortunately, this type of resilience is a natural characteristic of riverscape ecosystems that have evolved over thousands of years, and process-based restoration aims to capitalize on that. 

Adopting a new perspective is challenging and thinking about how language influences expectations can help this mental shift.  From the process-oriented perspective, our goal is not to design novel systems; it is to enable the natural processes that maintain ecosystems and that allow them to adapt and adjust on their own.  Rather than discussing restoration as a process of design, build, and maintain exercise, we can look at it as diagnosing the causes of impairment, prescribing treatments, and following up with ongoing care to manage health of the system.  Changing our mindset from a design-build mentality to a healing mentality, and using the words that reflect that, will lead to meaningful restoration. 

View Jessica's Presentation Here.