Restoring the land can feel a lot like fun

By Richard Knight

Driving back to Colorado State University with a van full of students after a day of working to heal some beat-up land north of Fort Collins, I wondered: Could ecological restoration be a new form of outdoor recreation?

We’d spent the day building a sawbuck fence around a spring. From the spring, gravity would carry the water through a pipe to a stock tank in the middle of the pasture.

On this land protected by a conservation easement, cows would no longer drink, pee and poop while trampling the spring’s vegetation. The spring could recover while the cattle drank clean water elsewhere.

My students had spent the day outdoors in the company of their classmates doing challenging physical work. At the moment, though, the young people were trying not to fall asleep as we neared town.

Yet all day I’d seen the light in their eyes, and I could tell they felt pride in learning and exercising skills they hadn’t had before. They also clearly liked the idea of giving something back to land that would never be developed.

This kind of volunteer work — The Nature Conservancy got us involved — addresses many problems today that we’ve come to call crises: species extinction, climate change, soil loss, and the decline of both water quantity and quality. Fortunately, many nonprofit groups, along with some owners of private lands that are protected by conservation easements, offer people an opportunity to improve damaged lands.

In my home watershed of northern Colorado, we often work with the nonprofit Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, a statewide grassroots group established in 1999. To date, it has completed over 1,000 projects on public lands assisted by more than 40,000 volunteers, who have contributed over $10 million in time and expertise.

Wildlands Restoration Volunteers includes people from both cities and rural areas who agree with what Wendell Berry wrote: “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”

At the end of the 20th century, scientists from around the world got together to measure our planet’s health. Shockingly, they reported that three out of every four acres of the Earth’s surface were in a degraded state.

The urgent global need to restore our damaged lands and waters has also caused the United Nations to name this the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration ( It’s clear that we have yet to locate the sweet spot of a sustainable relationship with our world.

For humans to have a future on Earth, we need to reverse the erosion of soils, pollution of air and water, and weakening of the natural ecosystems that support us. Ecological restoration can attack those problems while also playing a critical role in the drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide, sending it back into the plants and soils where it belongs.

Although restoration and recreation have much in common, there is a major difference between the two. While outdoor recreation fulfills oneself, ecological restoration gives back to the land. Not that benefiting oneself is bad; one of the reasons we recreate is for the regenerative powers of spending time in nature. 

But adding restoration into the domain of outdoor recreation could go a long way to enhance our time outdoors. I’ve found that when a group acts to restore the health of soil, land, plants and animals, the people involved always feel better about themselves.

As author Robin Wall Kimmerer put it in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” “…as we care for the land, it can once again care for us.” By restoring damaged lands and waters, we still find joy in the outdoors, but we also give back to the home planet that sustains us.

Let’s seek out that work, turning it into something we do outdoors together, restoring lands and water while at the same re-creating ourselves.

Rick Knight is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is professor emeritus of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University.

Autumn at a cattle ranch in Colorado near Ridgway – County Road 12, Craig Zerbe Photo

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/26/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/26/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/27/2023 Adventure Journal CA
06/27/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/27/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
06/27/2023 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
06/27/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
06/28/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
06/28/2023 Durango Herald Durango CO
06/28/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
06/27/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
06/28/2023 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
06/28/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
06/26/2023 Portland Tribune portland or
06/26/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
06/26/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
06/26/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
06/26/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
06/26/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
06/30/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
06/30/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
06/30/2023 Park Record Park City UT
06/29/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
06/29/2023 Boulder Weekly Boulder CO
06/28/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
06/28/2023 Taos News Taos NM
06/26/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
07/03/2023 Boulder Monitor Boulder MT
06/30/2023 Livingston Enterprise Livingston MT
07/03/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
07/05/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
07/07/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
07/07/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
07/07/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
07/07/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
07/10/2023 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
07/05/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
07/12/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
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Beautiful Idea… – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
11 months ago

[…] June 26, 2023Martha Kennedy Leave a comment Restoring the land can feel a lot like fun […]

Scott Stluka
11 months ago

Cattle… biggest ecological disaster of the west. Get rid of livestock and ecological restoration would not be required.

Restoring the land can feel a lot like fun — Writers on the Range #ActOnClimate – Coyote Gulch
11 months ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Richard […]

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