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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 19  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 307-308

River restoration in the time of climate change: challenges and opportunities in the Columbia River Basin

Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA

Correspondence Address:
Coleen A Fox
Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_91_21

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Date of Web Publication08-Sep-2021

How to cite this article:
Fox CA. River restoration in the time of climate change: challenges and opportunities in the Columbia River Basin. Conservat Soc 2021;19:307-8

How to cite this URL:
Fox CA. River restoration in the time of climate change: challenges and opportunities in the Columbia River Basin. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 May 25];19:307-8. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2021/19/4/307/330240

Anticipating Future Environments is an engaging and informative investigation into the changing nature of environmental restoration under conditions of complexity and uncertainty. Hirsch uses the Columbia River Basin as a lens through which to understand how scientists are approaching restoration in a highly altered ecosystem, where the impacts of climate change mean that “going back is not a realistic goal” (10). This inspires a key question of the research: How is “thinking and living toward the future” (147) changing the work of scientists in complex socio-ecological systems? Throughout the book, Hirsch makes it clear that while this question has practical implications for the work of restoration ecologists, it is also deeply bound up with “environmental and sociotechnical imaginaries” (11), which are shared by the wider community, and which shape how we know and manage the natural environment. This gets to the crux of Hirsch's inquiry, which is about how adaptation in the science of environmental restoration is influencing the response to climate change in the Columbia River Basin, and how interventions emerging from those adaptations are shaping the future of the ecosystem itself. It is a complex dynamic, and Hirsch does an excellent job of investigating how these processes are playing out at the science-policy nexus in the basin and across the wider region.

The book begins with the conceptual framework, which explains the role of adaptation in science and how it relates to the production of knowledge. For someone unfamiliar with these concepts, it offers a clear explanation of “how science, and scientists themselves, can be adaptive in order to support these broader goals of socio-ecological systems adaptation” (13). The chapter also discusses how the knowledge that supports scientific efforts emerges, shifts, and evolves in response to a host of social, political, and economic factors, as well as technological and scientific advances. These concepts are woven throughout the book, and Hirsch provides illuminating examples of how they relate to restoration efforts.

The analysis brings together work in Science and Technology Studies (STS), adaptive governance and adaptive management, theories of change in socio-ecological systems, and ecological restoration to shed light on the complexity of restoration efforts. While transdisciplinary approaches are always challenging, Hirsch largely succeeds in this endeavour, and this is where the book makes an original contribution to the literature. In fact, it is difficult to envision how any research could capture the complexity of the situation without straying outside disciplinary boundaries. And, even with limited background in STS or adaptive governance, most readers will readily understand how these approaches work together to create a conceptual framework that offers a good explanation of the dynamics in the basin. However, scholars who have engaged more deeply with any one of these concepts might find the use of them to be somewhat cursory. For example, the issue of scientific expertise, which is a central concern of STS, is not addressed directly in the book, although there is discussion of competing epistemologies, sociotechnical imaginaries, and restoration controversies. While it is not essential to the analysis that the STS literature on expertise be cited, it demonstrates the challenges of drawing widely on different conceptual frameworks. The analysis engages much more deeply with the adaptive management and governance literature, and it is therefore positioned to make a contribution to this field of research.

The chapters that follow look more closely at the history of restoration efforts and the changing science behind them in the Columbia River Basin, focusing on the challenges posed by climate change. Hirsch examines specific projects from the region to explain the benefits of process-based restoration, which can be understood as letting “nature do the work” (75). Process-based efforts stand in contrast to engineering-based restoration and are better positioned to deal with the shifting baselines that characterise climate-affected ecosystems. The challenge of shifting baselines sheds light on a central concern of restorationists in a changing climate: it may not be possible to return to a specific historical ecosystem. Rather, the goal of restoration must be to rebuild ecosystem structure and function in order to enhance complexity.

The discussion of process-based and engineering-based interventions is a strong point of the book. In chapter 2, Hirsch does a great job of explaining what these efforts look like, placing them within the context of changing perspectives and evolving practices. Even for a reader who is familiar with these approaches to restoration, there is a lot to be gained from thinking about them in the context of climate change in the Columbia River Basin. Additionally, in this chapter, politics and power relations become a more central part of the narrative, and there is a good overview of the relationship between 1970s environmental legislation, the growing power of Columbia River Tribes, the role of basin-wide entities, and changing ideas and practices around restoration. While the book would have benefitted from more discussion of politics and the unequal power relations that they reflect throughout, Hirsch does situate her study period within the anti-environment/ anti-science leanings of the Trump administration. She points out that commitment to environmental values remained high in the Pacific Northwest.

The remaining chapters of the book are arranged around the themes of emergence, acclimation, and anticipation. Hirsch describes each as a type of adaptation employed by restorationists, and she investigates examples of interventions based on them. For example, the chapter on emergence shows how Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs) function as an expression of process-based restoration, underpinned by innovation and adaptation. The goal is to restore river function and reconnect floodplain and groundwater sources by building beaver dams (some of which beavers eventually occupy). The end result is a more climate-resilient and adaptive ecosystem. The chapter on acclimation investigates monitoring for an uncertain future, highlighting the challenges of data collection and sharing in a large, complex ecosystem. Acclimation, in this sense, means that scientists and resource managers need to be open to new metrics and methods in order to understand ecosystems in a changing climate. These are important considerations, because what scientists choose to monitor and measure will affect how nature is imagined and valued in the future. Hirsch uses the example of salmon, and how they have been counted, monitored, restored, and valued over time in the Columbia River Basin as a way to illustrate the way that particular species become central to restoration efforts. The chapter on adaptation as anticipation builds on these points, asking how we can imagine and model uncertain futures. Particularly interesting is the idea that models can help scientists to anticipate different futures, “empowering them to make choices about which restoration efforts to employ” (162). The role of environmental and sociotechnical values and imaginaries becomes very clear in these efforts to anticipate, respond to, and shape the future. Hirsch concludes the book by emphasizing the need to make visible the complexities and uncertainties that characterise environmental restoration in the context of climate change.

The book would have benefitted from additional maps and graphics. There is one map of the Columbia River Basin, but none of the study sites referenced in the book are indicated on it. The book includes a trip to a restoration site outside the basin (the Tarboo Creek on the Olympic Peninsula), a map of which would have been helpful. Images of beaver dam analogs or other interventions would have enhanced the understanding of these for readers with no direct experience of environmental restoration.

Anticipating Future Environments would be a great fit for college-level classes on water policy, environmental restoration, or those focused on natural resources in the Pacific Northwest. The book would be of interest to a wider audience as well, particularly anyone who has spent time in the Columbia River Basin. Environmental restoration scientists and natural resource managers will also find this an engaging read. It offers the opportunity for those individuals to reflect on the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change to their work and to future ecosystems.


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