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Some reflections on Curtis Prairie and the genesis of ecological restoration


  • William R. Jordan III

  • This feature is based on a talk given by William R. Jordan III in Perth, directly after the SERI World Conference in Australia in 2009. It captures Jordan’s perspective on the seminal ‘Curtis Prairie’ restoration project in Wisconsin and explains how ‘rediscovering’ this project galvanised an emerging enthusiasm for ecological restoration in the 1970s and ‘80s, triggering a global restoration movement.

William R. Jordan III (Fig. 1) is Director of The New Academy for Nature and Culture (1260 Wood Drive, Woodstock, IL 60098 USA; Tel: 815-337-6896; Email: and Co-director of DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture. In 1981 he launched the journal ‘Restoration & Management Notes’ (now ‘Ecological Restoration’), and was one of the co-founders of the Society for Ecological Restoration International.


Summary  This article draws from the transcript of a talk given to Australian audience in Perth directly following the SERI conference in Western Australia 2009. It discusses Bill Jordan’s role in the genesis of the term ‘restoration ecology’ and the discipline of ‘ecological restoration’ whilst working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

In 1977, Bill, a plant physiologist by training, was engaged by the Arboretum to develop a public outreach program. He felt that the Arboretum had a special story to tell as it was the site of the Depression-era creation of a collection of restored ecological communities, which has since gained recognition as one of the earliest systematic attempts at what Dr Jordan and his colleague George Lubick have called ‘allocentric’– that is, other-centered – ecological restoration. The centrepiece of that project, a 24-ha prairie restoration on former cropping land and pasture now called the John T. Curtis Prairie dates back to an effort undertaken by a small group of scientists, including botanist Norman Fassett, ecologist Theodore Sperry and pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold, and is now recognised internationally as a kind of locus classicus of this distinctive form of land management.

Thinking hard about the meaning of this unique restoration project and its relationship to the University and to environmentalism, Bill and his colleague Keith Wendt coined the term ‘restoration ecology’ to describe the process of using restoration to field test ecological hypotheses. They also started the journal ‘Restoration & Management Notes’ (now ‘Ecological Restoration’) which, under Bill’s editorship, provided an influential early forum for the emerging discipline of ecological restoration.