primer of ecological restoration

Primer of Ecological Restoration with Karen Holl

When I talk about the humans of ecological restoration, diverse kinds of people come to mind. People who I have interviewed obviously. On this here episode we have an actual real restoration ecologist.

Earlier this Spring, Karen Holl published “Primer of Ecological Restoration” through Island Press.

Now, I have always used the pronunciation /ˈprīmər/, think of the word “climber.” After not too much digging I find pretty conclusively that this pronunciation leads to a definition that is not very precise “a substance used as a preparatory coat on previously unpainted wood, metal, or canvas, blah blah blah.” I reached out to one of my podcast and Twitter idols Mignon Fogarty @grammargirl about this issue. Luckily she tweeted me back in about 30 seconds and I adore her for it.

The pronunciation /ˈprimər/ rhymes with “swimmer” on the other hand is “a book or text of elementary principles.” Think “primmer” with two Ms to make my mouth work. The etymology of this term goes back to the 1300s. I am not a language Nazi, but I am going to be careful about my use of this term from now on in mixed company. Anyway, Karen Holl says primmer, so I am going to try to adapt my mouth.

The book provides a concise starter kit to the key concepts and practice of ecological restoration. Holl is a seasoned veteran of restoration ecology. She currently teaches courses in restoration ecology, conservation biology, and environmental problem solving at University of California Santa Cruz.

Professor Holl has served as chair of the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC and is currently the faculty director of the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History. Karen jokes that she has been in some form or another writing this book for 25 years and her repertoire of authored and contributed articles shows off her knowledge and experience in forest ecology in Latin America and chaparral, grassland and riparian systems in California. She oversees a long-term tropical forest restoration study in southern Costa Rica and has worked with students and collaborators in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Panama. Karen advises numerous land management and conservation organizations in California and internationally on ecological restoration. She further works to advance efforts to conserve tropical forest, in part by training students from Latin American countries.

Over twelve succinct chapters and only a couple hundred pages, the Primer introduces students, novice restorationists and budding resource managers to the defining existential questions of restoration. Then Holl dives right in and highlights project planning, monitoring and adaptive management, while also allowing space to explore ecological principles related to like hydrology, soils, invasive species, and fauna that heavily influence recovery of ecosystems. Readers should feel empowered that they walk away from their reading with an ecological restoration foundation they can apply to their own practice. In the last two chapters, Professor Holl even chimes in about restoration-related restoration and the elusive art of paying for restoration.

The Primer is not just a book. It is accessible and within its pages and offers a set of practical companion information in the form of case studies, slides and questions for reflection on its Island Press website. To keep the cost down, Professor Holl deliberately steered clear of color photographs in favor hand-drawn images and the supplemental web content. A couple of my favorite case studies were related to the impressive Elwha River Restoration, which is close to home for me. Also, there were great Asian mangroves and Brazilian Atlantic Forest examples that feature lessons learned and challenges related to stakeholder engagement in restoration projects. These case studies are also important when thinking about the effectiveness of different kinds of “tree-planting projects.” This paperback/e-book/web companion scheme makes the Primer more than a “book,” open to everyone and helps to keep the price reasonable and the ability to update the web content as needed.

Intending to catapult this book into the classroom, Holl and Island Press have run a few laps of press, webinars and podcasts to celebrate and promote the book. Check out SER webinar and the Island Press “How to Use 'Primer of Ecological Restoration' in Your Class” video from the early parts of 2020. If this review wets your interest in the book, there is a 20% discount code ‘PRIMER’ to be used at checkout from the Island Press website.

In my conversation with Professor Holl, we discuss:

  • Her motivation for writing the Primer and the process of writing a book about the core principles of ecological restoration

  • What lights her fire as a professor of restoration ecology

  • The intended audience for the book and how it can be used in classrooms and other forums

  • A couple highlights presented in the supplemental case studies

  • Current challenges that ecological restoration faces as a discipline and practice, particularly the blood-pumping issue of historical fidelity and shifting baselines due to climate change

  • The origin story behind her lab at UC Santa Cruz and how her teaching crosses over into service and her legacy that carries as her students progress and move on to different restoration and conservation-related careers.

  • She deflected my customary question about favorite tree and there is a good reason why – listen closely


Island Press webpage for the book Primer of Ecological Restoration 20% discount code ‘PRIMER’ to be used at checkout

Holl Restoration Ecology Lab

Professor Karen Holl on Google Scholar

Tree planting is not a simple solution by Karen D. Holl and Pedro H. S. Brancalion | Science 08 May 2020: Vol. 368, Issue 6491, pp. 580-581

Science Podcast “Making antibodies to treat coronavirus, and why planting trees won’t save the planet” Karen’s piece starts about minute 14:00.

Thanks for the Seattle band Dumb Thumbs for providing the theme song. You can find all of their tunes at

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