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Ecological Restoration

What is Ecological Restoration?

Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.

Ecological restoration is an intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability. Frequently, the ecosystem that requires restoration has been degraded, damaged, transformed or entirely destroyed as the direct or indirect result of human activities. In some cases, these impacts to ecosystems have been caused or aggravated by natural agencies such as wildfire, floods, storms, or volcanic eruption, to the point at which the ecosystem cannot recover its pre-disturbance state or its historic developmental trajectory.

Young Oaks
Karen Yukich

Restoration attempts to return an ecosystem to its historic trajectory. Historic conditions are therefore the ideal starting point for restoration design. The restored ecosystem will not necessarily recover its former state, since contemporary constraints and conditions may cause it to develop along an altered trajectory. The historic trajectory of a severely impacted ecosystem may be difficult or impossible to determine with accuracy. Nevertheless, the general direction and boundaries of that trajectory can be established through a combination of knowledge of the damaged ecosystemís pre-existing structure, composition and functioning, studies on comparable intact ecosystems, information about regional environmental conditions, and analysis of other ecological, cultural and historical reference information. These combined sources allow the historic trajectory or reference conditions to be charted from baseline ecological data and predictive models, and its emulation in the restoration process should aid in piloting the ecosystem towards improved health and integrity.

Restoration represents an indefinitely long-term commitment of land and resources, and a proposal to restore an ecosystem requires thoughtful deliberation. Collective decisions are more likely to be honored and implemented than are those that are made unilaterally. For that reason, it behooves all stakeholders to arrive at the decision to initiate a restoration project by consensus. Once the decision to restore is made, the project requires careful and systematic planning and a monitored approach towards ecosystem recovery. The need for planning intensifies when the unit of restoration is a complex landscape of contiguous ecosystems.

Interventions employed in restoration vary widely among projects, depending on the extent and duration of past disturbances, cultural conditions that have shaped the landscape, and contemporary constraints and opportunities. In the simplest circumstances, restoration consists of removing or modifying a specific disturbance, thereby allowing ecological processes to bring about an independent recovery. For example, removing a dam allows the return of an historical flooding regime. In more complex circumstances, restoration may also require the deliberate reintroduction of native species that have been lost, and the elimination or control of harmful, invasive exotic species to the greatest practicable extent. Often, ecosystem degradation or transformation has multiple, protracted sources, and the historical constituents of an ecosystem are substantially lost. Sometimes the developmental trajectory of a degraded ecosystem is blocked altogether, and its recovery through natural processes appears to be delayed indefinitely. In all of these cases, however, ecological restoration aims to initiate or facilitate the resumption of those processes which will return the ecosystem to its intended trajectory.

When the desired trajectory is realized, the ecosystem under manipulation may no longer require external assistance to ensure its future health and integrity, in which case restoration can be considered complete. Nevertheless, the restored ecosystem often requires continuing management to counteract the invasion of opportunist species, the impacts of various human activities, climate change, and other unforeseeable events. In this respect, a restored ecosystem is no different from an undamaged ecosystem of the same kind, and both are likely to require some level of ecosystem management. Although ecosystem restoration and ecosystem management form a continuum and often employ similar sorts of intervention, ecological restoration aims at assisting or initiating recovery, whereas ecosystem management is intended to guarantee the continued well-being of the restored ecosystem thereafter.

What makes ecological restoration especially inspiring is that cultural practices and ecological processes can be mutually reinforcing. Accordingly, it is not surprising that interest in ecological restoration is growing rapidly worldwide and that, in most cases, cultural beliefs and practices are drawn upon to help determine and shape of what is to be performed under the rubric of restoration.

Source: Society for Ecological Restoration websiteThe SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration

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Content last modified on May 11, 2011, at 08:47 PM EST