by Steve Glass
The science and practice of restoration ecology is a forward-looking, multifaceted discipline that has both deep roots in the past and a future-oriented perspective. Although a young discipline, restoration ecology has a remarkable history and a seemingly bright future. Restoration has great appeal to many people in part because it is an optimistic, forward-looking, and versatile discipline.
Although the term “restoration” implies that we will be “putting something back”, modern restoration ecology looks to the near-distant past primarily because our understanding of natural communities comes in part from historic records and past experience. Restorations can be undertaken for many reasons. For example, the restoration process can be used with great success to enlarge existing preserves, create buffer zones, provide habitat links, revitalize damaged remnants, provide ecosystems services, serve as sites for research and education, and reconnect people to nature as well as to one another.
Challenges Inherent in Restoration
But as those of us who practice, research, and teach the subject know, restoration is not easy. Despite good intentions, achieving one’s goals cannot be taken for granted. There are many constraints and challenges that make it difficult to achieve a project’s desired outcomes. These challenges include a lack of documentation and experimentation, a scarcity of information about natural systems, that natural systems are dynamic and always changing, the use of restoration as an excuse for destroying remnants, and that there is no single formula for success, meaning that each situation requires a unique solution. In addition to these constraints there are the challenge of working within the social-cultural system that is home to the project—differing and competing viewpoints and objectives, for example.
Future Challenges to Restoration Success
In the future there will be two primary challenges, all exacerbated by the fundamental challenge of climate change. First, there will likely be a continuation of the threats and challenges we have experienced over the past 50 to 100 years. The list includes a growing world population and its demands for food, fresh water, fiber, and fuel. This global demand will lead to a continued—and perhaps accelerated—degradation of ecosystem services. The causes of degradation will the usual suspects: habitat fragmentation, exploitation of natural resources, invasive species, pollution, and climate change.
Secondly, restoration as a scientific discipline and a conservation tool may become viewed as unworkable and/or unnecessary. For example, the outcome of a burgeoning world population and increased global demand for goods and services will lead to increased conversion of land for agricultural use at the expense of natural resource protection and conservation (MA 2005). In this scenario restoration ecology could be viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity.
This strain of thinking (restoration as unworkable and/or unnecessary) is already making itself heard by the vocal proponents of two philosophies—novel ecosystems and the anthropocene movement—whose assumptions and world views question the value and validity of restoration ecology, at least as many of us currently think about and practice restoration.
If you have not been following the novel ecosystem discussion, novel ecosystem proponents like Richard Hobbs, Eric Higgs, and Carol M. Hall (2013) say, in a nutshell, that some ecosystems have been so altered by human activities that they are now in an unprecedented, no-analogue, or novel, condition and in many cases are probably beyond the powers and knowledge of humans to restore either to a historic condition or to a site’s previous trajectory. The novel ecosystem proponents thus argue we might as well give up on traditional restoration in favor of new and hybrid systems for the future.
Proponents of the anthropocene movement hold a similar view. They argue that humans have altered the environment to such an extent that regaining any hint of former ecosystems is an irretrievable goal and that this “great unraveling of nature” gives humans license to “garden the world” in what ever ways suit us, a view that opponents of the anthropocene movement call “the domestication of earth.” (Wuerther, Crist, and Butler, 2014)
The novel ecosystem and anthropocene proponents base their arguments on a set of assumptions that appear to be different than those made by restoration ecologists. Whether we acknowledge it or not, restoration is based upon three implicit assumptions.
For example, one assumption that motivates restoration ecologists is that humans have damaged or destroyed many of the Earth’s parts and processes and, in fact, many ecosystem parts are now missing. Ecologist Aldo Leopold in his famous book, “A Sand County Almanac”, first popularized this notion. In that book Leopold sized up the psychological state many of us find ourselves in when he wrote: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” (Leopold, 1949)
But, thankfully, a corollary assumption of restoration people—and an antidote to the “world of wounds”—is that human damage to the Earth’s resources can be repaired, that people have the capacity to care for the planet, and that the science and practice of restoration ecology provides the means and methods by which the Earth’s natural capital can be, at least stabilized.
A third assumption that restoration ecologists live by is that the act of restoration improves the relationships between people and the land and the relationships between humans. As we have seen, these assumptions are not universal.
What Are Future Opportunities for Restoration?
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA 2005) sees a big role and important future for restoration ecology. For one, restoring ecosystems services is seen by the MA as a crosscutting technological response to head off further ecosystem degradation in the future. The MA points to restoration ecology’s track record of achievement of preserving and enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem services, and it extolls restoration ecology’s adaptive management framework as being “particularly valuable given the high levels of uncertainty surrounding coupled socioecological systems.” (MA 2005, p 24).
Another strength of restoration ecology that will come in handy in the future is its continued role in generating and disseminating knowledge; especially, the MA points out, restoration ecology’s use of the knowledge of traditional ecological practitioners.
Will Restoration and Restorations Persist?
Yes, but it won’t be easy. I think there is hope that restoration ecology and its projects will survive because restoration as a scientific discipline and a conservation tool, provides a broad middle ground—between hands off preservation and uncontrolled exploitation—in which it is possible for humans to interact with the land and with each other in a civilized and respectful search for a sustainable future. At least these are my operating assumptions and hopes for the future.
Hobbs, R.J. and E.S.Higgs, and C.M.Hall, editors. 2013. Novel Ecosystems, Intervening in the New Ecological Order. Wiley-Blackwell. Oxford, England.
Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, London.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: General Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Wuerthner, G., E. Crist, and T. Butler, editors. 2014. Keeping the Wild, Against the Domestication of Earth. Island Press, Washington, Covelo, London.