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Scientific study of renewing and restoring ecosystems
Recently constructed wetland regeneration in Australia, on a site previously used for agriculture
Rehabilitation of a portion of Johnson Creek, to restore bioswale and flood control functions of the land which had long been converted to pasture for cow grazing. The horizontal logs can float, but are anchored by the posts. Just-planted trees will eventually stabilize the soil. The fallen trees with roots jutting into the stream are intended to enhance wildlife habitat. The meandering of the stream is enhanced here by a factor of about three times, perhaps to its original course.
Restoration ecology is the scientific study supporting the practice of ecological restoration, which is the practice of renewing and restoring degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems and habitats in the environment by active human intervention and action. Effective restoration requires an explicit goal or policy, preferably an unambiguous one that is articulated, accepted, and codified. Restoration goals reflect societal choices from among competing policy priorities, but extracting such goals is typically contentious and politically challenging.
Natural ecosystems provide ecosystem services in the form of resources such as food, fuel, and timber; the purification of air and water; the detoxification and decomposition of wastes; the regulation of climate; the regeneration of soil fertility; and the pollination of crops. These ecosystem processes have been estimated to be worth trillions of dollars annually. There is consensus in the scientific community that the current environmental degradation and destruction of many of the Earth's biota are taking place on a "catastrophically short timescale". Scientists estimate that the current species extinction rate, or the rate of the Holocene extinction, is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the normal, background rate.Habitat loss is the leading cause of both species extinctions and ecosystem service decline. Two methods have been identified to slow the rate of species extinction and ecosystem service decline, they are the conservation of currently viable habitat and the restoration of degraded habitat. The commercial applications of ecological restoration have increased exponentially in recent years. The United Nations General Assembly (01.03.2019) declared 2021- 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
Restoration ecology is the academic study of the process, whereas ecological restoration is the actual project or process by restoration practitioners. The Society for Ecological Restoration defines "ecological restoration" as an "intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability". Ecological restoration includes a wide scope of projects including erosion control, reforestation, removal of non-native species and weeds, revegetation of disturbed areas, daylighting streams, the reintroduction of native species (preferably native species that have local adaptation), and habitat and range improvement for targeted species. For many researchers, the ecological restoration must include the local communities: they call this process the "social-ecological restoration".
E. O. Wilson, a biologist, states, "Here is the means to end the great extinction spasm. The next century will, I believe, be the era of restoration in ecology."
The latter half of the 20th century saw the growth of ecological restoration beyond Wisconsin borders. The 285-hectare Green Oaks Biological Field Station at Knox College began in 1955 under the guidance of zoologist Paul Shepard. It was followed by the 40-hectare Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum, which started in 1962 by Ray Schulenberg and Bob Betz. Betz then worked with The Nature Conservancy to establish the 260-hectare Fermi National Laboratory tallgrass prairie in 1974. These major tallgrass restoration projects marked the growth of ecological restoration from isolated studies to widespread practice.
Australia has also been the site of historically significant ecological restoration projects. In 1935 Ambrose Crawford commenced restoring a degraded four acres (1.7 hectares) patch of the Big Scrub (Lowland Tropical Rainforest) at Lumley Park reserve, Alstonville, in northern New South Wales. Clearing of weeds and planting of suitable indigenous flora species were his main restoration techniques. The restored rainforest reserve still exists today and is home to threatened plant and animal species. In 1936 Albert Morris and his restoration colleagues initiated the Broken Hill regeneration area project, which involved the natural regeneration of indigenous flora on a severely degraded site of hundreds of hectares in arid western New South Wales. Completed in 1958, the successful project still maintains ecological function today as the Broken Hill Regeneration Area.
Restoration ecology draws on a wide range of ecological concepts.
Disturbance is a change in environmental conditions that disrupt the functioning of an ecosystem. Disturbance can occur at a variety of spatial and temporal scales, and is a natural component of many communities. For example, many forest and grassland restorations implement fire as a natural disturbance regime. However the severity and scope of anthropogenic impact has grown in the last few centuries. Differentiating between human-caused and naturally occurring disturbances is important if we are to understand how to restore natural processes and minimize anthropogenic impacts on the ecosystems.
Ecological succession is the process by which a community changes over time, especially following a disturbance. In many instances, an ecosystem will change from a simple level of organization with a few dominant pioneer species to an increasingly complex community with many interdependent species. Restoration often consists of initiating, assisting, or accelerating ecological successional processes, depending on the severity of the disturbance. Following mild to moderate natural and anthropogenic disturbances, restoration in these systems involves hastening natural successional trajectories through careful management. However, in a system that has experienced a more severe disturbance (such as in urban ecosystems), restoration may require intensive efforts to recreate environmental conditions that favor natural successional processes.
