“Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”1
As a society we spend millions upon millions of dollars each year on restoring areas back to their “natural” state. Countless paid and volunteer hours go into planting native flora species and attempting to eradicate undesirable weeds. But what if we have been doing it wrong?
Restoring an ecosystem is no easy task. There is a lot more to consider than simply planting a few hundred native species and hoping for the best. We need to consider the current state of the ecosystem. Has this ecosystem crossed a threshold in which simple restoration processes would not provide a suitable solution? How much has the hydrology, geology, biology and climate changed within the ecosystem? We also need to consider whether the ecosystem can be restored using previously existing fauna and flora species or whether the regions climate has changed too much.
Often when considering a restoration project, we try to pin point a segment in time in which to restore back to. Whether this be 50 years ago, before industrial revolution or prior to settlement. When considering this point in time, it’s often forgotten just how much as changed within any given area. Much of the earths biological, chemical, hydrology, climate and geology has changed immensely, often to a point in which it can not be reversed. So rather the restoring to a particular point in the past, we should instead be restoring to current conditions. This may mean using plant species that may not be considered “native” to the region, but species that are more tolerant to current conditions.
Simply planting fauna species does not result in a successful restoration. We need to consider the deeper biological processes involved in an ecosystem. It’s the microscopic processes that we often overlook which are of the utmost importance. Organisms that we don’t often see play a vital role in restoration processes and the introduction of species progression and restoration trajectory. Again, when considering appropriate organisms, we need to take into account that changed that have occurred and will continue to occur within the ecosystem.
Each ecosystem consists of it’s own unique attributed and processes. It is therefore not overly constructive to completely copy restoration projects between differing sites. Each site needs its own project outlook and planning as no two sites will contain the exact same attributes. To assist with each restoration project, it’s important to implement adequate initial evaluation and monitoring prior to any restoration proceeding. Care must first be taken to understand the species that currently occur, why they occur and what other species may also be successful within the site.
One aspect of restoration we seem to fail in is the sharing of information. In this day in age it surprised me just how isolated ecological restoration is. We should have large national and international wide databases in which practitioners are able to share restoration successes and failures to enable future learning opportunities. The sharing of such information could save money, frustration and many man hours of work.
So why aren’t we considering these changes? Are humans too set in their ways? Or is the idea of change simply too much? In many cases it simply comes down to money and changes in government. Often a restoration is given a specific amount of funding in which to complete a project within a given time frame. This funding and time frame is generally only enough to undergo a basic restoration project and does not include more in-depth research, monitoring or evaluation. We also tend to see governments providing funding for projects which, when new government enters parliament, is changed or ceased in favour of different projects. When will we learn that restoration does not come with a time frame, it’s forever evolving and our lack of flexibility will only continue to hamper our restoration efforts into the future.
1 McDonald, T., Gann, G. D., Jonson, J. & Dixon, K. D. (2016). International standards for the practice of ecological restoration – including principles and key concepts. Washington: Society for Ecological Restoration.