Ecological Restoration for the 21st Century

Ecological restoration is a relatively new and evolving field that developed in the 1980s and focuses on restoring land that has been degraded or destroyed by human activities. This study and practice is gaining popularity by governments, private businesses, and community organizations that recognize the importance of having healthy ecosystems for intrinsic, practical, and economic benefits.  However, in order for any ecological restoration project to work there must be a firm set of goals in place so that practitioners can plan and act accordingly to achieve ecosystem health. The Society for Ecological Restoration International Primer on Ecological Restoration (Primer for short) defined and detailed these goals in a section called “The Nine Attributes of Ecological Restoration” which places these attributes into four separate groups. Shackelford et al. (2013) attempts to build upon these goals as well as add a new group “The Human Element.” With a large increase in the amount of information about rebuilding ecosystems and restoring their health, changes to the nine attributes are needed for repairing environmental damage done to habitats by humans. –Andrew Walnum

Shackelford, N., Hobbs, R. J., Burgar, J. M., Erickson, T. E., Fontaine, J. B., Laliberté, E., Ramalho, C. E., Perring, M. P. and Standish, R. J. (2013), Primed for Change: Developing Ecological Restoration for the 21st Century. Restoration Ecology, 21: 297–304.

                  Shackelford and her colleagues found new ways to define ecological restoration goals and important categories by consulting with professors, practitioners, students, and post-doctorates versed in the study. These volunteers were placed into small individual groups for a literature review and discussion on articles pertaining to restoration ecology. Then, a larger group discussion was held with the participants to talk about key points that arose from reviewing the literature. The main points of the discussion groups were recorded in order to find what the experts or students felt were important to the field of ecological restoration.
                  The results from the discussions raise new thoughts on what the nine attributes of ecological restoration should be. Before, the list was as follows: 1. The restored ecosystem contains a characteristic assemblage of the species that occur in the reference ecosystem and that provide appropriate community structure. 2. The restored ecosystem consists of indigenous species to the greatest practicable extent. In restored cultural ecosystems, allowances can be made for exotic domesticated species and for noninvasive ruderal and segetal species that presumably co-evolved with them. Ruderals are plants that colonize disturbed sites, whereas segetals typically grow intermixed with crop species. 3. All functional groups necessary for the continued development and/or stability of the restored ecosystem are represented or, if they are not, the missing groups have the potential to colonize by natural means. 4. The physical environment of the restored ecosystem is capable of sustaining reproducing populations of the species necessary for its continued stability or development along the desired trajectory. 5. The restored ecosystem apparently functions normally for its ecological stage of development, and signs of dysfunction are absent. 6. The restored ecosystem is suitably integrated into a larger ecological matrix or landscape, with which it interacts through abiotic and biotic flows and exchanges. 7. Potential threats to the health and integrity of the restored ecosystem from the surrounding landscape have been eliminated or reduced as much as possible. 8. The restored ecosystem is sufficiently resilient to endure the normal periodic stress events in the local environment that serve to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem. 9. The restored ecosystem is self-sustaining to the same degree as its reference ecosystem, and has the potential to persist indefinitely under existing environmental conditions. Nevertheless, aspects of its biodiversity, structure, and functioning may change as part of normal ecosystem development, and may fluctuate in response to normal periodic stress and occasional disturbance events of greater consequence. As in any intact ecosystem, the species composition and other attributes of a restored ecosystem may evolve as environmental conditions change.
                  All of these attributes are meant to describe what a practitioner of restoration ecology should strive for when restoring an ecosystem. These nine attributes fit into the categories of species composition, ecosystem function, landscape context, or ecosystem sustainability. The authors also talk about the importance of fifth category, the human element. Humans play an integral part in shaping ecosystems and their involvement should be taken into account during restoration. The paper argues that in some cases restoration should be set to include permanent human involvement as can be seen in places like Europe where grasslands have been maintained for centuries by grazing animals or mowing. Social and cultural values must also be taken into account, especially in urban areas or areas that are considered important or sacred to a group of people.

                  The authors go on to add improvements to the original four categories. For species composition, they suggest recognizing that animals and plants are dynamic and that “indigenous” or “native” species can have large ranges. Also, using historical references for species composition may not be practical but rather looking at current, similar ecosystems to gain a better perspective about what species need to be a part of the restored habitat. When looking at ecosystem function, the authors argue that rapid climate change must be taken into account as the historical ecosystem did not have to face to same stresses or benefits that global climate change might raise. In addition, the economic or social services that a restored ecosystem can provide should also be taken into account. Using more trait-based measurements of ecosystem stability is also a new suggestion. They also explain the difference between resistance and resilience. Whereas resistance refers to an ecosystem being able to remain even through a large disturbance resilience is how an ecosystem is able to handle smaller disturbance over a long time period. For landscape context, it is important to understand the permeability of the landscape or how species and genes can spread through an environment. Knowing key areas that might allow invasive species, predators, or disease to enter can be taken into account and the ecosystem can be planned to minimize negative effects. Overall, the revision of ecological restoration goals can allow for further improvements to restoring an ecosystem that might not have been taken into consideration before. 

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