Habitat fragmentation describes spatial discontinuities in a biological system, where ecosystems are broken up into smaller parts through land-use changes (e.g. agriculture) and natural disturbance. This both reduces the size of the population and increases the degree of isolation. These smaller and isolated populations are more vulnerable to extinction. Fragmenting ecosystems decreases the quality of the habitat. The edge of a fragment has a different range of environmental conditions and therefore supports different species than the interior. Restorative projects can increase the effective size of a population by adding suitable habitat and decrease isolation by creating habitat corridors that link isolated fragments. Reversing the effects of fragmentation is an important component of restoration ecology.
Ecosystem function describes the most basic and essential foundational processes of any natural systems, including nutrient cycles and energy fluxes. An understanding of the complexity of these ecosystem functions is necessary to address any ecological processes that may be degraded. Ecosystem functions are emergent properties of the system as a whole, thus monitoring and management are crucial for the long-term stability of ecosystems. A completely self-perpetuating and fully functional ecosystem is the ultimate goal of restorative efforts. We must understand what ecosystem properties influence others to restore desired functions and reach this goal.
Community assembly "is a framework that can unify virtually all of (community) ecology under a single conceptual umbrella". Community assembly theory attempts to explain the existence of environmentally similar sites with differing assemblages of species. It assumes that species have similar niche requirements, so that community formation is a product of random fluctuations from a common species pool. Essentially, if all species are fairly ecologically equivalent, then random variation in colonization, and migration and extinction rates between species, drive differences in species composition between sites with comparable environmental conditions.
Genetic diversity has shown to be as important as species diversity for restoring ecosystem processes. Hence ecological restorations are increasingly factoring genetic processes into management practices. Population genetic processes that are important to consider in restored populations include founder effects, inbreeding depression, outbreeding depression, genetic drift, and gene flow. Such processes can predict whether or not a species successfully establishes at a restoration site.
Leaf litter accumulation
Leaf litter accumulation plays an important role in the restoration process. Higher quantities of leaf litter hold higher humidity levels, a key factor for the establishment of plants. The process of accumulation depends on factors like wind and species composition of the forest. The leaf litter found in primary forests is more abundant, deeper, and holds more humidity than in secondary forests. These technical considerations are important to take into account when planning a restoration project.
Soil heterogeneity effects on community heterogeneity
Spatial heterogeneity of resources can influence plant community composition, diversity, and assembly trajectory. Baer et al. (2005) manipulated soil resource heterogeneity in a tallgrass prairie restoration project. They found increasing resource heterogeneity, which on its own was insufficient to ensure species diversity in situations where one species may dominate across the range of resource levels. Their findings were consistent with the theory regarding the role of ecological filters on community assembly. The establishment of a single species, best adapted to the physical and biological conditions can play an inordinately important role in determining the community structure.
Invasion and restoration
Restoration is used as a tool for reducing the spread of invasive plant species many ways. The first method views restoration primarily as a means to reduce the presence of invasive species and limit their spread. As this approach emphasizes the control of invaders, the restoration techniques can differ from typical restoration projects. The goal of such projects is not necessarily to restore an entire ecosystem or habitat. These projects frequently use lower diversity mixes of aggressive native species seeded at high density. They are not always actively managed following seeding. The target areas for this type of restoration are those which are heavily dominated by invasive species. The goals are to first remove the species and then in so doing, reduce the number of invasive seeds being spread to surrounding areas. An example of this is through the use of biological control agents (such as herbivorous insects) which suppress invasive weed species while restoration practitioners concurrently seed in native plant species that take advantage of the freed resources. These approaches have been shown to be effective in reducing weeds, although it is not always a sustainable solution long term without additional weed control, such as mowing, or re-seeding.
Restoration projects are also used as a way to better understand what makes an ecological community resistant to invasion. As restoration projects have a broad range of implementation strategies and methods used to control invasive species, they can be used by ecologists to test theories about invasion. Restoration projects have been used to understand how the diversity of the species introduced in the restoration affects invasion. We know that generally higher diversity prairies have lower levels of invasion. The incorporation of functional ecology has shown that more functionally diverse restorations have lower levels of invasion. Furthermore, studies have shown that using native species functionally similar to invasive species are better able to compete with invasive species. Restoration ecologists have also used a variety of strategies employed at different restoration sites to better understand the most successful management techniques to control invasion.
