Planning for the future of ecological restoration

Picnic Hill sentinel.

Picnic Hill sentinel.

When I am planning an ecological restoration project, my two main questions are:

1) Toward what restoration standard (s) should I aim; and 2) What is the best way to achieve the desired outcome (s)? The answers to these two questions are not always obvious right at the start, are often elusive, and are usually discovered only after much fieldwork, trial and error, and adaptive restoration.

If I follow my own advice—which is to know what I am doing and why—I try to set clear, measurable goals and objectives and identify a variety of alternative approaches and a range of acceptable outcomes.   I also consider enlarging the restoration target as much as possible and extending the time I imagine that the restoration will need to be completed.  All the while, keeping in mind that I may have to change course as new conditions and information becomes available, and understanding that restorations are never “completed”.  This is—or should be—standard ecological restoration practice.

But, despite good planning based upon scientific principles, and despite our technical expertise, we don’t get all that we hope for.  Restoration is hard work, and at the end of the day, most ecological restoration projects I know of achieve only some of their project goals. Ecological restoration projects meet a few surprises and setbacks along the way; we restorationists experience both satisfaction and frustration; we learn some things, and continue to be puzzled by other things. But, we forge on and strive to do better.

Critiques of Ecological Restoration

All this comes to mind as I consider the recent spate of criticism of ecological restoration from the proponents of novel ecosystems.

Novel Ecosystems are defined as:

. . . systems that differ in composition and/or function from present and past systems as a consequence of changing species distributions, environmental alteration through climate and land use change and shifting values about nature and ecosystem.” Hobbs, R. J., E.S. Higgs, and C.M. Hall. 2013. P. 3

While what Hobbs and colleagues say describes the sort of situations we restorationists have always dealt with, the basic idea of the novel ecosystem proponents is that because of the nature, extent, and rate of impacts of human activities, some ecosystems have moved in to conditions never seen before and are beyond the ability of restoration ecologists to repair.

After a prescribed burn of Curtis Prairie in the UW-Madison Arboretum

After a prescribed burn of Curtis Prairie in the UW-Madison Arboretum

 Specific Claims against ecological restoration made by novel ecosystem proponents

Then, novel ecosystem advocates (Hobbs, et al. 2009) take it a step further and claim:

  1. Restoration, taken literally, offers false promise.”
  2. “Escalating global change is resulting in widespread, no-analogue environments and novel ecosystems that render traditional goals unachievable.”
  3. “False expectations . . . derive, partially because of an overselling of what restoration can do, by some, and partially because of a misunderstanding of the complexity and dynamics of ecosystems being managed or restored.”

Claims of this sort are found throughout the novel ecosystems literature but Hobbs, et al. (2009) are especially clear and concise statement of their positions.

Myself and other restoration ecologists take an exception to these statements, especially because the authors have not subjected their theories to rigorous scientific scrutiny. But, to be fair, our discipline should not be immune to, or afraid of, criticism or discussion. If our colleagues feel that we are falling short, we should listen.   We should ask ourselves if there is any truth to these assertions?

Restoration Checklist and Planning Principles

One way to acknowledge the critiques and to examine the assumptions of our profession, is to think about how we plan for the future–both what we expect to happen, and the uncertainties.  For example, we know that two primary challenges facing ecological restoration in the next few decades will be 1) the restoration of severely disturbed land—perhaps by creating unusual communities and ecosystems—and 2) anticipating the impacts of global climate change. And, just like any preparedness planning—take prescribed fire planning, for example—there are a few underlying principles that provide a good planning foundation. To that end, here is a checklist for ecological restoration planners and managers that we can all use during our planning and implementation.

How do we define ecological restoration?

  • Do we use the term restoration too freely, sometimes as an “ecological seal of approval” for a project?
  • Do we refer to some projects as “restorations” when in fact, they may be something else For example, a pest plant control effort might be necessary for restoration but, by itself, is pest plant control sufficient to really call the project a restoration?
  • When we say we are restoring a prairie, what aspects of a prairie do we realistically hope to bring back?

Are we intimately familiar with our surroundings?

  • Are we familiar enough with the ecosystem in question to know that it is in need of our help?
  • When we set out to restore a “disturbed system” do we have a complete understanding of the nature, and extent of the disturbance?
  • What do we me by “disturbed”?
  • Do we know what to do to help it?  If not, how do we find out what we should do, if anything?
  • What do we know about the processes that led to the ecosystems degradation and invasion (if that is a problem) and do we have an understanding of what it will take to recover the system.
  • Is a research study that asks these questions, built into the restoration project?

Do we promise more than we can deliver?

  • Do our goals and objectives use evidence-based ecological indicators integrating structure, function, and diversity in our projects?
  • Do our goals and objectives include measurability and criteria to assess the outcomes of our ecological restoration projects?
  • And are we monitoring our projects to answer questions about how the project turned out so we can whether or not the outcomes produce the results we anticipated?

Plan for the worst and hope for the best

  • Develop a list of if/then scenarios to guide your actions for a range of possible outcomes.
  • Develop response plans to meet anticipated outcomes.

Build capacity within your team

  • This is perhaps the most important strategic thing you can do. Strive to build capacity, and flexibility, within your organization to expect, and respond to, changes.
  • Celebrate the achievement of desired outcomes.
  • Learn from setbacks and surprises.

These steps are all part of knowing what we are doing and why we are doing it.


Harris, J.A., Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E. and Aronson, J. 2006. Ecological Restoration and global climate change. Restoration Ecology 14. 170-176.

Richard J. Hobbs, Lauren M. Hallett, Paul R. Ehrlich and Harold A. Mooney. 2011. Intervention Ecology: Applying Ecological Science in the Twenty-first : BioScience, 61(6):442-450. 2011.
Published By: American Institute of Biological Sciences

Hobbs, R. J. Higgs, E.S., and Hall. C.M. 2013. Introduction: Why Novel Ecosystems? In Novel Ecosystems, Intervening in the New Ecological World Order. 2013 Edited by Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E.S. and Hall. C.M. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.

Riccardi, A. 2007. Are modern biological invasions an unprecedented form of global change? Conservation Biology. 21. 329-336.

Root, T.L. and Schneider, S.H., 2006. Conservation and climate change: the challenges ahead. Conservation Biology, 20. 706-708.





About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Basic assumptions of restoration ecology, Burnham Centennial Prairie, Ecological restoration, Novel Ecosystems, Restoration ecology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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