Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Contractors

What do contractors really think about ecological restoration construction? Check out this lively discussion with industry leaders.

By Amy Nelson

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Robin Ernst, President/CEO, Meadville Land Service, Inc. 

In 1998 Robin Ernst’ Phillis and her husband Paul Phillis launched Meadville Land Service, Inc. The driving spirit of the company began when Robin, working with her father, the founder of Ernst Conservation Seeds, developed an appreciation of how native plant communities work together. With Robin’s expertise and Paul’s knowledge of heavy equipment, the company bloomed and expanded into what is today, a full service company specializing in natural stream and wetland restoration and development.

Griff Evans, Vice President, Ecological Restoration and Management, Inc. (ER&M) 

Griff has over 16 years experience in ecological restoration design and construction projects, including tidal and non-tidal wetland restoration, reforestation, stream restoration, erosion control, and invasive species management.  As Vice President of ER&M, Griff has reviewed, critiqued, and priced over 1000 wetland mitigation, reforestation, and stream restoration projects. In the last 10 years alone, he has managed more than 300 such projects. Griff holds a B.S. in Psychology from Denison University and has completed graduate coursework in environmental biology. He has applied his expertise, which includes waterfowl habitats, wetland plant ecology and stream restoration, to award-winning projects throughout the East Coast of the U.S.

Randy H. Mandel, Vice President/Senior Scientist, Rocky Mountain Native Plants Co. 

Randy has over 22 years of experience in ecological research and application.  His expertise includes: native plant propagation; wetland, upland, alpine, and subalpine plant ecology, reclamation, and restoration; and Wetland and Riparian design, layout, and implementation. He holds a B.S. in Forest Biology from Colorado State University and has a strong background in Plant Genetics and Physiology. Rocky is Vice President/Senior Scientist at Rocky Mountain Native Plants Company, a firm that produces and installs native plant material for wetland and upland sites throughout the Rocky Mountain region and grows the widest selection of native plants species in the western United States.

Steve Windhager, PhD, Director, Landscape Restoration Program, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Steve began his career from a theoretical bent, obtaining a B.A. in Philosophy from Texas A&M University.  He then proceeded to the University of North Texas, completing his Masters focusing on Environmental Ethics.  Steve’s Master’s thesis focused on the philosophical aspects of the practice of ecological restoration.  In the process of completing this work, he became so interested in restoration that he not only wanted to study it, he chose to do it, and began his Ph.D. work in environmental science focusing in restoration ecology.

Many of the questions I’m going to ask you today relate to a survey we took among our readers. You should know…of the readers who responded to our survey, 87% have been directly involved in the construction, planting and/or management of an ecological restoration project. Of those people, 44% are designers; almost 26% are administrators or regulators; 11% are volunteers. 7% are contractors, and a very small percentage of our readers are suppliers, construction inspectors or answered “other.”

I’d like to begin by taking a look at the plus sides and the minus sides of being an ER construction contractor. First let’s talk about the good stuff. Tell me what you like about your business? Tell me about one really great day.

Randy: What I like best about my business is the ability to affect positive restoration and reclamation on the land. My conversion from the private sector was very satisfactory because I was able not just to plan, talk and teach about these things, but yearly, on an annual basis, to affect hundreds of different projects, digging into the ground and in an ecologically sustainable manner, really help.

Griff: I enjoy the diversity of opportunities we’re presented with, the diversity of restoration projects that we do. I enjoy the opportunity to work with different designers, developers and managers to positively affect restoration and adjust designs to better fit into the environment in the real world.

Robin: In selling seed over the years, I never got to see a lot of the projects and how they turned out. To me, it is so rewarding to go into an area where we had seen a lot of erosion and devastation in a stream channel and we were able to go in and make changes and get it to start functioning again. Specifically, with Nine Mile Run, which was designed by Biohabitats, we were able to take a stream that had no quality of life and within two to three months, begin to see some aquatic action in there. That was unbelievable. It was a great feeling.

Describe a really good day at work, when everything goes right with a great project

Steve: It would probably never happen on a single day, but…when you understand, support and share your client’s goals and you can design the project in such a way that it really works. You put it all together and work with the larger system and get everything right and you start seeing it take off – often times before you even complete the construction phase. Nature is already taking hold. Some of our small scale riparian projects work that way. By the time we’ve finished laying back the side slopes and doing some minor plantings on the up slope, the bottom slope is already starting to revegetate itself. Often times in the design field, you’re not sure how much you’re imposing on the rest of the system versus working with it. When you can really see that you’re working with a system to help it heal itself, that’s satisfying.