Progress along a desired successional pathway may be difficult if multiple stable states exist. Looking over 40 years of wetland restoration data, Klötzli and Gootjans (2001) argue that unexpected and undesired vegetation assemblies "may indicate that environmental conditions are not suitable for target communities". Succession may move in unpredicted directions, but constricting environmental conditions within a narrow range may rein in the possible successional trajectories and increase the likelihood of the desired outcome.
Sourcing material for restoration
For most restoration projects it is generally recommended to source material from local populations, to increase the chance of restoration success and minimize the effects of maladaptation. However the definition of local can vary based on species. habitat and region. US Forest Service recently developed provisional seed zones based on a combination of minimum winter temperature zones, aridity, and the Level III ecoregions. Rather than putting strict distance recommendations, other guidelines recommend sourcing seeds to match similar environmental conditions that the species is exposed to, either now, or under projected climate change. For example, sourcing for Castilleja levisecta found that farther source populations that matched similar environmental variables were better suited for the restoration project than closer source populations. Similarly, a suite of new methods are surveying gene-environment interactions in order to identify the optimum source populations based on genetic adaptation to environmental conditions.
Ecosystem restoration for the superb parrot on an abandoned railway line in Australia
There are many reasons to restore ecosystems. Some include:
There exist considerable differences of opinion on how to set restoration goals and how to define their success. Ultimately specifying the restoration target or desired state of an ecosystem is a societal choice, informed by scientists and technocrats, but ultimately it is a policy choice. Selecting the desired goal can be politically contentious. Some urge active restoration (e.g. eradicating invasive animals to allow the native ones to survive) and others who believe that protected areas should have the bare minimum of human interference, such as rewilding. Ecosystem restoration has generated controversy. Skeptics doubt that the benefits justify the economic investment or who point to failed restoration projects and question the feasibility of restoration altogether. It can be difficult to set restoration goals, in part because, as Anthony Bradshaw claims, "ecosystems are not static, but in a state of dynamic equilibrium.... [with restoration] we aim [for a] moving target."
Some[vague] conservationists argue that, though an ecosystem may not be returned to its original state, the functions of the ecosystem (especially ones that provide services to us) may be more valuable in its current configuration (Bradshaw 1987). This is especially true in cases where the ecosystem services are central to the physical and cultural survival of human populations, as is the case with many Native groups in the United States and other communities around the world who subsist using ecological services and environmental resources. One reason to consider ecosystem restoration is to mitigate climate change through activities such as afforestation. Afforestation involves replanting forests, which remove carbon dioxide from the air. Carbon dioxide is a leading cause of global warming (Speth, 2005) and capturing it would help alleviate climate change. Another example of a common driver of restoration projects in the United States is the legal framework of the Clean Water Act, which often requires mitigation for damage inflicted on aquatic systems by development or other activities.
Some view ecosystem restoration as impractical, partially because restorations often fall short of their goals. Hilderbrand et al. point out that many times uncertainty (about ecosystem functions, species relationships, and such) is not addressed, and that the time-scales set out for 'complete' restoration are unreasonably short, while other critical markers for full-scale restoration are either ignored or abridged due to feasibility concerns. In other instances an ecosystem may be so degraded that abandonment (allowing a severely degraded ecosystem to recover on its own) may be the wisest option. Local communities sometimes object to restorations that include the introduction of large predators or plants that require disturbance regimes such as regular fires, citing threat to human habitation in the area. High economic costs can also be perceived as a negative impact of the restoration process.
Public opinion is very important in the feasibility of a restoration; if the public believes that the costs of restoration outweigh the benefits they will not support it.
Many failures have occurred in past restoration projects, many times because clear goals were not set out as the aim of the restoration, or an incomplete understanding of the underlying ecological framework lead to insufficient measures. This may be because, as Peter Alpert says, "people may not [always] know how to manage natural systems effectively". Furthermore, many assumptions are made about myths of restoration such as carbon copy, where a restoration plan, which worked in one area, is applied to another with the same results expected, but not realized.
One of the struggles for both fields is a divide between restoration ecology and ecological restoration in practice. Many restoration practitioners as well as scientists feel that science is not being adequately incorporated into ecological restoration projects. In a 2009 survey of practitioners and scientists, the "science-practice gap" was listed as the second most commonly cited reason limiting the growth of both science and practice of restoration.
