Restoration ecology

We have discussed several areas in biology that largely revolve around issues of biodiversity and certainly, systems modified by humans. Restoration ecology is one such area that addresses how degraded habitats may be re-established either to its original or alternative state. This implies there must be specific goals that drive a restoration effort.

It seems the end goal of a restoration effort is to reinstate some semblance of the original biodiversity (at the primary/secondary producer level) of the ecosystem—i.e., a once pristine habitat. This objective assumes that other processes such as nutrient cycling and energy flow within trophic levels will follow. Moreover, the complexity of the system is being restored because ‘structure and specific processes’ will in some sense develop a “self-sustainable” system. A restoration effort may also serve the purpose of establishing an aesthetic attraction; must we warrant the need for such sites to facilitate carbon sequestration in trees and thus alleviate the problem of the United States as a net exporter of carbon?
Even if such goals are established, how certain are we of the desired outcome(s)? Further, may we apply such a strategy to all systems? It appears that such efforts are dependent on what systems are important to restore based on the goals mentioned above. For example, a degraded habitat where non-native plants interfere with an economically important crop resulting in yield loss versus a retired agriculture land with a selenium reservoir—a hotbed for some non-native plant species.
On the issue of alien/exotic/invasive/non-native/introduced species: we may remove (through mechanical, chemical control) “weeds” that interfere with native crops to increase net yield; this in part is based on the concept of preemption: something bigger (for e.g., greater seed mass of a non-native) may ‘out compete’ a native plant over a limiting resource. However, my limited but growing survey of the literature on this issue indicates that researchers often do not ascertain what the native and non native in question are competing for. In addition, perhaps it is easier to make a blanket statement that one species is out competed by another because the non-native and native have similar habitat templates, but in fact we have yet to investigate a range of physiological criteria in this area to support the concept of preemption. Thus, we may alter our restoration goals (may be less cost, effort?) if we better understand what processes drive non-native and native interactions.
But are such approaches practical? No doubt certain degraded systems require human intervention to reverse trends (e.g., regeneration failure of native plants in old-growth forests) but at what point do we determine our efforts are sufficient to allow ‘nature to take its course’? Indeed, is there a point in talking about an end goal (if there is no historic data on the structure of the system, how do we define an end goal?) or should such sciences shift toward a model based approach that can predict likely outcomes of a certain strategy? Not to generate further ecological angst, but the issue of climate change is likely to complicate our efforts because of a change in factors that limit the role of a species in its environment—ecological niche and result in species re-distribution.

One thought on “Restoration ecology

  1. Philipo

    There are other positive effects of non native species that have been forgoten. these could be1. Quickly growing trees could be the immediate source of fuel wood in areas where ecological provisioning service is a problem due to overpopulation2. There are some other places where native plants cannot do well, here non native plants culd be used to stabilise soil then eradicated3. A need to rethink about non native plants have to be in place as another debate

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