Restoration Ecology — born 1906, Tumamoc Hill, Pima County, Arizona

Most people think of Tumamoc as pristine desert. But it isn't. It is restored Sonoran Desert. It is the result of five generations of care and stewardship. And it depends on continued care and stewardship. If we were to walk away from the Hill, its native ecosystems and natural vistas would soon turn into shopping malls and housing developments. 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 state. Restoration ecology says, "We have disrupted, diminished, debilitated and enfeebled Nature all over the world. We are truly sorry, perhaps even ashamed. Here is a patch that we will restore to Nature. We will bestow it upon the Earth and upon our children's children." According to William R. Jordan III, the most respected philosopher of restoration, the act of restoration is a sacrificial act, an act of social atonement.


When the Carnegie Institution founded its Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1903, Tumamoc needed restoration. Cattle, horses, burros and goats had overgrazed it since the 1850s. Its plants had suffered. Tumamoc also supported rock quarries that had scarred and disfigured the Hill to supply Tucson with building material. Truth be told, I believe that four of our own buildings are made of Tumamoc basalt !

In 1905, Volney Spalding decided to return Tumamoc's land to Nature. He wanted to study its ecological recovery and understand the natural processes that would reimpose their rule over the Hill. He thus gave birth to the very idea of restoration ecology, a simple but revolutionary idea.

He petitioned the Carnegie to put a fence around the entire domain of the laboratory, a fence over five miles long. Godfrey Sykes supervised its construction in 1906 — it was his first project on Tumamoc. The construction required some 20% of the entire 1906 budget (including salaries) of The Desert Lab.

Noticible recovery began in mere months. By 1930, Forrest Shreve could write: "The long period without disturbance has brought the plant life back to virgin desert conditions such as one can find only in the most remote and ungrazed parts of Arizona." ("The Desert Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington" in Progressive Arizona and the Great Southwest)

Godfrey Sykes added his own proud observation in his memoir (1945, A Westerly Trend p261). "The plan was (that the domain of the laboratory would) ... revert during a course of years to its original condition of natural development.... it doubtless now, after a lapse of 35 years, approximates very closely as regards vegetation, surface drainage, and so forth, to the condition of the region when the Spaniards first entered it."


Today's Tumamoc maintains its restored state in the face of challenges unanticipated by its early champions. Now surrounded by the city, it is frequently met by the development plans — small and large — of those who do not completely understand it. And its flora is assaulted by aggressive, invasive species that must be forever beaten back. Restoration ecology is not an armchair sport.

Spalding was a visionary, a generation ahead of his time. The second restoration ecology project, Holden Arboretum, in Kirtland Township, Ohio, near Cleveland, began in 1931. But it survived only a few years. As a sign of the brilliance of Spalding's vision, we can report that Holden Arboretum eventually saw the light. Today's Holden Arboretum has returned to its roots (so to speak): 3257 of its 3600 acres are restored and natural.

Perhaps the best known restoration ecology project was the third. It began at the Arboretum of the University of Wisconsin in the middle 1930s and still exists, espoused by no less than Aldo Leopold himself. Even so, restoration ecology took a long time to proliferate and flower. Today it has spread widely and become a cornerstone of the world's conservation methods.

William R. Jordan III & George M. Lubick (2011. Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, Island Press, p64) acknowledge the primacy of Tumamoc's action. "Although fencing may seem a minimalist form of restoration, it was ... a decisive act of compensation for or reversal of novel influences on an ecological system. ... Moreover, as far as motives were concerned, what Spalding and Shreve did at the DBL ... they did ... not to improve the land as natural capital but simply to study the ecology of a desert association as it recovered from overgrazing. ... (Their aim was) "neither subtle nor ambiguous."

No doubt about it. Restoration ecology was born on Tumamoc Hill !

Keep Tumamoc restored
throughout the 21st century
and beyond.