“Advances in restoration ecology: rising to the challenges of the coming decades”

Perring, M.P. et al. 2015. Ecosphere, 6(8): art. 131.
Simultaneous environmental changes challenge biodiversity persistence and human wellbeing. The science and practice of restoration ecology, in collaboration with other disciplines, can contribute to overcoming these challenges. This endeavor requires a solid conceptual foundation based in empirical research which confronts, tests and influences theoretical developments. We review conceptual developments in restoration ecology over the last 30 years. We frame our review in the context of changing restoration goals which reflect increased societal awareness of the scale of environmental degradation and the recognition that inter-disciplinary approaches are needed to tackle environmental problems. Restoration ecology now encompasses facilitative interactions and network dynamics, trophic cascades, and above- and belowground linkages. It operates in a non-equilibrium, alternative states framework, at the landscape scale, and in response to changing environmental, economic and social conditions. Progress has been marked by conceptual advances in the fields of trait-environment relationships, community assembly, and understanding the links between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Conceptual and practical advances have been enhanced by applying evolving technologies, including treatments to increase seed germination and overcome recruitment bottlenecks, high throughput DNA sequencing to elucidate soil community structure and function, and advances in satellite technology and GPS tracking to monitor habitat use. The synthesis of these technologies with systematic reviews of context dependencies in restoration success, model based analyses and consideration of complex socio-ecological systems will allow generalizations to inform evidence based interventions. Ongoing challenges include setting realistic, socially acceptable goals for restoration under changing environmental conditions, and prioritizing actions in an increasingly space-competitive world. Ethical questions also surround the use of genetically modified material, translocations, taxon substitutions, and de-extinction, in restoration ecology. Addressing these issues, as the Ecological Society of America looks to its next century, will require current and future generations of researchers and practitioners, including economists, engineers, philosophers, landscape architects, social scientists and restoration ecologists, to work together with communities and governments to rise to the environmental challenges of the coming decades.

To mark the centennial of the Ecological Society of America, ESA commissioned a set of “centennial papers” that synthesize the current, past and future state of major areas of ecology. Starting last January, this blog hosted an extended discussion of Erle Ellis’ centennial paper on ecology in the Anthropocene. In this post, I’d like to look much more briefly at one of the other centennial papers: “Advances in restoration ecology: rising to the challenges of the coming decades”, published by Michael Perring et al. last year in Ecosphere.

Restoration ecology is the science of restoring “damaged, degraded or destroyed” ecosystems. Defined narrowly, it encompasses the re-establishment or re-introduction of flora or fauna to an ecosystem. Defined more broadly, restoration ecology includes any conservation action undertaken to restore an ecosystem to some prior state (e.g., the removal of heavy metal contaminants or invasive species, or the restoration of degraded habitat). In this broader definition, restoration ecology complements the preservation of wild places, and these two types of actions together are the two main components of modern conservation practice.

Restoration ecology is a relatively young science, and the practice of restoration has developed more or less alongside growing awareness of the dominance of human activities on the Earth’s ecosystems, i.e. the Anthropocene. So, many of the current ideas in restoration ecology should dovetail nicely with the subjects of recent posts on this blog. As a freshwater ecologist interested in the practice of restoration, I was curious to reflect on my own experiences with restoration, and the ways in which the practice of restoration in freshwater ecosystems might differ from that in terrestrial ones.

Many authors distinguish between restoration ecology (the science of restoration) and ecological restoration (the practice and implementation of restoration), though these two fields are usually discussed hand-in-hand. Perring et al. attempt the ambitious task of reviewing the development of restoration ecology over the past 30+ years, and of looking to the future to highlight ongoing challenges and pressing questions for restoration ecologists. This is an ambitious and comprehensive effort that synthesizes both important conceptual and theoretical advances as well as practical issues. The authors focus exclusively on the restoration of plant communities in terrestrial ecosystems, understandably because this reflects both the development of the field and the authors’ expertise. Here, I would like to briefly consider how well the ideas in this paper apply to the restoration of freshwater ecosystems.

The guiding principles of restoration practice apply equally to terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems:

  • the need for clear articulation of restoration goals before undertaking any action,
  • a growing appreciation of “novel ecosystems” and the challenges associated with restoring some ecosystems to historical states,
  • and the need for careful assessment of societal benefits that might be derived from restoration projects.

Indeed, many of the conceptual advances reviewed by Perring et al. apply across ecosystem types. Implementing these ideas effectively is the key challenge of ecological restoration, and Perring et al. argue that this will require “solid ecological foundations on which to build restoration practice.”

What are the conceptual foundations of restoration ecology, and are they different for freshwater and terrestrial systems? Perring et al. give, as Table 1 (p. 5), a list of ecological concepts that are applicable to restoration practice. Many of these concepts are applicable to most ecosystem types. For example, ideas from disturbance ecology inform restoration projects in both terrestrial and freshwater systems (e.g., an important restoration goal in rivers is often to move towards a more historical or natural flow regime, a flow regime which constitutes a disturbance regime to which resident organisms are adapted). Emerging concepts related to alternative stable states and ecosystem resilience are also applicable to freshwater systems. Other ideas emphasized by Perrin et al., for example ideas of succession, seem to have less application to freshwater systems.

