Sun rays shine behind clouds reflect off of water in one of the wetland areas of Erie Marsh Preserve.
SUNRISE AT ERIE MARSH The sun rises over Erie Marsh Preserve, site of a multi-year 946-acre restoration project. © Jason Whalen

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The Beauty in Conservation

A Conversation with Restoration Director Chris May

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Michigan's restoration director Chris May has seen many changes in conservation and resource management since he started working for the Conservancy in 2008. But one thing that has held constant is the use of science in planning and implementation of projects.

Q: What are you working on right now?

I have one foot in the field and one in the office. In the field, I’m leading progress on our Erie Marsh coastal wetland restoration project, which will improve almost 1,000 acres of wetlands along Lake Erie for plants and animals. In the office, I’m developing a decision support tool that will increase the resilience of coastal communities to flooding by showing them where damage is likely to occur and where wetland restoration projects can be built to minimize flood damage.

Q: What have been the most surprising or beautiful results you’ve seen from a restoration project?

I’m always impressed by the resilience of the natural communities where we work. Areas that have been farmed for decades or covered by invasive plants for years—they just need the right conditions to spring back to diverse native communities. Many rare native plants are waiting in seedbanks for the right conditions to germinate, breaking a long slumber to stage a comeback.

Q: Do you think beauty and nature’s services typically go hand-in-hand or are they mutually exclusive?

They are generally one in the same. Questions like this remind me of the Fibonacci number, a sequence of numbers named after an Italian mathematician, that can be used to describe, mathematically, the branching of trees, uncurling fern fronds, the spiral of a snail shell and other biological features. The forms created by this sequence of numbers can also be found in computer algorithms, architecture, paintings, etc. I think nature tends towards efficiency in function and efficient function is beautiful.

Q: What is a common misperception you’ve heard about restoration?

Restoration is a process and requires long-term commitment. I think many people view restoration as a discreet endpoint—a cost-per-acre to restore a wetland or a forest. Natural systems are dynamic and changing and often there is a constant threat of invasive species or pollution or some other outside influence. Once an area is “restored” it must receive regular maintenance to keep it healthy.

Q: What upcoming projects are you most excited about?

The Conservancy has exciting work all over the state – sustainable forestry in the U.P.reef restoration for native fish off the coast in Lake Michigan, stormwater management in Detroit and influencing agricultural practices around Saginaw Bay. Many of these projects are in the initial stages, but they have potential to change conservation across the Great Lakes and beyond. Our science and partnerships drive innovative solutions to these and other conservation challenges.

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