Research Summary

Hands-on ecological restoration as a nature-based health intervention: Reciprocal restoration for people and ecosystems

Research focusing on restoration for both people and ecosystems can help fill a major gap in the academic literature


Recent advances in ecological restoration have included initiatives intentionally designed to benefit the health of humans as well as the health of ecosystems. These initiatives have generally been developed by practitioners. The scientific literature, on the other hand, hasn’t yet included the human health dimension of ecological restoration, leaving “a major gap that needs to be addressed”.

Two promising advances in the evaluation of ecological restoration efforts are based on the Microbiome Rewilding Hypothesis (MRH) and the PsychoEvolutionary Restoration Hypothesis (PERH). The primary focus of MRH is on restoring soil microbiotic diversity to enhance human gut microbiome health and brain function. The focus of PERH is on the reintroduction of native plant species rich in aromatic phytoncides as a way to reduce depression and lower cortisol levels. This paper discusses how restoring both microbiotic soil crusts and aromatic plant guilds can reduce the psychological and physical impacts of certain diseases. This paper also introduces the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute as an example of reciprocal restoration of land health and human health. The Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute engages diverse groups of students (age 13-19) in ‘‘reciprocal’’ restoration activities near the Arizona-Sonora Mexico border. Each Earth Care crew and its facilitators spend 32 hours a week for 6 weeks involved in such ecological restorative activities as restoring wetlands, planting native plant species, and sowing wildflower meadows. These hands-on activities place the youth in direct contact with the soil microbiome and waterbodies, and volatile organic compounds from plants.

Current evaluation of the outcomes of the Earth Care Institute on the participants have included a review of health records and pre- and post-fieldwork questionnaires. Results consistently show that the program has been effective in promoting capacity for environmental restoration, leadership, sense of community and social responsibility. Other positive results include improved emotional and physical strength, and weight loss.

Programs like the Earth Care Youth Institute provide opportunities for assessing how involvement in ecological restoration can improve the physical and psychological health of their participants. This paper includes a call for more collaboration among restoration ecologists and ecopsychologists to take advantage of such opportunities.