Why We Do Restoration

One of Trout Unlimited Canada’s strengths is our commitment to on-the-ground action and our collective willingness to get our hands dirty and our feet wet. Our staff, chapters, and volunteers have been carrying out aquatic habitat rehabilitation for over 50 years. In that time, our projects and approaches to restoration have evolved with science. For example, in the past, we often built “habitat structures” – places for fish to hide. Shockingly, we even used dynamite in streams to blow up beaver dams in the name of fish passage. Now we focus more on process-based restoration, taking an ecosystem approach and “letting the river do the work”. This often involves installing structures in a stream, whether it be a beaver dam analogue, wing deflector, sediment mat, post-assisted log structure…the list goes on. Ultimately these structures result in changes to flow patterns, helping kickstart natural processes like scour and deposition.

As an environmental non-government organization (ENGO) and registered charity, Trout Unlimited Canada exists to improve outcomes for the natural environment. And we are not alone! We are in good company in the diverse ENGO world, with groups ranging in size and scope. In this space there is much variation among organizations, offering many different types of programs, addressing a wide range of environmental challenges, all with different funding mechanisms and governance structures. We are just one organization among many in this field, so how do we set ourselves apart from the other ENGOs?

It helps to look at the ENGO world as an ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem supports a variety of species. Over time, each species evolves and adapts to their environment and fills a niche. While some species are generalists, others are specialists. Some have wide-ranging habitats, while others are endemic or locally adapted to specific locations. Likewise, in the ENGO world, some groups operate at a local level, while others have a national or international scope. Organizations may specialize in research, policy development, awareness campaigns, education, advocacy, or capacity building and funding. Although it’s not the only thing we do, restoration work is a big part of what TUC does. It’s one of the main reasons that I appreciate working here and why so many people join local chapters, participate in volunteer workdays, and continue to support us.

What is stream rehabilitation and why do we do it? Restoration often implies restoring a site to its pre-disturbance condition. That’s not always possible, so what we aim for is restoring a site’s ecological function and processes. The first step is identifying and addressing the root cause of the damage or degradation. Then we identify what else might be missing from the system and determine how to nudge it onto a trajectory towards a healthier state. Natural processes take time, testing our patience as we wait for native trees and shrubs to become established, for pools and eddies to form, or for an over-widened channel to narrow.
Although our work is immensely satisfying – culvert replacement, dam removals, and riparian rehabilitation can result in dramatic changes – other benefits to this work might not be as obvious. Our work helps to build capacity and advance the practice of freshwater ecosystem restoration and conservation. This includes growing the understanding and acceptance of novel restoration techniques among regulators, landowners and land managers, practitioners, and community groups.

Our work is also about demonstrating what is possible and getting people to look at the natural world differently. We collectively suffer from something called shifting baselines. Over generations, our perception of the natural world changes. This concept of shifting baselines is relatively easy to understand in a fisheries context. For example: if you went fishing on your favourite stream and caught five fish over 30 cm, you might think ‘That was a great day of fishing’. Perhaps if your grandmother fished that same stream 50 years ago, she would have considered that a dismal catch because it would have been typical at that time to catch twenty fish over 40 cm. Our baseline for what we consider “normal” or “healthy” changes through generations as ecological systems continuously become degraded. The reality is that folks today may look at a degraded stream or riparian area and think, ’ That’s the way it’s always been ‘. Part of our job in restoration is to recognize when we can do better, and when to apply restoration techniques that allow degraded ecosystems to reach their full potential.

The good news is, there’s a lot of work that’s been done before us that we can learn from. Thankfully there are many places where conditions are much better today than a generation ago. We must keep working to conserve native biodiversity and build resilience to climate change. For example, the thousands of trees planted as part of TUC’s Cooling Streams program will take up atmospheric carbon dioxide, increase cover and food availability for fish, birds, and other wildlife, and create spaces for people to connect with nature, particularly in urban areas. Meanwhile, our work on beaver mimicry and process-based restoration is helping rebuild river wetland corridors, buffering the effects of flood and drought while increasing water availability for livestock and wildlife. If we do our jobs right, the benefits will reach beyond fish and fish habitat.

Trout Unlimited Canada is a nonprofit, charitable organization. Donations are tax deductible as allowed by law.