Now let’s talk about the not-so-great side of being an ER contractor. What are some of the common down sides? What would you consider the most pressing issue facing your industry?

Randy: One of the most frustrating things is when you have a really good project that you and the other designers and associates have put together that really will work for the client and it dies because of bureaucratic or financial reasons. Unfortunately, this happens about a third of the time.

Robin: I would concur. Putting so much thought into a project along with the designer and engineer and then submitting the bid only to learn that the money is not actually there to fully get it going. We mainly see this in municipalities.

What about some other challenges? We hear about labor shortages, plant shortages, lack of quality designs, etc. What are some of the other downsides?

Griff: It is very satisfying to do a project that is properly designed and properly implemented and see results in improvement in habitat. But, one of my biggest frustrations is that probably 50% of the designs that I see come across here have limited practical application in the field. What I find a lot of times is that the designers have great book smarts, and they have their degrees, but they have no clue as to how a system actually works and how business works in constructing that system. It is very frustrating to bid on projects you know you cannot take pride in. The relationship between contractors and designers is often adversarial. This is probably brought on by the fact that the designers have dealt with a lot of poor contractors in the past and are therefore leery and reluctant to truly team. It seems like designers and clients often feel as if contractors try to adjust projects for financial gain, whereas a good contractor is out to affect the project in a positive way.

There’s just not a lot of communication or confidence between designers and good contractors. We’re not involved in the process early on to save a lot of mistakes and resolve problems. When we do reforestation, designers continually aim to create a climax forest in miniature, which you can’t do. A lot of those jobs are doomed to failure from the beginning.

Let me just check with the other panelists…do any of you face this same challenge?

Robin: Yes. Just recently, we were trying to help a landscape architect work through a project for a development. They were trying to turn six acres of turf area into the riparian. I tried to explain to them how they have to prepare the ground. Of course you have to go through a different process of getting rid of the turf to get native species going, but I could not get it through anyone’s head that we would have to do a little bit more than spray the area. I told them I thought they were setting themselves up for failure. They just couldn’t comprehend that.

We need to educate more. But how do we get into someplace like Rutgers University, where landscape architects and engineers are taking courses in our field and say to them “this is the process you need to do. This is the reality of how to get this site prepared.”

Then there’s that stipulation at the end of the contract that says you’re in charge of maintenance on this thing for two years. We normally guarantee 85% vegetation after we go in and plant an area, but how can I guarantee 85% vegetation if the specifications were not designed correctly? If I try to do it the way I know it will work, in regards to a few more steps to prepare the soil, my price goes higher. When we look at a specification and we know it’s way out of whack and has to be done another way so that it’s done right, the dollar figures start going up. As dollar figures go up, and the other guy figures, “well, I’ll just change order it” and we start getting kicked out of the bid.

Randy: I want to comment on another challenge. These projects, whether private or municipal, are often on an unrealistic time frame. The long and the short of it is this: if you would be, as an ecological firm, a design firm, a plant firm or an installation firm, included in the process in the beginning or even somewhere in the middle, rather than as an afterthought, there’s a much better chance the customer will get what they want. When you come at the last minute, there’s a greater chance that the plants you’re looking for, or the size stock your looking for or the time frame you’re looking for is going to become much more challenging. With proper design, implementation and time frame, everything can be done in advance and there’s a far greater chance that it’s going to be successful for all involved.

Robin mentioned education; Griff mentioned the need for better designer/contractor communication; and Randy, you talk about early involvement. In an ideal ecological restoration project, what does the relationship between contractor, designer and owner look like?

Robin: We’ve done projects where an engineering firm brings a qualified contractor on board right away. As the engineer is trying to meet the client’s demands, they’re also checking with the contractor to say, “Is this realistic? Can this be done?” When this happens, we are helping the engineer cut some cost and time by doing a lot of extra leg work. Again, it’s trying to get the contractor – who is working with suppliers – on board right from the beginning to see if the idea can really come to fruition.

This leads me to think you’d all be supportive of design/build approach to a project.

Steve: We’ve been doing more and more design work and less design/build ourselves. I think the key is to have a good team. Griff is right. We’ve had good designs that have been poorly implemented and we’ve gone the other way, where we had a great contractor who really liked to work with us and really enhanced the design. The key is setting up a team early on when you start talking about implementing the design. You can talk to your plant suppliers, dirt folks, the people who are doing installation of plant material, and get them on board early on. We’ve found that contract growing for most of our plant material, particularly when we’re using container stock, works very well. That gets you the plants you want within the time frames that you want them. If we don’t contract grow, we can never find the species that we need.

