Ask Not What the Land Can Do for You—Ask What You Can Do for the Land

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Principal of EcoMetrics and founder of Riparian Reconnect in Buena Vista, Colorado

In one of the most famous speeches in American history, President John F. Kennedy implored his fellow Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” I’m borrowing JFK’s words to illustrate how I approach restoration: Ask not what the land can do for you—ask what you can do for the land. This maxim evokes something greater than oneself that deserves respect, service, and ethical treatment.  For JFK, it was country. For me it is the land, or to be more accurate, an ecosystem. These words are a call to think of our place in the world as a relationship, one of reciprocity and community, based not just on taking but also giving. It’s what my hero, Aldo Leopold, was getting at when he penned the Land Ethic, which, in his words, “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members and also respect for the community as such.”  

To me, restoration is about asking what we can do to serve the natural community that supports us—as good citizens—and not necessarily about how we can manipulate the natural community to serve our needs and desires—as conquerors. For most of my career as a wetland restoration practitioner, this felt like a fringe view. I was taught that restoration was about stating goals, articulating objectives, creating a design, building it, and then monitoring and maintaining what we built to keep it functioning. In other words, it was about asking what the land could do for us. The emphasis was not on the ecosystem, but on what we do to it. 

Asking what we can do for the land, on the other hand, requires a different way of thinking—one that acknowledges the land as an entity worthy of respect. We must think of wetlands not as a resource to exploit, but as an ecosystem to protect. Rather than manipulating it in a design-build process to achieve specific objectives, our role as restoration practitioners is to diagnose causes of ecosystem impairment and prescribe treatments. From this perspective, restoration is less about doing something to change how a wetland functions and more about undoing the things that prevent it from functioning naturally. The emphasis must be on wetland health, not on design and building.  

Wetland restoration project before (top) and after (bottom) based on diagnosing and treating impairment rather than designing and building to objectives. (Photo credit: Eco Metrics)  

This approach is increasingly no longer relegated to the fringe. The emergence and increased popularity of terms like functional assessment, process-based restoration, green infrastructure, and nature-based solutions indicate, to me at least, a shift away from the mindset of controlling nature (taking) and towards the mindset of respecting it (giving). It feels like we are slowly relearning how to be good citizens instead of conquerors of our environment, and I think that shift is happening more for practical rather than philosophical reasons. As it turns out, naturally functional wetlands perform many of the services we need better than the ones we design, build, or enhance. As blog posts on Vibrant Environment have countlessly relayed (here, here, and here), healthy wetlands provide us with critical ecosystem services, so maybe the best thing we can do is to keep them healthy and functional by getting out of the way.  

I’m a practical guy, and I realize that every wetland restoration project I’ve been privileged to work on was funded by some agency or organization who wanted something specific in return. Water quality, sediment retention, drought, fire, or flood resilience, habitat for some specific plant or animal—we all know the list of wetland benefits at this point. It’s natural for us to ask what wetlands can do for us, but we don’t have to be conquerors to reap their natural benefits. They give it up freely, to the degree they can, as long as we let them do what they do. I believe this is what restoration is all about: doing our best to reduce human impact on ecosystems. In turn, we get to enjoy the benefits they provide. Reciprocity is key. In short, it’s about asking not just what wetlands can do for us, but what we can do for wetlands. As Aldo Leopold puts it, “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

I was floored when I won ELI’s National Wetland Award for Business Leadership in 2020, and I have spent the past 4 years quietly wondering how I could possibly fit in amongst the giants who share the honor. Heck, I’m just a regular guy with a very small business and few accomplishments. For me, the fact that a prestigious organization like ELI found my work worthy of recognition and celebration is a source of pride and a constant reminder to remain optimistic. I hope my legacy will include a host of Colorado wetlands that are healthier and in better shape to deliver their natural benefits to society. More than that, I want to be remembered for my small role in an evolving land ethic because, if anything, I think that may be worthy of a National Wetland Award. May we keep asking what we can do for wetlands.