Unit 3: Principles and Objectives of Ecological Restoration

Introduction to Unit 3

In this unit we will be listening to a presentation by Dave Polster, a plant ecologist with over 40 years of experience in vegetation studies, ecological restoration and invasive species management.

The purpose of this unit is to understand the importance of ecological restoration and be able to look for answers to the following questions:

  • What is ecological restoration practice?
  • What is the importance of a “reference ecosystem”?
  • What are the common mistakes restorationists make?
  • What should we look for?

Learning Objectives

After successfully completing this unit, you will be able to:

  • Describe and explain the purpose of ecological restoration
  • Recognize importance of UN Declaration of Decade of Ecological Restoration

As you watch and listen to the presentation, think about how ecological restoration impacts, or could impact, your work now and in the future. While some of the case studies may not pertain to the work you do now, the principles behind the practice are fundamental and inform work on all scales.


Video attribution: “Let Nature Do the Work” is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.


Summary of key points
What is Ecological Restoration Practice?

Ecological restoration is the process of assisting in the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.  (SER 2004).  A fundamental distinction between ecological restoration and other forms of ecosystem repair is that ecological restoration seeks to ‘assist recovery’ of a natural or semi-natural ecosystem rather than impose a new direction or form upon it.  That is, the activity of restoration places an ecosystem on a trajectory of recovery so that it can persist and its species can adapt and evolve.  (SER 2016).

What is the importance of a “reference ecosystem”?

A fundamental principle of ecological restoration is the identification of an appropriate reference model, commonly called a ‘reference ecosystem’, taking environmental change into account.  The reference ecosystem is meant to represent the site’s ecosystem as it would have been had degradation or damage not occurred, while incorporating the capacity for the ecosystem to adapt to existing and anticipated environmental or climatic change.  The reference ecosystem serves as a target for a restoration project, a target based on analysis of local plant and animal species and other biotic and abiotic conditions.  A shared vision of restoration targets and specific ecological attributes of the restoration site provides the basis for setting goals and objectives and monitoring and assessing restoration outcomes over time.

What are the common mistakes?

A common mistake in selecting a reference ecosystem is to look at a later successional stage ecosystem and its species, and to then plant species from that late successional stage.  Reference ecosystems did not start out with the species that exist there now – those species evolved over time and many generations.  To properly take the first steps of ecological restoration, look at starting with the early successional species first, and plan to work toward the later successional species and ecosystems over time.

What should we look for?

Nature has been restoring itself on drastically disturbed sites for millennia, and can show us a natural path or trajectory of ecosystem recovery over time.  Observe on a disturbed site the following processes: what pioneering species are arriving, and through what means?  What may be preventing natural ecological recovery?  What natural processes are assisting in the recovery?  The next steps are to remove impediments to natural recovery, and to assist (if necessary) in establishing the pioneer species that will start the ecosystem trajectory into recover over time.  And allow time and patience to be present, and be open to unexpected positive change

The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030

The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030 was conceived as a means of highlighting the need for greatly increased global cooperation to restore degraded and destroyed ecosystems, contributing to efforts to combat climate change and safeguard biodiversity, food security, and water supply.  How can First Nations peoples, citizens and professionals working around the globe become involved with the goals and objectives of the upcoming UN Decade on Ecological Restoration?



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Ecosystems for the Future Copyright © by Division of Continuing Studies, University of Victoria is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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