A recently-launched program at the University of Vermont, supported by a Thoreau Foundation grant, aims to graduate a new generation of practitioners trained in a holistic, integrated approach to ecological restoration. Restoration ecology is predicated on the idea that instead of “fixing” environmental problems, humans can assist in the recovery of degraded and damaged ecosystems. Prompted by conversations with some community conservation partners, UVM colleagues Cherie Morse and Amy Seidl saw the opportunity to deepen this already rich area of practice by expanding students’ understanding of the role of community and culture in conservation and training them in collaborative team leadership. Thus the Fellowship for Restoration Ecologies and Cultures was born.
“Community-based conservation recognizes that culture plays a central role in human interaction with the physical environment,” explains Seidl. “It therefore positions local, diverse community groups at the center of efforts to right environmental injustices and restore the environment. This requires direct engagement with stakeholders, meaning that people working within this field must be sensitive to cultural differences in environmental values and landscape practices. Similar to the fields of historic preservation, urban renewal, and new ruralism, restoration asks students to reimagine both their relationships to the natural world and to diverse human communities.”
The Fellows program arose out of conversations with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) and Audubon Vermont, both of whom have long partnerships with UVM’s Environmental Studies Program. “These partners are receiving requests from a variety of landowners all in need of capable, skilled undergraduates who can implement regenerative ecological systems and lead restoration crews,” explains Seidl. “They helped us identify both the need to incorporate a community-based approach to restoration, and the opportunity to help generate a green workforce.” In response, UVM leveraged its academic capacity, including its expert faculty and over 3,000 acres of natural areas, to meet this newly-identified need. Through a two-year, field-intensive set of courses and experiences, the Fellows program will generate skilled individuals, highly qualified to work with conservation partners.
Seidl and Morse have big dreams for the program. They seek to graduate twenty-five Fellows each year, thereby growing a green workforce in landscape restoration. Some of these graduates will go on to leadership positions with environmental NGOs. The program also seeks to elevate the field of restoration itself through a certification in Landscape Restoration and Culture, drawing on and developing faculty who offer courses in restoration from the dual perspectives of natural science and social science, and who support the certificate through advising and community engagement.
Recognizing that the scale and unprecedented nature of complex environmental challenges can often overwhelm students, Seidl and Morse hope to actively bring joy and awe into the restoration curriculum through art-making and reflective practices. The program will also give students a sense of agency, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. Having completed restoration projects throughout New England that measurably mitigate impacts from climate change and biodiversity loss and increase human interest and understanding of natural areas, students will graduate with the lived experience of positively impacting their world.