The Amazon Rainforest, as pictured here, is one of the primary focuses on many ecological restoration efforts.

What is the Goal of Restoration Ecology?

Modern society accomplished incredible things in just the last two centuries. We’ve harnessed the power of electricity, built transportation marvels and constructed vast infrastructure projects. During that time, our global population expanded from less than a billion to just under 8 billion people.

Unfortunately, this progress and growth has taken a toll on our environment, depleting natural resources, diminishing biodiversity and warming the planet.

Environmentalists, biologists and climate scientists now overwhelmingly agree that we’re quickly approaching a crossroads. If we don’t reduce our carbon footprint, conserve our remaining natural resources and restore vital ecosystems, things will get much worse in the future as the planet continues warming and our biodiversity further declines. That’s where ecological restoration comes in.

“Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.”

Naomi Klein

Restoring balance to an unstable system with ecological restoration

In addition to shifting toward renewable energy and greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we must also invest in conserving and restoring our many natural biomes, especially forests, one of the planet’s primary carbon sinks.

From rainforests to arctic tundra, nearly every ecosystem on earth has been significantly impacted by human development and will continue to diminish without intervention. That intervention must come in the form of both environmental conservation and restoration ecology, along with sustainable land management practices.

The goal of restoration ecology, according to several experts, is to aid the recovery of an ecosystem that has been disturbed or damaged by external influences, such as fire, logging, mining, agriculture, or urban development. Restoration strategies “may be designed to replicate a pre-disturbance ecosystem or to create a new ecosystem where it had not previously occurred.”

Different restoration projects may have different goals and methods of achieving them. For example, some seek to reestablish or stabilize native species while others may simply attempt to restore basic ecosystem functions. Restoration ecology goals can include:

  • Removing and/or mitigating pollution
  • Removing derelict or obsolete manmade structures
  • Repairing or enhancing waterways
  • Flood mitigation
  • Erosion control
  • Restoration or creation of natural barriers
  • Soil restoration
  • Reforesting or revegetating damaged areas
  • Reintroducing native species of plants and animals
  • Eliminating invasive species

Restoration is a long-term process

In most cases, ecological restoration projects take years and sometimes decades to achieve positive outcomes. However, with the right plan of action, resources and time, these projects can produce outstanding results, sometimes well beyond expectations, like the Hinewai Reserve on the Banks Peninsula in New Zealand.

Ecological restoration techniques and strategies vary widely depending on the type of ecosystem, the extent of damage, species involved, objectives, and other factors. However, most restoration projects involve some or all of the following steps:

Research: Perform historical research on the area to determine what the ecology may have been like in the past. Form a hypothesis on how the original ecosystem functioned. This process can include acquiring old land survey maps, historical photos, first-hand accounts and other records. The research phase of a project may also include a review of other restoration projects performed on similar ecosystems to gain insights, learn from prior successes/failures, etc.

Planning and goal-setting: Create a detailed inventory of current ecological resources and thoroughly map the area. Create a set of projections that outline the logical progression of restorative stages and/or milestones. Develop a scope of work with a detailed project plan, including the stages and steps required to accomplish all restoration goals. Create a budget based on necessary resources and timeline, including materials, personnel and equipment. Request permits, if needed, and submit project proposal for review. Make any necessary adjustments based on feedback from stakeholders and/or oversight committee.

Implementation, monitoring and reporting: Once a project begins, it’s important to actively monitor progress throughout the lifecycle of each project stage, adjusting timelines as necessary and providing regular updates to stakeholders and/or oversight committees.

Final assessment: Once all primary stages of a project have been completed, it’s important to objectively assess the success or failure of the project, including what might have been done differently, mistakes that could be avoided in the future, etc. This final assessment or case study can be extremely helpful for other restoration ecologists and (in the case of success) to further demonstrate efficacy of this important field.

Future checks: Once a restoration project concludes, it’s important for practitioners to check on the area’s progress in the future. This might include annual follow-up assessments for the first few years, along with long-term goal assessments at the five-year and ten-year mark.

Why is restoration ecology important?

Earth’s amazing biodiversity contributes to the stability of its many ecosystems, from ancient old growth forests to fragile coral reefs. Sadly, that biodiversity has never been more threatened. Two of the best tools we have in the fight against biodiversity loss are conservation biology and restoration ecology. To learn more about why restoration ecology is so important, check out the first post in this series.

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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