Karen Holl publishes a "primer" on ecological restoration

An alternative to costly textbooks, Holl's concise guide is complemented by web resources

Cover of Holl's book
Head shot of Karen Holl

"I've been talking about writing this book for 25 years," said Karen Holl. "It's a succinct but broad overview, and I made it as international as possible." (Photo by Chris Schmauch)

Over the years, Environmental Studies Professor Karen Holl has introduced hundreds of undergraduates to ecological restoration and inspired a significant number to pursue a career in environmental management.

With graduates working in top governmental agencies and universities, as well as state parks, nonprofits, and private firms, Holl is gratified by the impact of her teaching.

Now, after 24 years of teaching "Restoration Ecology," Holl has published the book she wishes had been available for her when she first stepped into the classroom. At just 200 pages, Primer of Ecological Restoration covers how to plan, develop, implement, and monitor restoration projects, with chapters on hydrology, soil, invasive species, revegetation, fauna, legislation, and funding.

Holl was determined to keep the cost of the book—$35—down, so she eschewed color photographs in favor of diagrams and tables; photos, links to videos, and additional downloadable resources, including case studies that accompany the text, are available on the website maintained by publisher Island Press.

"I've been talking about writing this book for 25 years," said Holl. "It's a succinct but broad overview, and I made it as international as possible."

Written primarily for students, instructors, and practitioners, the primer presents the "big picture" of restoration concepts and practices and serves as a foundation for further learning. Among the case studies are the Sacramento River, the Galapagos tortoise, and, closer to home, Younger Lagoon, which is part of the UC Natural Reserves System and a spot where many of Holl's undergraduate interns have gotten hands-on experience doing restoration. Holl also provides reading lists at the end of each chapter for those seeking more information.

Holl, an ecologist whose own expertise is in restoring tropical forest and California grasslands, consulted with political scientists, economists, and resource managers—including some former students—to make sure the book's content is comprehensive and relevant. When she had a draft ready for the publisher last year, she "field tested" it in her class.

"Restoration is an interdisciplinary endeavor," said Holl. "You need to know the ecology and natural history of an ecosystem, and what methods are appropriate, but it's also really important to engage stakeholders throughout the process. You need to set realistic goals, know the permitting process and how to get funds, and projects need to be monitored."

Holl supports restoration projects as an adviser and has worked closely on tropical rainforest restoration in several Latin American countries. Her goal is to see the book translated into Spanish and Portuguese.

"I want to bridge the divide between academics and management communities," she said. "Scientific research needs to be shaped to support and improve on-the-ground restoration projects."

Looking ahead, restoration ecologists must wrangle with the question of whether the goal is to restore ecosystems to their "historic condition" or for a future marked by climate change. Other challenges include how to "scale up" restoration projects from "postage stamp" pilot projects to sizable acreage, how to balance tradeoffs when the human and ecological benefits of certain restoration strategies don't align, and how to develop creative strategies to pay for restoration.

"There are a lot of different ways to pay for restoration," said Holl, who mentioned local, state, and federal government funds; legislation requiring people who do damage to pay for mitigation; and private foundations.

Holl, who dedicates her book to her son and her students "with hopes for a more sustainable future," keeps in touch with dozens of former students, and she takes great pride in their success, inviting some back as guest lecturers in her classes.

"My former students are working in natural resource management positions all over the place—government, conservation organizations, public and private agencies and NGOs. Some own their own firms."

Helping build society's capacity to cope with the negative impacts humans have had on the natural world gives her some hope, she said. But she is quick to sound a cautionary note: "Restoration is not a substitute for conserving intact ecosystems or reducing greenhouse gas emissions," she said. "It is one piece of the puzzle, but we can't plant our way out of climate change."