The idea of managing for ecosystem resilience is particularly compelling. In an editorial entitled “Rivers of the Anthropocene?” LeRoy Poff argues that managing ecosystems for resilience to anticipated and ongoing environmental change is a key guiding principle for the practice of ecological restoration. Future climate change and continued changes in land cover and land use will alter the large-scale hydrological cycles that drive river flows. A key consequence is “shifting baselines:” the idea that historical river conditions may not be a feasible restoration goal given the large-scale changes that have occurred and will continue to occur in the upstream watershed. This idea of shifting baselines is closely linked with the idea of “novel ecosystems,” i.e. ecosystems that are outside of historical reference conditions and without a historical precedent. For these ecosystems, restoration to some historical condition may not be feasible given available resources. Restoration ecologists can recognize that restoration towards some historical baseline may not be possible, but it may still be possible to manage ecosystems to maximize resilience in the face anticipated future environmental changes.

Many of these same ideas are presented in the Perring et al. synthesis. As recently as 30 years ago, Perring et al. point out, the goal for many restoration projects was “hastening a return to the pre-disturbance equilibrium state.” Most contemporary practitioners have a greater appreciation for “novel ecosystems” and the difficulty of attempting to move current ecosystems towards some historical baseline. As a result, restoration goals and practice are often informed by an appreciation for the many complex and longstanding inter-relationships between human societies, ecosystems and global change. So, another example of concepts of the Anthropocene influencing the practice of conservation on the ground!

Further Reading

Poff, N.L. 2015. Rivers of the Anthropocene? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12(8):427-427. This is the editorial I mention in the post.

A moral cartography for the Anthropocene

We welcome Manuel Arias Maldonado, of the University of Malága, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This post summarizes an argument in his recent book Environment & Society: Socionatural Relations in the Anthropocene (Springer, 2015).

If the Anthropocene were just a scientific category dealing with natural phenomena, we would not feel so concerned about it. But, as Mike Ellis and Zev Trachtenberg have rightly argued, the Anthropocene is not Continue reading

Surviving the Anthropocene Part 2: Of Omega Points and Oil

My previous post lamented the flawed presentation of climate change at the David Koch-funded Hall of Human Origins and suggested that a spiritual-scientific ideology, traceable in part to Teilhard de Chardin, infuses the Smithsonian’s Human Origins initiative and related events. In this follow-up, I take a closer look at this ideology and its connection to broader currents in contemporary evolutionary thought and the Anthropocene. Continue reading

Surviving the Anthropocene: Big Brains and Big Money at the Smithsonian

We welcome Lisa Sideris, of Indiana University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This is the first installment of a two-part post; please come back again Friday for the conclusion.

In late May this year, two related attractions drew me to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C.  One was an ambitious-sounding Continue reading

“The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis: A Biography of an Ingenious Species”

R. DeFries. 2014. New York: Basic Books.

The human species has long lived on the edge of starvation. Now we produce enough food so that all 7 billion of us could eat nearly 3,000 calories every day. This is such an astonishing transformation as to Continue reading

The real inconvenient truth?

This will not be a very scientific post, but it is also not a rant. I am trying to understand something: why is there so little large scale planning and discussion about the inevitable and grave consequences of climate change?

There is a surprising amount of Continue reading

The fundamental ethical adaptation: anthroponomy

We welcome to the blog Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, of Case Western Reserve University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t like the term “environmentalism.” I think every human should take care of her home, want to be mindful of other forms of life on Earth, and should Continue reading

Seeing the Anthropocene in something good

Lake Whitney Water Purification Facility, Hamden, CT. Google Earth. Imagery date 9/19/2013. URL: http://goo.gl/maps/ZfQWL

Lake Whitney Water Purification Facility, Hamden, CT. Google Earth. Imagery date 9/19/2013. URL: http://goo.gl/maps/ZfQWL

Recently someone asked me to point to something good in the Anthropocene. That can be a hard one. The Anthropocene narrative, to the extent that there is a single story there, is typically Continue reading

The Ecological Circumstances of the Circumstances of Politics

This is the first in a series of posts on Environmental Political Theory.

With his famous phrase “the circumstances of politics” the philosopher Jeremy Waldron offers an abstract characterization of what politics are at the most basic level. Waldron holds that Continue reading

Mourning the Dodo: On Significant Otherness in the Anthropocene — Part 2


Pictured here is a “grolar,” one of the many arctic hybrids that are part of the “sexual revolution” going on in the Arctic due to climate change.

In my post last week I wrote about the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO) currently under construction on the Isle of Portland off the southern coast of England.  This conceptually sophisticated project, led by the architectural firm of David Adjaye, offers a thoughtful means of linking local, global, and planetary histories of the extinction crisis while drawing attention to the fight to preserve the earth’s biodiversity.  As I noted last time, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea of extending private grieving and collective mourning to include non-human earthly companions that have gone extinct or are gravely endangered.  But I’m uneasy about the MEMO project’s aspirations to becoming a world heritage site that rivals St. Paul’s Cathedral and other historical landmarks.  Such a stone monument seems like an odd nineteenth-century relic in a digital, networked world. Continue reading

Mourning the Dodo: On Significant Otherness in the Anthropocene — Part 1

We welcome Tom Lekan, of the University of South Carolina, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This is the first installment of a two-part post; please come back again next week for the conclusion. Continue reading

Video of Ellis Talk and Panel Discussion


Continue reading

Moral Meaning & Morally Mending (Nature)


The Anthropocene Biosphere Project has changed the way that I view the relationship between humans and nature. Generally, there are two prevailing beliefs about the role that human beings play Continue reading

Together, With Nature


The 2016 Anthropocene Biosphere project brought together intellectuals from various fields to share their intellectual expertise on how humankind is shaping our planet. These experts, through the blog and live presentation, wove together Continue reading

Culture as Climate


For ecologists, the meaning should be very clear. The forces of humanity are now akin to those of climate geophysics or biology and therefore as fundamental to understanding the processes that shape life on Earth as Continue reading