Griff: It seems that often the designer is selected not just on price, but also on qualifications. Qualifications are being incorporated into the decision making process for the designer, which is great. So you have the client and designer on board. You do all that hand in hand, but then you go out and look for the lowest price contractor. Even with a great design, if you can’t translate or communicate the design to the contractor, the chances of it being successful are very small. I’m a big proponent of design/build. Unfortunately, I can’t have stuff contract grown on the potential that I might win a job.

This brings me to another one of the problems I deal with day-to-day. Designers have to be somewhat flexible when it comes to selecting species. There is variation out there. Plants are not bricks. They’re not made to exact specifications, and there are different things that affect them. Designers have got to be open and willing to make substitutions. They’ve got to know when a contractor is [being untruthful] and trying to save money, but they also have to know when a contractor is making an honest effort when certain plants are not available. There needs to be more teaming along those lines.

Robin: Wouldn’t you say that when it comes to container material, trying to get the designer to compromise on size or type of containers is a challenge?

Griff: Definitely. Designers will sometimes spec a five gallon container and think that’s going to be a great, big plant. Well, that’s fine and dandy if it’s a six foot tree in a five gallon container but if it’s not well rooted, I’d much rather have a two gallon container with a four to five foot plant that can become established and grow faster than the other. I think [designers] often don’t look past the size to the quality of material. That’s frustrating when you’re trying to put together a job.

We asked our readers what they thought the most pressing issue facing your industry was., the majority of them (64%) answered “Finding Reputable Contractors.” But when we asked about the method of procurement used, most of them said “Competitive Bid.” So it looks like the procurement process is contributing to some of the problems. Do you agree?

Steve: In our last round of bids working for the Corps of Engineers, we asked for very quick presentations of the qualifications of the contractor. You cannot just have a bulldozer. You must have some sort of experience in what we want them to do – and references. We’re hoping this will help locate a contractor that is not only a low bidder, but also has experience. So we weed out who can bid on this in the first place.

In the case of, say, a municipality, are they generally using the competitive bid process because they’re following the model of building construction?

Steve: Most of the municipalities we work with are very concerned with getting sued. They are afraid if they don’t follow the competitive bid process, they’ll be accused of playing favoritism.

Randy: I think it’s quite variable by the type of client, municipality or federal government agency. There was a project we participated in at Grand Teton National Park. We had volunteered our design services. They ended up putting it out for lowest bid and the wrong corners were cut. The wrong species were collected and planted. They have had to scrape the project back out and now they’re five years behind. I think some of the agencies and municipalities are starting to realize that you get what you pay for. I think they’re starting to see that by writing in the proper qualifications and specifications for the contractors, you actually have people there who are invested into the project.

There was another comment about species selection. There are very few projects where every species in every size is available on time and as planned. You’re dealing with biological systems, and there are a lot of inherent challenges that may act in a variable manner. My background is in research genetics, so I have a little experience in this as a reformed plant breeder. It really helps on your project design to list, say, seven species, five of which are essential. So therefore at the very basic design, there’s a plan if something doesn’t work out. There’s a fallback where you can pick and choose among desirable alternatives. This is especially effective if you’re reclaiming or restoring toward a “reasonable” rather than some text book ideal that’s never going to take place in the real world situation.

I want to address our readers’ concern about finding reputable contractors. Why do you think this is seen as such a challenge? Are reputable contractors out there but not marketing themselves? How come more contractors are not getting into this kind of work?

Griff: I think it goes back to the whole competitive bid process. A reputable contractor has the qualifications and experience to do the job properly and therefore knows what he or she is getting into. Often times, this does not translate into low bid. We’re good, and there are times we’re low bid. But many times this procurement process eliminates the ability to get good contractors. They’re there. They’re just not the lowest bidders. The price for a particular contractor may appear high simply because they know what they’re doing.

Steve: This is particularly true in poorly designed projects. Basically, the contractor knows the design is never going to work, so they have to include a lot of redesign in their bid in order to make the project successful – but this drives up their price.

Randy: A comment was made earlier about change orders. An ethical contractor is going to put that stuff right on the table to start with. They’re going to say, “This is what it will take, this is what might happen, and this is what our alternatives are.” An unethical contractor is basically just going to be yes man, and convince the client that everything is possible when we all know there are challenges involved. The unethical contractor figures they’re just going to change order it and gouge the person in the long run.

