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Restoration efforts will affect large areas of the planet and hundreds of millions of people over the coming decades, but what will these actions look like, and what will they achieve? Debate continues about what constitutes appropriate restoration targets in our human-dominated and ever more rapidly changing world, and the outcome of this debate will impact the actions taken to conserve biodiversity, sequester carbon, and improve human livelihoods at large spatial scales. This special issue brings together eight scientific, historical, and journalistic perspectives to address these two critical questions about ecological restoration in a rapidly changing biosphere.
We review some of the most commonly known models in restoration ecology from the past 20 years. From these, we seek to identify essential elements required for the scaling-up and mainstreaming of restoration and, based on that, develop a new framework that could be used to assist in the realization of long-lasting and effective restoration policies and programs at the landscape and larger spatial scales. We argue that the reference model is particularly important at a time when there are urgent calls and investments for scaling-up restoration to the landscape scale. At that scale, we argue, it is essential to consider both ecological restoration and ecological rehabilitation as just two of the various components in a “family” of restorative activities that must be deployed, including changed management practices for agriculture, to make ongoing human activities and land uses more ecologically sound and sustainable. In conclusion, we present a new model that could help orient if not actually design planning, monitoring and evaluation, scaling-up, and applying restorative activities in new areas.
The Earth system is undergoing rapid, profound anthropogenic change. The primary axes of change include not only the climate system, but also the spread of invasive species, altered biogeochemical and hydrological cycles, modified disturbance regimes, and land degradation and conversion. These factors are influencing the distribution of species and the structure and function of ecosystems worldwide, interacting with climatic stressors that may preclude the persistence of many current species distributions and communities. Ecological disturbances such as wildfires and insect outbreaks can interact with climate variability to precipitate abrupt change on landscape scales. Such changes may limit the feasibility of historically based ecological restoration in many (although by no means all) instances. An alternative emerging approach is based on reinforcing the ecological processes that comprise resilience: resistance, recovery, and reorganization. While resistance and recovery processes fall within a conventional restoration framework, managing populations and ecosystems for reorganization represents a departure from a reference-based restoration approach. When applied to ecosystem management, resilience-based management supplements traditional ecological restoration where stressors of change make the reestablishment of historical communities difficult or maladaptive. We illustrate these ideas with examples drawn primarily from the interior of western North America.
The practice of ecological restoration is challenged by accelerating rates and expanding scales of anthropogenic ecosystem change. The concept of “novel ecosystems” has become a focal point of intramural debate, leading restoration practitioners and researchers to reject, defend, revise, and reframe prior premises and goals. In a world of rapid environmental change, restoration can be seen, depending on one's perspective, as more necessary than ever, or as essentially futile. By revisiting restoration's history and defining a more nuanced approach to the realities of ecosystem change, we may be able to find space for reconciliation, or at least accommodation, of these divergent views. Aldo Leopold recognized as early as the 1930s that human impacts on the “biotic community” are pervasive; that “wilderness is a relative condition”; that conservationists must recognize “the dynamics of [the land's] past history and probable future.” At the same time, he pursued restoration as a necessary new dimension of conservation and proposed his “land ethic” as “a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate” that society had not yet evolved an effective ethical response. Since Leopold's generation, the “great acceleration” in global environmental change has altered the context in which we assess the promise and potential of restoration. It has only deepened, however, the need for conservation science, policy, ethics, and practice to engender resilient landscapes. Ecological restoration remains an essential means of doing so, albeit with redefined aims and methods.
Society has high expectations regarding the potential of ecological restoration to help confront the global environmental crisis, but the huge gap between restoration science and practice may undermine the recovery of native ecosystems in vast areas of degraded lands. In this paper, we explore the potential application of an innovation approach to bridge the gap between knowledge and action in restoration. The most promising innovation strategy for restoration is the adaptation of solutions developed in other fields of activity, for which market forces have historically supported programs of research and development. However, innovations in restoration may not rely only on technological tools requiring high investments. Rather, there are many opportunities for making better use of the existing funds and for low-cost solutions if restoration science and practice are reframed and integrated. If research projects are conceived to promote a co-production of knowledge with end users, valuable solutions for restoration problems may arise without extra investments. For restoration practice, substantial advances in our capacity to revert degradation could be obtained by shifting the focus from plot-scale, expensive solutions to the promotion of natural regeneration in sites where it is ecologically viable and socioeconomically feasible. For capacity building, promising approaches include emulating other models of technology transfer, mainly those used in agriculture, and fostering the use of web-based solutions. For governance, we recommend the promotion of “policy triggers” and better use of technology to obtain and integrate information. Finally, multi-stakeholder coalitions may contribute by linking these different fields of restoration and promoting the co-creation of solutions in complex socio-ecological systems. Large-scale restoration will not be achieved by the simple sum of small-scale projects implemented by traditional restoration approaches, so innovation can play an utmost role to fulfill the decades-old promise of restoration to reverse degradation at the landscape scale.
