What does the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration mean for you?

“…collaboration across academic disciplines and connecting the needs of humans and the ecosystems”

The United Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 the “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration” in response to the large-scale, human-induced ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss. In a recent paper, Joern Fischer and colleagues argue that collaboration across academic disciplines and connecting the needs of humans and the ecosystems would be the most effective approach for restoration. 

Humans are the dominant species around the world and we are part of the ecosystem. How we interact with that ecosystem has a huge effect on ecological restoration. Source: Creative Commons

Earth At Night….. Can you see your city?” by Icarus Kuwait is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
What is Ecological Restoration?

When an ecosystem is destroyed or degraded, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Restoration ecology is the study of how ecosystems recover and how we can help return them to the biodiverse and productive ecosystems they once were. This could involve hauling in more top soil to replace the soil that was lost, planting native plant species, diverting water to the places that need it most, or stabilizing soil to prevent erosion.

Planting trees, like this park ranger in Joshua Tree National Park,  is a common form of ecological restoration. Restoration also includes removing dams, reintroducing animals, and improving the soil. Source: Creative Commons

The Restoration Ecology Ranger Providing Planting Instructions” by Joshua Tree National Park is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

There are two primary objectives for a restoration project: 

1) to restore the biodiversity and function of the ecosystem 

2) to provide goods and services that people value 

The former focuses on the strategies outlined above. The latter are called “Ecosystem Services” and include things like pollination of crops, carbon storage, cultural significance, and landscapes that look nice. Focusing on a single species or ecosystem service may be detrimental. For example, restoring a forest to simply increase carbon storage may result in a forest composed of a single tree species which stores a lot of carbon but compromises biodiversity. 

Restoring ecosystems for the benefit of humans and the environment

Humans are part of the restoration story, since we perform the restoration and  are also affected by the outcome. Therefore, it is important to consider the role of humans in restoration. One way to approach this is to look at the similarities between ecological and sociological research. 

Ecosystem function is determined by the types of species that live there. Generally, a more diverse ecosystem performs more functions. Diversity also matters in a social context because restoration will be more successful if it manages for ecosystem services valued by a diverse group of people. Instead of planting a monoculture of trees to increase carbon storage, restoration would be more successful with a diversity of plants which may increase the aesthetic appeal and the diversity of pollinators. 

Restoration ecologists must also consider how connected the ecosystems are as while this could help spread native species to other suitable habitats, it may also help unwanted invasive species move. Likewise, there needs to be connectivity between the humans organizing the restoration project. Restoration projects often involve people from universities, governments, and private companies and uncoordinated projects may lead to failure due to differences in organizational structure and different end goals. 

Community engagement at all ages improves restoration success. By showing people how they can benefit from the land they are protecting and restoring, they develop a strong connection to the land. Source: Creative Commons

Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office Friends Group Connects People with Nature at Great Lakes Experience Festival in Dunkirk, NY” by USFWS Fish and Aquatic Conservation is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Restoration ecologists need to be aware of the “slow variables” that may impact a project. In ecological terms, this could be a slow accumulation of nutrients in a lake that may lead to toxic algae blooms. And in sociological terms, this could be the gradual climate change or human population growth that may harm the newly restored ecosystem. 

Another way to use sociology to improve restoration is to focus on “relational values.” This means focusing on the connections people have with nature such as their experiences and the relationship between nature and living ethically responsible, also known as living “green.” This framework is valuable for restoration because it provides a lens for the researchers to explain how people’s preferences influence the success of restoration projects. Ecologists can tap into the innate sense of place and local identity to increase participation in restoration.

Before and after the restoration of a desert scrubland in New Mexico. Restorationists can learn from these successes to further restore more areas. Source: Creative Commons

BLM Embraces Partnerships to Restore New Mexico” by mypubliclands is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Combining ecology and sociology is not a new idea. In fact, many of the landscapes around the world that we consider “pristine” have been impacted by humans. We are inevitably part of the ecosystem which makes us integral to the restoration process. To improve restoration during the next decade and beyond, ecologists should learn from Indigenous peoples and local communities that have a connection to the land and have been applying the values of socio-ecology long before the term was invented.

By combining the principles of sociology and ecology we can conclude that human actions shape the environment and that the environment shapes human well-being, therefore it should be in humans’ best interest to protect and restore the ecosystems we rely on.

Source: Fischer, J, Riechers, M., Loos, J., Martin-Lopez, B., Temperton, VM. 2020. Making the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration a Social-Ecological Endeavour. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2020.08.018

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Brianne Palmer

I am a PhD candidate at San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis studying how biological soil crusts respond and recover from fire. Most of my research is in coastal grasslands and sage scrub. We use DNA and field measurements to understand how cyanobacteria within biological soil crusts help ecosystems recover after low severity fires. I am also involved with local K-12 outreach within the Greater San Diego Metro Area.

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