Robin: That happens a lot in the city projects we see. You try to write your questions in and get [the client] to see that there may be problems [with the design], yet they instruct you to “bid it as is.” Well, when you do that, this drives the price up. The other guy plays the game, though and just resorts to change orders. This gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. I’d like to see clients address potential problems ahead of time, rather than instruct us to “bid it as is.”

When we asked our readers about what was most important to them in terms of selecting an ER contractor, 59% said “past work experience.” The next highest ranking factor was Knowledge and Familiarity with the Ecosystem. Price received the lowest number of votes, which I found ironic, as 40% of our readers use a competitive bid process. In your reality, what factor do you think most influences your clients to select your firm? 

Robin: Honesty, willingness to make field changes, and past experience.

Randy: I think price is always the bottom line. You run into a lot of philosophical ideals, like biodiversity or reduction of genetic pollution by using local sources, but in the end it all comes down to the bottom line. Quality, integrity, experience, honesty are huge factors. We’re in a different situation with reclamation out here, because we’re kind of in fantasy land. We’re between Aspen, Telluride and Vail,  and we’re dealing with some of the richest people in the world. You’ll get into these projects designed by internationally acclaimed ecologists and price will still always be a factor.

If two bids come in exactly the same, what wins it for one firm?

Steve: I think it’s experience. The LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center is lucky because we have great name recognition, particularly here in Texas. As a result, we’ve been able to win projects when we’re not the low bid. Perhaps this is because there’s a level of notoriety that comes with working with us. Because we’re doing research on this stuff as well as installing it and doing design work, a lot of clients work with us and have successful projects. We have, of course, lost projects because of price.

Have any of you been challenged lately by labor shortages?

Griff:   Everybody is challenged by this. The ability to find quality labor at a reasonable price is very difficult. We get kids out of college with ecology degrees who contact us constantly, but they have no interest in getting their hands dirty. It’s a lot different from when I got involved. I had one and a half degrees and worked in a native nursery. No one wants to learn the business and grow with it. They want to be an instant success.

How do you face this challenge?

Robin: We go after the farm boys in our community! For us the challenge mainly comes down to finding: good field laborers who don’t want to jump right into operator positions; good operators; and also supervisors who have an interest in learning and understanding stream channels.  Since stream work has only been going on here in the last 16 years, we actually get guys who have been setting pipes for operators. With setting pipe, they’re used to working in closed situations where they have to be very steady and that helps them in the finesse of setting the rocks, and other types of work that we do.

Yes, this is a challenge all the time. We’re constantly on the search for new talent to fill specific areas. You can’t just go into a union hall and say, “give me an operator.” That doesn’t happen. There are different avenues we have to take, but for us this is constantly challenging.

Should schools be offering more classes and degrees in this type of work?

Griff: I’d much rather have someone work for me who has been working in landscaping all their life and has a history degree than someone with an ecology degree with no experience. I can teach that stuff out in the field to someone who has practical experience. I think that’s actually better than working with someone who has a narrow focus from his/her studies.

Randy: I agree. It’s very hard to teach common sense. I think the academic institutions are doing a decent job of teaching basics, but what’s lacking is the applicability. Perhaps it’d be better if there were stronger intern programs and if there were a stronger passing of the ethical torch. People out of school right now expect to make a mid-career salary. Most of us came into this field working two or three jobs, busting our butts. We did it because of our passion to save the environment, not because we were out to make a bunch of money. I think there’s a misconception perpetuated by the academic institutions that you’re going to get a four-year degree and make tens of thousands of dollars a year because you’re now an expert.

Steve: You mentioned internships…that’s what we’ve found to be most successful. We don’t pay our interns. We just give them experience. We actually get a line of people volunteering to do this. You do have to work with them a little more because you have to provide them with a real learning experience. But I’d say we end up hiring about half of our interns. It’s been a great way to test folks out and get them ready to go. Even if we decide not to hire them, they get a great experience.

Randy: There are some labor issues that are developing with the immigration laws that are really impacting projects out here in the west. You follow all the I9 protocols and make sure people have the proper identification and then suddenly, you get raided and you’re unable to come up with the workers. I’m positive we’re not the only company that is being challenged by that. We use labor certification services, but that’s only for new labor. Existing labor – that person who has been with your program for six years who you trust and you come to find out the paperwork is not as up and up as it should be and suddenly you’re out of a key position.

What type of ecological restoration project do you think presents the greatest challenge and why?

Randy: Alpine restoration. You’re dealing with systems that move so slowly and are so diverse that it’s very hard to affect change because the systems evolved over millions of years.

