The University of Arizona

Restoration ecology — born on Tumamoc Hill

Most people think of Tumamoc as pristine desert. They are surprised to learn that it is not. It is restored desert. It is the result of generations of care and stewardship. And it depends on continued care and stewardship. If we were to walk away from the Hill, it would begin to grow shopping malls and housing developments to replace its native ecosystems and natural vistas. I guess we need shopping malls and housing developments, but our souls also need a corner of nature in which to seek peace.

Restoration ecology tries to return some developed places to a more natural status. Restoration ecology says: We are sorry to have fouled up this patch of the world. We wish we could have seen it when it was natural. We will determine what it would have been like way back when. And then we will make it like that again. We will restore it to Nature. We will bestow it upon the Earth and upon our children’s children.

When the Carnegie Institution founded its Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1903, Tumamoc had been overgrazed since the 1850s by cattle, horses, burros and goats. Its plants had suffered. And it also supported rock quarries whose handsome products still grace Tucson with numerous walls and other structures scattered around the older parts of the city, but whose open scars had disfigured the Hill. 

Volney Spalding, who gave birth to the idea of restoration ecology, decided to return the land to nature. He wanted to study its recovery and the natural process that would reimpose their rule over it. It was a simple but revolutionary idea. Spalding was a visionary, a generation ahead of his time.

The second restoration ecology project, Holden Arboretum, was not founded until 1931. It was sited on 100 acres of Kirtland Township, Ohio, near Cleveland. But it did not survive long as a restoration ecology project. An outside review board complained that nothing grew in the reservation that humans could eat. Give us fruit trees, they demanded. Oh well, they did turn the place into a very important arboretum (now the nation's largest). And today's greatly expanded Holden Arboretum has returned to its roots (so to speak): 3257 of its 3600 acres are natural.

A third restoration ecology project began at the University of Wisconsin in the middle 1930s and still exists. But even after that prominent example started, championed by no less than Aldo Leopold himself, restoration ecology took a long time to proliferate and flower. Today it has become a cornerstone of our conservation strategy.

Born on Tumamoc Hill!

Read more about restoration ecology: William R. Jordan III & George M. Lubick (2011). Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, Island Press, Washington, DC