What is Ecological Restoration and Why is it So Important?

The big blue and green planet we all share supports more than eight million species of plants and animals, according to recent scientific estimates, and the vast majority haven’t even been discovered yet. Unfortunately, new evidence suggests that biodiversity may be at greater risk than ever before in human history. A recent report by the IPBES notes that about one million animal and plant species are likely threatened with extinction, many within decades.

Our biggest challenge? We must work to better understand and manage the complex interactions between Earth’s natural ecology and human civilization. And we must redouble our efforts to preserve our planet’s precious biodiversity.

This work requires a two-pronged approach: ecological restoration and conservation.

Exploring connections within ecosystems

In the past few decades, scientists have gained a much more nuanced understanding of Earth’s complex ecology, but we still have a lot to discover. 

According to National Geographicecosystems are unique geographic landscapes with a variety of plants, animals, insects, microorganisms, weather, and topography that all interact in various (and sometimes difficult to understand) ways. 

Parts of an ecosystem directly or indirectly affect other parts, creating a complex chain of interactions, connections, and dependencies. Food webs and the nutrient cycle are two examples of complex, cyclical ecological systems. In most cases, these systems persist by establishing a natural balance between native organisms and other natural resources, such as water and minerals. Earth’s many ecosystems have evolved naturally over the millennia and have sometimes been nearly wiped out by outside forces, from asteroid impacts to major geologic events.

These periods of decline have been termed mass extinction events by scientists. Five mass extinctions already took place in prehistory. Some believe we’re living through a sixth.

Molybdenum mining in the United States
The stability of ecosystems depends on a multitude of factors, and some systems are more fragile than others. Unfortunately, human activities like urban development, agriculture, logging, mining, tourism, and recreation often cause disruption. Pollution, deforestation, and the introduction of invasive species all take a major toll on natural biodiversity. Add the widespread and increasing impacts of global climate change, and it’s no wonder so many ecosystems have become strained to the breaking point. 
 
New research indicates that human activity has likely altered 97 percent of Earth’s land through a combination of habitat and species loss, according to the Smithsonian. The study examined three measures of ecological integrity: 1) habitat intactness {how human activity has impacted the land}, 2) faunal intactness {the overall extent of species loss}, and 3) functional intactness {looking specifically at species loss among animals that contribute to the stability of an ecosystem}.
 
Considering the extent of humanity’s impact on Earth’s ecological systems, it’s now more important than ever to both restore and protect those systems before they become irreversibly damaged. 
 

The crucial work of healing ecosystems through restoration efforts

To create a shared ecological restoration definition, we must first understand ecological decline. According to the Society for Ecological Restoration, an ecosystem may become damaged (rapid, short-term harm to part of an ecosystem), degraded (long-term decline of native biodiversity), or in extreme cases, destroyed (unchecked decline leading to total or near-total loss of native biodiversity).

Scientists and ecologists (a.k.a. practitioners), along with paid workers or volunteers, implement ecological restoration practices to aid ecosystem recovery by stopping and hopefully reversing degradation. However, in cases of destruction, full ecological restoration can be much more difficult.

When left unchecked, widespread land degradation can eventually lead to desertification, an increasingly difficult problem in parts of the world like Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

Birds flying in sunset

What is ecological restoration?

Short-term damage may eventually be restored naturally, but once degradation gains a foothold, ecosystems are often unable to recover without intervention. It helps to think of restoration ecology as a kind of first aid. Practitioners can only serve as healing catalysts by creating the right conditions for recovery. The native plants, animals, and microorganisms must do the long-term work of healing the land, soil, water, and air over time. In some cases, recovery can be kickstarted simply by removing invasive species and re-introducing or propagating native species. In other cases, entire landforms must be restored, erosion mitigated, pollutants remediated, and multiple native plants and animals reintroduced.

Some significant ecological restoration examples include the cleanup and management of various superfund sites throughout the US and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. Other examples include:

Even with dedicated, long-term restoration ecology practices, it may be impossible to fully restore an ecosystem to its former state. However, partial restoration and stability of native biodiversity is still better than total collapse.

 

Ecological restoration is more than just planting trees

 

In response to growing concerns about climate change and deforestation, activists have placed significant emphasis on reforestation as a strategy to both repair the land and combat global warming.

According to ecologist Thomas Crowther, reforestation is just one part of preserving Earth’s life-sustaining biodiversity and battling climate change. Although his headline-making research on reforestation made waves in both the scientific community and popular culture – eventually leading to the UN’s viral Trillion Trees Campaign – Crowther has since urged governments not to overlook the need to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, protect existing wild habitats, and restore damaged ecosystems by reestablishing native species.

The importance of ongoing conservation and management efforts

Although ecologists can often partially rehabilitate degraded or destroyed ecosystems, these efforts can fail. Conservation, i.e. the ongoing protection and management of natural ecosystems, must be prioritized to ensure those ecosystems remain for future generations. Ultimately, this requires funding from both local and state governments, taxpayers, private donors, industry, and other sources. It also requires the passing of legislation and regulations to protect our most precious natural ecosystems before they become threatened, degraded, or disappear entirely. 

“Forests are the ‘lungs’ of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

― Franklin D. Roosevelt

No amount of ecological restoration can bring back an old growth forest once it’s been destroyed. Fortunately, a growing number of people have committed themselves to protecting these ancient and priceless ecosystems by direct action, donating financial support, or voting for pro-environment leaders.

 

Learning opportunities

 

For more information , check out the Society for Ecological Restoration. If you are interested in pursuing additional education in this field, consider the campus-based Bachelor of Science in Restoration Ecology or fully online Master of Natural Resource Stewardship with a focus on Ecological Restoration from Colorado State University.

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