Robin: Invasive species. This is a huge challenge. When you get into a set of specifications and they talk about invasive species removal, that’s about it. That’s what it says: Invasive species removal. You’re left wondering where the details are. There are challenges in how to work with the invasive species while also getting your natives established. That has to be one of the first areas you start looking at.

Steve: I’d agree with Robin. Projects that are overrun with invasive species are the hardest projects we face. That and those projects in urban environments where you’re trying to do a restoration project but really it’s going to be something different because the conditions have changed so much in that environment that you cannot go back to what it was before. Trying to figure out what the new system is going to be is really a challenge. What is this environment going to look like and what is the system I can design and build that will fit the conditions that are there now but will also be there in the future?

Griff: Not from an implementation standpoint, but I’d say tidal wetland restoration. This is one of the more frustrating types of projects because I think designers are living back in the dark ages with tidal elevations. It’s very frustrating to go out to a site that has been designed and you’re standing in two feet of water and the designer says, “My tidal charts from 1929 tell me this is where the high tide is.” Like it or not, sea level rise is a reality and there are adjustments that need to be made.

Do you think current specifications for warranty and maintenance are fair from a contractor’s perspective?

Griff: What drives me nuts is that a designer can be hired, paid – and often repaid to fix a poor design, but the contractor is ultimately responsible for the success of these projects. It goes back to quality contractors. If you properly designed it, and I brought in good plant material and properly installed it, which should be part of the inspection, there’s not much more I can do about it, particularly in light of burgeoning populations of Canada geese, beaver, deer, foals, etc. It’s funny. I just read some specs recently that we were responsible for everything “including improper hydrologic regime,” which is one of those things I always write out. It boggles my mind that somebody can tell me that I’m responsible for making their design work if it’s wrong. This goes back to the whole teaming issue and accountability. I think the designer has as much accountability as the installer.

Steve: From a designer’s standpoint, I would certainly agree with that. What ends up happening is that the contractor says, “Make sure you specify in the contract 70-80% vegetative cover” and they end up falling back on the species they know rather than utilizing all the species in the design and it ends up being something less than you designed. It’s really a failure on the whole process.

Griff: What’s also frustrating is seeing designs where the designer has spent seemingly hundreds of hours putting together specs stating exactly how everything should be installed. It’s very difficult to be told exactly how to do something and then made responsible for someone else’s method.

Robin: That has to be very frustrating, Griff, on the end of a subcontract level. Say, you’re subcontracting to someone and the specs read, “Amendments will be made once soil tests are done.” How do you bid something like that?

Griff: You can’t.

Robin: And you’re left open to put a number in the sky and hope that covers you. We still see that a lot on small jobs. Specifications are left very open when it comes to amending the soil. How are we going to know what the subsoil is going to be like or what the borrow material is going to be that another contractor is bringing in. It’d be nice if there were a line item contingency to some of these contracts. Leaving things “as is” leaves things wide open for the contractor to be responsible. A responsible contractor will say, “I better bring at least four tons of lime and this type of fertilizer and pray to God that there is at least 2% organics in the soil they bring in.”

Is there an area of ER construction work for which you are starting to see an increasing demand? What’s on the horizon?

Randy: We’re seeing a lot more of the high-end corporate campuses or high-end starter “palaces” in the Aspen and Vail areas. We’re seeing these projects go to a more native design. It’s interesting to watch the super high moneyed clients trying to pull the woods ecosystem forward rather than trying to create their own Shangri La.

Steve: I’d agree with that. We’re working with a large, corporate client, who has put aside over 50% of their property for restoration with just a jogging trail going through it for their community. We’ve helped them build the largest rainwater collection system in the world – 1.5 million gallons. 100% of the landscape is irrigated from not potable water. 100% native landscaping. They’ve also gotten their staff involved with doing the restoration project. That’s something they wouldn’t have thought of ten years ago.

Randy: The other trend that we’re watching out here is that a lot of the cutting edge work is happening in the private sector. I’m surprised the degree of money and resources that is going into these large private ranches compared to what’s happening on a federal scale.

Tell me about this cutting edge work. Are you seeing any emerging construction & planting techniques for various projects?

Randy: We’re seeing stuff being done correctly, but no, we’re not out there on the cutting edge in terms of techniques.

Steve: One of the new techniques we’ve seen in the last couple of years in Texas is the application of prairie grass seed by pneumatically applying it with compost. That seems to work very successfully. Projects that failed previously because they hydromulched them in are now succeeding because they’re blowing in compost in the seed instead. They’re blowing the feed with about a quarter inch of soil. You get really good seed/soil contact that way. The seeds can sprout and have more nutrients right there available to them. It’s as easy as applying hydromulch.

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