About 100 miles west of Chicago, Illinois, a tallgrass prairie teems with life. Here in this 3,800-acre piece of land, you can walk among brightly colored fields of wildflowers, hear the song of cerulean warblers and the hoot of short-eared owls, and, if you’re lucky, glimpse rare box turtles.
It wasn’t always this way. Over the past two centuries, the Prairie State lost all but about 0.01 percent of its original prairie. This particular region, now known as the Nachusa Grasslands, was covered in part by neat rows of corn and soy, and that left little habitat for monarch butterflies, bison, or any of the thousands of plants and animals that depend on prairie ecosystems.
That started to change in the 1980s, when a crew of volunteers and scientists began reviving the land — planting seeds, carrying out controlled burns, and reintroducing native species. The ecosystem bounced back, and today, the Nachusa Grasslands are home to 180 species of native birds, more than 700 species of plants, and a small herd of bison.
In an age of extinction and climate change, you don’t often hear this kind of success story. Yet the Nachusa Grasslands of the world can help people find hope that the Earth isn’t doomed.
Last summer, Thomas Crowther, an ecologist at ETH Zurich, launched Restor, a mapping tool that shows where in the world people are doing this sort of restoring or conserving of ecosystems. Think of it as the “nature is healing” meme from the early pandemic, but serious.
We should be angry about climate change and the destruction of ecosystems, Crowther told Vox. “But without optimism, that outrage goes nowhere,” he said. Examples of people restoring land give us all something to root for, and now there’s a spot to find a whole bunch of them — tens of thousands, actually.
Restor joins a trove of new environmental initiatives that focus on ecological “wins.” Last summer, for example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — which oversees the official “red list” of threatened species — came up with a new set of standards to measure the recovery of species, like the California condor. Perhaps it’s a sign that people want to look beyond what we have to lose, especially when there’s so much to gain.
Where nature is really healing
There are more than 76,000 examples of restoration on Restor. In a former cattle ranch in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, for example, a nonprofit planted trees to revive an ecosystem that’s now home to more than 170 species of birds. In the Tanzanian savanna, members of local villages have helped restore acacia woodlands, which provide fuelwood and timber, as well as habitat for hyenas, jackals, and other animals. (You can find several other inspiring examples here.) Restor is an open platform, so anyone can upload their own project if it involves conserving land, Crowther said.
“We’ve never known where all the conservation and restoration is happening on our planet,” Crowther said. “It’s the first time we can begin to visualize a global restoration movement.”
Restor’s aim to map restoration sites worldwide is “excellent,” but it comes with some limitations, said Karen Holl, a restoration expert at the University of California Santa Cruz who sits on Restor’s science advisory council. For one, a lot of information that feeds into the platform comes from global computer models that aren’t always accurate at a local level. Plus, there’s no verification process to make sure the projects that people enter accurately reflect what’s happening on the ground.
“The ambitions are right,” Holl said. “I am concerned about it being misused.”
How to use the map
Crowther built the website largely for organizations and people who are themselves conserving land. But if you just want to poke around to find neat projects, or see what kind of ecosystems are in your backyard, it’s pretty easy to use. It’s also home to an impressive collection of data sets that you can explore (though, once again, keep in mind that they’re not always accurate at a local level). Here’s how:
- Go to restor.eco/map.
- Click the pins on the map to learn about different landscapes that people are restoring.
- Pull up a project and you’ll see all kinds of information, like who’s running it and what’s being done with the land.
- Under the “global predictions” tab, you’ll see estimates for the amount of tree cover, diversity of wildlife, and carbon stored in the soil of any given area, based on global computer models. You can also view how the area has changed over time by pulling up super-high-resolution satellite imagery.
- You can also draw your own area on the map to estimate, say, how many species of animals live in the forest behind your house, or how much carbon is in the soil. If you’ve got an ecosystem that you’re conserving, you can share it publicly.
There’s a more in-depth guide here if you want to learn more.
Over the next decade, Crowther says Restor will focus on adding more projects to the platform and making it useful to companies that want to give customers a look into their supply chains. He imagines a future in which a customer buying a T-shirt, for example, might be able to pinpoint on Restor’s map where the cotton came from.
The value of measuring what nature has regained
One problem with the onslaught of negative environmental news — extinctions, oil spills, and so on — is that people become numb to it, as Barney Long, senior director of conservation strategies at the nonprofit Re:wild, told Vox last fall.
“I’m a strong believer in flipping this on its head and really starting to talk about the positive stories,” said Long, who’s involved in IUCN’s new tools to measure recovery (but not the Restor map). We want to avoid extinction, he said, “but what do we want to achieve?”
Efforts to restore ecosystems don’t always work, of course, and it’s important to highlight failures and course corrections, Crowther said. His previous research into forest restoration helped inspire enormous tree-planting campaigns, for example, but these efforts often fail to restore forests and can even destroy native ecosystems. Restoration is also not going to stop climate change on its own, experts say.
Scientists have learned a lot from those failures about how to help a landscape heal; it’s important to consider the underlying conditions that fuel destruction in the first place, for example. Restor creates an opportunity to learn from the successes, too.
A renewed focus on achievements could have a big upside beyond just feeling better about the state of the planet. It could help us imagine the world we want to build. “If we start looking up the hill toward recovery,” Long said, “our ambition can almost be endless.”