Seated in her office at the University of Montana, professor Cara Nelson talked of Kuwait, an arid nation once home to nearly 400 native plants and 300 species of birds.
But after a war, the spread of oil production and poor land practices, that rich ecosystem has vanished in parts of the country, allowing desertification to creep in at the expense of ecological diversity.
“When you lose that vegetation, the ecosystem just unravels,” said Nelson, a professor of ecological restoration at UM. “There are areas of Kuwait now completely devoid of vegetation.”
To help stave off an impending ecological disaster, Nelson recently traveled to the Middle East, where she teamed up with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research to help restore regions of the Kuwaiti landscape to their full biological potential.
In Kuwait City, she signed a memorandum of understanding with the nation’s scientists, laying out strategies to restore 15 percent of Kuwait’s arid lands to a biological spectrum not seen since the Gulf War.
“Restoration has really hit the global scene,” Nelson said. “It started as a niche movement with postage-stamp-size parcels being restored in the U.S. and elsewhere. Now it has exploded into a trillion-dollar industry across the globe.”
Nelson, who chairs the Society of Ecological Restoration, attributed recent initiatives like the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity for turning ecological restoration into a major conservation strategy. The convention called on nations to restore 15 percent of their degraded lands by 2020.
Funded in part by reparations from the Gulf War, Kuwait launched its own restoration strategy. It turned to the Society of Ecological Restoration – the world’s leading organization of restoration scientists – for help.
“Restoration is an experimental effort,” Nelson said. “It works best when we can share lessons learned across the globe. They’re interested in pulling in SER’s network to learn from other practitioners, so eventually other nations in the Middle East can be more effective in restoration.”
The problems in Kuwait have been taking shape for decades. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and quickly occupied the small country. The move led to what then marked the largest buildup of U.S. troops since World War II, and the Gulf War followed in 1991.
While the war was quick to end, the actions left lasting scars on the land. During their retreat, Iraq’s Republican Guard set fire to oil wells across the region, resulting in sweeping ecological damage.
Other practices have led to further degradation over the years, from off-road vehicle use to overgrazing. Arid landscapes don’t easily recover from such deep impacts, and revegetation requires attention to science and its understanding of plant ecosystems on both a large and small scale.
“Right now, we’re focusing mostly on revegetating areas that no longer have plants,” Nelson said.
While in Kuwait, Nelson also addressed the International Symposium on Native Plant Production. The conference brought together experts in habitat restoration from nine countries, including Kuwait, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
UM, which claims one of the nation’s top ecological programs, is playing a key role in helping Middle Eastern scientists restore their region's ecosystems.
“Restoration is a key mechanism for global conservation,” said Nelson. “The fact that the public and nations across the globe are investing in restoration is remarkable. It offers the opportunity to reverse degradation, improve our ecosystems and revitalize communities.”