In the past few years, numerous global, national, and regional targets have been set to restore millions of hectares of tropical forest to achieve multiple goals, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, improvements in the quality and supply of water, and support of human livelihoods. To achieve these ambitious goals, restoration decision makers need guiding principles regarding how to invest limited resources for large-scale forest restoration. Research over the past two decades has shown that a host of abiotic and biotic factors can slow tropical forest recovery, but that the specific barriers to and rate of recovery are site specific. Hence, restoration strategies must be carefully selected considering the natural resilience of a given site, localized barriers to recovery, and the ecological and human goals of the project. Despite the substantial advances in our understanding of tropical forest regeneration and restoration, to date neither the scale of scientific studies nor the restoration projects being implemented have matched the ambitious forest landscape restoration plans that are being proposed. I discuss key ways to enhance the success of tropical forest restoration efforts, citing a range of examples to illustrate each point. Specifically, restoration projects need to be planned and evaluated at larger spatial scales and over longer time periods, which requires better integration of the science and practice of forest restoration. Ultimately, forest restoration success hinges on including multiple stakeholders, such as farmers, local communities, local government leaders, regional and national policymakers, and scientists, in the planning, implementation, and evaluation processes. Finally, efforts to improve knowledge sharing across restoration projects in different regions will enhance the likelihood of implementing successful tropical forest restoration projects at the desired scale.
Reversing large-scale degradation and deforestation goes beyond what can be achieved by site-level ecological restoration. Forest and landscape restoration focuses on spatial scales beyond the “site” level, where multiple land uses and forms of land ownership coexist, and where management decisions are usually made by different sets of stakeholders. In this context, natural regeneration can be a cost-effective approach to expand buffer zones of protected areas or forest reserves, create new forest patches and riparian zones, and create biological corridors to link existing protected areas. Here, I describe different modalities of natural regeneration, describe their benefits and features, and present several case studies of large-scale natural regeneration. Regrowing forests are often ignored, and their ecological and economic value remains largely unrecognized. Effective incentives for landowners and local communities are needed to encourage and protect naturally regenerating forests on farms. Predicting and mapping areas with a high capacity for natural regeneration will lower the overall costs of implementing restoration at local, regional, and national levels and may permit larger areas to be restored. Regrowing tropical forests will play an increasingly important role in climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation in our future uncertain world.
Why do some restored ecosystems persist for centuries while others are quickly converted to alternative land uses or land covers? We propose that restored ecosystems have a temporal dimension that is variable, often finite, and likely predictable to some extent based on attributes of stakeholders, environment, and governance. The longevity of a restored ecosystem carries strong implications for its capacity to support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services, so an emerging challenge for restoration ecology is to predict the circumstances under which restored ecosystems persist for longer or shorter periods of time. We use a case study in tropical forest restoration to demonstrate one way that restored ecosystem longevity can be approached quantitatively, and we highlight opportunities for future research using restoration case study repositories, practitioner surveys, and historical aerial imagery. Much remains to be learned, but it is likely that decision-makers and practitioners have considerable leverage to increase the probability that restored ecosystems persist into the future, extending the benefits of contemporary restoration initiatives.
The words we use to describe phenomena in science shape our understanding of those phenomena, much more so than we often realize. This is especially true in fields driven by strong policy agendas, like restoration ecology and the practice of ecological restoration. The twin challenges of accelerating global change and upscaling global restoration practice make it more imperative than ever to define the terms and the scope of ecological restoration clearly, and differentiate it from other ameliorative land management practices like rehabilitation. Poor definitions and loose use of language will otherwise lead to muddled conception and planning of projects, confused and disappointed stakeholders, and failure to exploit the enormous potential of this radical conservation strategy for both human well-being and the recovery of bio