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Restoring the Planet

Keith Bowers

Keith Bowers (Photo by Jeff Blake)


WRITTEN BY BECKY LOFSTEAD

Millions of years ago, a volcanic crater formed on Jeju Island, south of the Korean peninsula. The Hanon Maar crater held a lake and dense primeval forest inside. Much later in its history — about 500 years ago — humans drained the lake and transformed the crater into farmland. 

In recent years, the island’s government in South Korea asked a company founded by a West Virginia University alumnus to develop a plan to restore the crater walls, lake and native plants. Officials are using these plans to raise funds to make it happen.

It’s the kind of work that Keith Bowers, BS ’82, Landscape Architecture, has chased ever since he founded his company, Biohabitats, after graduation in his quest to restore the world’s ecological future.

The company, headquartered in his hometown of Baltimore, Md., has grown from a few landscape designers and researchers to more than 60 ecologists, water resources engineers, environmental scientists, landscape architects and ecological designers in offices across the United States. Bowers, founder and president of the company, lives in Charleston, S.C., where he operates a satellite office.

The need for this kind of work is greater than ever. Bowers points to the United Nations-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment study in which more than 1,300 scientists from more than 95 countries concluded that there is substantial ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystems on the planet. Threats include climate change, new diseases, dead zones in ocean shelves along coastlines, collapse of fisheries and changes in water quality, among others, Bowers said.

“If there ever was an environmental movement that is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis that will require radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision-making, that is poised to lead the environmental movement in a renewed spirit of a positive future, it is ecological restoration,” Bowers said.

Today’s ecological challenges have brought about many opportunities for Biohabitats to follow that vision of the future. The firm recently worked with federal and local officials in Baton Rouge, La., on a master plan to improve public lake access in the heart of the city, while enhancing this important ecological resource and critical wildlife habitat. 

After a devastating hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, in 2008, the team worked on a plan to redevelop, protect and restore Galveston Island State Park, a treasured natural and recreational resource.

An early hallmark project for the firm took place in the late ’80s and early ’90s on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., Bowers said. The waterway flows from Prince George’s County in Maryland into Washington, D.C., where it joins with the Potomac River. Dredging of the river and filling in the floodplain, along with increased development upstream over time, led to a highly altered ecosystem. 

However, water resources engineers, ecologists and wetland biologists at Biohabitats teamed with the Metropolitan Washington Regional Council of Governments, National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and local non-governmental organizations to develop plans to modify the riverbank and restore freshwater tidal wetlands and marshes that were abundant 100 years ago. Today, the restored 40-acre site within the nation’s capital is home to an array of waterfowl and native wetland aquatic species. 

The firm also works with a number of colleges and universities. A recent example is a proposed new “Living Building” at Georgia Tech to create solutions for both environmental and social conditions. 

Biohabitats’ approach began with understanding the regional climate context and the site’s historic and current water flows. They then estimated that the building’s demand for water was 600–1,000 gallons each day, of which less than 20 percent was actually required for drinking water, showers and other potable uses. With strategies including rainwater harvest, and water reuse and conservation measures such as composting toilets, Biohabitats proposed to reduce the consumption for non-potable use by almost 90 percent.

Whether his group is conserving valuable habitat for an endangered species, restoring a swath of deciduous forest or helping a city make its waterways swimmable and fishable, they all fall under the firm’s vision: “Restoring the Earth and Inspiring Ecological Stewardship.” 

“While it can be exhausting at times, it ignites me, it motivates me, it invigorates me,” Bowers said, “and most of all, it’s an absolute blast.” 

Q&A with Bowers

Why is ecological restoration important? 

Human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted, warns the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year study sponsored by the United Nations.

Over 1,300 scientists and researchers from more than 95 countries collaborated to assess 24 of the Earth’s primary ecosystems that support human survival. Their conclusions are both surprising and staggering.  They concluded that the ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystems is substantial, with serious adverse effects on their capacity to support future human needs.  Future threats include the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of “dead zones” in ocean shelf areas along coasts, the collapse of fisheries, climate change, and more.

Ecological restoration is inherently not focused on technological solutions, but rather is sustained and nurtured by people.  Restoration is not a passive act, but rather an active choice, that requires people to interact with the earth and all of its life and splendor.  Ecological restoration is about restoring people’s sense of place, sense of awe and sense of worth – through direct participation.

Through ecological restoration other pressing environmental and social causes can be addressed, including equity, security and prosperity.  Most of all, ecological restoration is about “restoring the future.”

What influenced your career choice – and why did you choose West Virginia University?

I first discovered the field of landscape architecture while attending the University of Maryland, but they didn’t have that program at the time so I transferred to WVU. I knew that I wanted to do environmental planning and restoration, and I found a mentor, Dr. Edgar Garbisch, with Environmental Concern, who was restoring and revegetating tidal marshes on the Chesapeake Bay. His work gave me some great insight into taking the science and research being done on ecosystems and applying it directly to the landscape. 

The WVU program, specifically, gave me two important things: a good foundation for how to collaborate with other people and other disciplines (such as wildlife and fisheries experts, soil and plant scientists, biochemists, etc.) – and how to apply sound science and research in restoring the earth.

How do you find such interesting ecological projects?

Some clients – both in government and in the private sectors – seek us out. There are other opportunities that we pursue. For example, this past summer, the City of Atlanta issued a request for proposals seeking an urban ecology framework for the city. In other words, they sought a plan for how Atlanta will develop over the next 30 years, not just in terms of infrastructure (roads, transmission lines, etc.) but rather “green” infrastructure – improving parks, streams, trees and other living components of the city. We won that project and will begin work in January. We also recently won a project in Charleston, S.C., where three medical centers are collaborating to develop an urban ecologically sustainable greenspace that supports human health and wholeness. 

Can you describe a typical day on the job?

My role working directly on projects has diminished over time because of the size of the organization and the scope of what we do. But I would say on any given day half the people in our offices are out doing field work – characterizing a wetland, conducting stream surveys, monitoring wildlife habitats, etc. The other half are in one of our offices working on design plans, conducting studies and research, doing environmental analysis, and meeting with clients and community representatives to address restoration and conservation projects. We are also seeing more and more of our work tied directly to environmental and social justice issues. 

Have you worked on any projects in West Virginia?

Yes, Biohabitats has done work in West Virginia for years. One of the first projects was to survey, inventory and analyze all the streams in the Monongahela National Forest, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, to better understand what management practices were needed to enhance aquatic habitat and support native fish populations. We have also restored many streams and wetlands in West Virginia. 

Do you ever get back to Morgantown, WVU?

I used to get back to Morgantown to guest lecture in the landscape architecture program quite often when I lived in Baltimore. Once I moved to South Carolina, I’ve not been able to get back as often as I’d like. However, I was invited to give the commencement address to the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design graduates a couple of years ago, and that was a great honor. (Read Bowers’ address.) 

Do you have any favorite memories of your time on campus?

Well, certainly the many days and late nights I spent with my fellow landscape architecture classmates – some of whom I stay in touch with and consider good friends. And football games, of course. I enjoyed my time on campus and in Morgantown … and it’s amazing how many Mountaineers I run into in South Carolina. I see quite a few bumper stickers and Flying WVs around.

What’s next for you and your company?

There are just so many opportunities out there that can contribute to the future health and healing of our planet. From planning urban green infrastructure in cities like Atlanta to rewilding large landscapes to support important keystone species like wolves and jaguars, we see our work taking us to all corners of the globe, including Africa, Asia and Latin America. And we will certainly continue addressing issues like climate change, the accelerating loss of biodiversity and environmental justice because they are an important part of our future – and our planet’s future.

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