There are a variety of theories about the cause of this gap. However, it has been well established that one of the main issues is that the questions studied by restoration ecologists are frequently not found useful or easily applicable by land managers. For instance, many publications in restoration ecology characterize the scope of a problem in-depth, without providing concrete solutions. Additionally many restoration ecology studies are carried out under controlled conditions and frequently at scales much smaller than actual restorations. Whether or not these patterns hold true in an applied context is often unknown. There is evidence that these small-scale experiments inflate type II error rates and differ from ecological patterns in actual restorations. One approach to addressing this gap has been the development of International Principles & Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration by the Society for Ecological restoration (see below) - however this approach is contended, with scientists active in the field suggesting that this is restrictive, and instead principles and guidelines offer flexibility 
There is further complication in that restoration ecologists who want to collect large-scale data on restoration projects can face enormous hurdles in obtaining the data. Managers vary in how much data they collect, and how many records they keep. Some agencies keep only a handful of physical copies of data that make it difficult for the researcher to access. Many restoration projects are limited by time and money, so data collection and record-keeping are not always feasible. However, this limits the ability of scientists to analyze restoration projects and give recommendations based on empirical data.
Contrasting restoration ecology and conservation biology
Restoration ecology may be viewed as a sub-discipline of conservation biology, the scientific study of how to protect and restore biodiversity. Ecological restoration is then a part of the resulting conservation movement.
Both restoration ecologists and conservation biologists agree that protecting and restoring habitat is important for protecting biodiversity. However, conservation biology is primarily rooted in population biology. Because of that, it is generally organized at the population genetic level and assesses specific species populations (i.e. endangered species). Restoration ecology is organized at the community level, which focuses on broader groups within ecosystems.
In addition, conservation biology often concentrates on vertebrate animals because of their salience and popularity, whereas restoration ecology concentrates on plants. Restoration ecology focuses on plants because restoration projects typically begin by establishing plant communities. Ecological restoration, despite being focused on plants, may also have "poster species" for individual ecosystems and restoration projects. For example, the Monarch butterfly is a poster species for conserving and restoring milkweed plant habitat, because Monarch butterflies require milkweed plants to reproduce. Finally, restoration ecology has a stronger focus on soils, soil structure, fungi, and microorganisms because soils provide the foundation of functional terrestrial ecosystems.
Natural Capital Committee's recommendation for a 25-year plan
The UK Natural Capital Committee (NCC) made a recommendation in its second State of Natural Capital report published in March 2014 that in order to meet the Government's goal of being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it was inherited, a long-term 25-year plan was needed to maintain and improve England's natural capital. The UK Government has not yet responded to this recommendation.
The Secretary of State for the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, described his ambition for the natural environment and how the work of the Committee fits into this at an NCC event in November 2012: "I do not, however, just want to maintain our natural assets; I want to improve them. I want us to derive the greatest possible benefit from them, while ensuring that they are available for generations to come. This is what the NCC's innovative work is geared towards".
International Principles & Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration
The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) released the second edition of the International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration on September 27, 2019, in Cape Town, South Africa at SER's 8th World Conference on Ecological Restoration. This groundbreaking publication provides updated and expanded guidance on the practice of ecological restoration, clarifies the breadth of ecological restoration and allied environmental repair activities, and includes ideas and input from a diverse international group of restoration scientists and practitioners.
The second edition builds on the first edition of the Standards, which was released December 12, 2016 at the Convention on Biological Diversity's 13th Conference of the Parties in Cancun, Mexico. The development of these Standards has been broadly consultative. The first edition was circulated to dozens of practitioners and experts for feedback and review. After release of the first edition, SER held workshops and listening sessions, sought feedback from key international partners and stakeholders, opened a survey to members, affiliates and supporters, and considered and responded to published critiques.
The International Principles and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration:
Present a robust framework to guide restoration projects toward achieving intended goals
Address restoration challenges including: effective design and implementation, accounting for complex ecosystem dynamics (especially in the context of climate change), and navigating trade-offs associated with land management priorities and decisions
Highlight the role of ecological restoration in connecting social, community, productivity, and sustainability goals
Recommend performance measures for restorative activities for industries, communities, and governments to consider
Enhance the list of practices and actions that guide practitioners in planning, implementation, and monitoring activities, including: appropriate approaches to site assessment and identification of reference ecosystems, different restoration approaches including natural regeneration, and the role of ecological restoration in global restoration initiatives
Include an expanded glossary of restoration terminology
Provide a technical appendix on sourcing of seeds and other propagules for restoration.
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