National Estuarine Research Reserve System
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Restoration Science

As living laboratories, the reserves are ideal settings to investigate the restoration and protection of estuarine and coastal habitat.  The reserve system offers the habitat, diversity, on-site human and physical infrastructure, educational programming, and, at many sites, experience in restoration science. Additional resources and outside support would increase the capacity of the reserve system to meet restoration science needs nationally. 

The estuarine areas designated as part of this national network of protected areas range from relatively pristine to significantly disturbed habitat and represent the biogeographic diversity of our nation's coastal ecosystems. Most reserves have extensive areas of undisturbed habitat. These are useful as long-term scientific reference sites for understanding estuarine ecosystems and comparing them with other more disturbed habitats in similar physical settings. 

Reserves also encompass habitat that has been lost, damaged or altered over time.  Within reserve boundaries and watersheds, one can find wetlands historically converted to agricultural lands; coastal hydrography disrupted by roads, dikes, and other human structures; native forest and meadow species replaced by invasive, non-indigenous species; beaches and dunes used for commercial or recreational purposes; and habitat damaged by accidental spills or groundings. Disturbed areas within the reserve system offer a wide spectrum of opportunities, ranging from scientific investigation to large-scale habitat restoration and enhancement.

Because of their federally protected status, biogeographic diversity, on-site facilities, long-term monitoring programs and data, and professional staff capabilities in science and education, the reserves are excellent platforms for advancing the  science of restoration, staging demonstration restoration projects, and monitoring their long-term response.  Long-term monitoring is an integral aspect of reserve operations and is a part of reserve restoration projects at some sites.

A number of reserves have research coordinators on staff who have particular expertise in estuarine ecology.  Some have stewardship coordinators with expertise in restoration.  This on-site capability allows for long-term monitoring for a range of ecological parameters.  The majority of sites have office, meeting, and laboratory space and dormitory facilities available to house visiting investigators and graduate students.  Each reserve has an on-site Geographic Information System (GIS) capability that has the potential to support research and education activities.  Moreover, ongoing and proposed restoration science projects usually generate a variety of short-term research projects suitable for graduate level thesis and doctoral dissertation work. 

The reserves are already engaged in a number of system-wide activities, such as the System-Wide Monitoring Program, the Coastal Training Program, and the Graduate Research Fellowship Program.  These will enhance and, in turn, be enhanced by a NERRS Restoration Science Program.  The reserve system is also closely affiliated with the Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology (CICEET), a national center that supports a number of projects that apply innovative restoration technologies at the reserves.

With additional resources, reserves can further develop effective communication tools needed by others involved in restoration and utilize links in their surrounding communities to deliver the information to local audiences.  An additional advantage is that the reserves are biogeographically representative and can therefore conduct restoration demonstration and science projects that are regionally relevant and transferable.

To date, the majority of the reserves have engaged in restoration science and have planned or conducted small to medium-scale restoration projects (.5 to 250 acres).  An inventory of key habitats at the reserves and restoration activities and priorities conducted in 2000 and updated in 2001 is summarized in the NERRS Restoration Science Strategy.  Reserves have investigated both engineering and natural approaches to restore areas to approximate natural, unaltered conditions.  Several reserves must first address water quality issues and/or restore hydrologic regimes (i.e. sheet flow, tidal exchange, and freshwater drainage) before they can restore terrestrial and aquatic native plant communities and achieve faunal and ecological recovery.

Many of the reserves are already demonstrating leadership in restoration science.  They serve as important local and regional catalysts for the planning, design, and implementation of restoration projects.

  • For example, the research, education, and stewardship staff at the Rookery Bay (Florida) Reserve is involved in various small to large-scale hydrologic alterations and science based coastal habitat restoration projects within and beyond reserve boundaries in Southwest Florida.
  • The Wells (Maine) Reserve is playing a lead role in salt marsh restoration in the Gulf of Maine (GPAC 2000).
  • After twenty years of estuarine research and monitoring, the Tijuana River (California) Reserve has completed the first two phases of a science-based inter-tidal salt marsh restoration project.

The reserves have also coordinated and facilitated investigations by academic and agency scientists to restore degraded areas.  For example, the South Slough (Oregon) Reserve is investigating both natural and engineering approaches to reestablish tidal circulation and restore its heavily diked estuary.  Implementation of a system-wide Restoration Science Strategy is intended to increase the capacity of the reserves to accomplish restoration research and monitoring and deliver results to the appropriate local, regional and national audiences. 

The reserves are promoting their on-site data from both the System-Wide Monitoring Program and other habitat data as long-term data sets from which restoration practitioners can establish reasonable restoration targets and monitor restoration success.  Reserve staff are also available to assist in training and outreach, monitoring, and research associated with restoration projects within or outside of reserves.  The Reserve System's Restoration Science Strategy provides the restoration policy that guides restoration within the system.

Last Updated on: Thursday, August 16, 2012
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