Professor Murphy is happiest doing the dirty work.

Stephen Murphy standing on a bridge.

Parks are supposed to be pristine places where nature is conserved. In fact, they face a lot of the same pressures that other areas do – climate change, nearby development, human activity, not-so-green legacies of land use. That’s where Stephen Murphy comes in.

“My job is to ensure that the park doesn’t degrade further and in fact gets restored,” says Murphy, an ecologist and chair of the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS).

Murphy works extensively with provincial, federal, and municipal parks, as well as in communities with non-park land to restore, to return local ecosystems to as close to their natural state as possible.

He helped pioneer a restoration technique, now widely used, in which “you take a bulldozer or back hoe and take up an entire soil clod with all of the plants and fungi and animals – small ones – intact, and move it to a site that is basically bare,” he says.

This living mulch technique “instantaneously transports whole ecosystems … and they do wonderfully well as long as you take a little bit of care,” says Murphy.

Generally, Murphy’s technique doesn’t involve transporting soil very far. However, some of his research now focuses on how to restore natural areas when climate change models predict entire ecosystems will shift locations. For example, the Carolinian forest of Point Pelee could move as far north as Bruce Peninsula National Park, says Murphy.

“One of the terms we’re bandying about nowadays is what we call novel ecosystems, ones that weren’t there historically but will still have ecological value … So what we’re doing is not so much restoration; we’re anticipating the changes,” says Murphy.

“Part of my job nowadays is figuring out how you do that. How far do you go? Should we actually move stuff? … We’re really creating a novel ecosystem on this whole planet, so how are we going to deal with that as human beings?”

For more about Murphy’s work, see the websites of two centres he directs: the Centre for Ecosystem Resilience and Adaptation (ERA) and the Centre for Applied Science in Ontario Protected Areas (CASIOPA).