Don’t let nature do all the work alone: strategies help ecological restoration

 Lisa Vogel is a postgraduate student who wrote this article as part of her Euroleague for Life Sciences course work at Lincoln University.

Pure, wild and untouched nature… these were the associations with New Zealand that came to my head when I was on my way to the Euroleague for Life Sciences summer course (well… European summer) that I took at Lincoln University in August 2015. Indeed, I did find beautiful, impressive and mostly untouched nature while I was travelling in the country after the course. However, the course , which focused on ecological restoration of contaminated and degraded land, markedly changed my perspective on the landscape I travelled through.

I might have looked at it through different eyes than many of the other travelers on the same tourist bus: invasive species, such as gorse, taking over huge areas of land, endless agricultural fields, countless grazing cattle even though their winter excretions having a huge impact on nearby streams and groundwater. These are just a few of the signs which reveal the huge influence that human activities, especially in relation to agriculture, have on the environment. Before I arrived in New Zealand I was not aware of what kind of degradation or contamination issues that the country known for its pristine nature could have.

Degradation of the environment is sometimes less obvious. The Department of Conservation takes great efforts to counteract this degradation by creating nature reserves or restoring affected areas. Ecological restoration was one of the main focuses of our course and was defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed”. One might question if this assistance is really necessary? Nature itself has a strong power for regeneration. Succession is the natural process that takes place in ecosystems and leads to a natural recovery from disturbances either due to anthropogenic or natural impacts (Young et al. 2005). Nevertheless, there are good reasons for assisting this process with scientific ecological restoration strategies. It can accelerate the process and prospects for success are even higher if backed up by community support. In some cases the succession might be obstructed and targeted restoration efforts can enable further natural recovery. For example, efforts to clean up contamination in soils can enhance secondary succession.

Gorse on Banks Peninsula
Invasive gorse at the edge of a reserve on Banks Peninsula. L. Vogel

Often the outcomes of restoration projects might vary from the ones aimed for because ecological communities and ecosystems are somewhat unpredictable. This is especially true when looking at climate change and the uncertainties related to the direct consequences on a local scale that come with it. Choi (2004) formulated an ecological restoration approach that he calls futuristic restoration. Instead of trying to recreate the ecosystem exactly how it was in the past, this strategy allows for flexibility in order to adapt to uncertainties and changes. Successful ecosystem recovery can be achieved by setting dynamic goals, multiple trajectories, focusing on the structure and function of the ecosystem as a whole and follow up the developments by long-term monitoring. This concept might be put to a test on how its practical application can be achieved, but it provides helpful guidelines and orientation for a well-designed restoration strategy with a scientific profound basis.

Regardless of how well a restoration project is designed, ecological restoration should not only be seen as a measure to solve problems when full degradation of the ecosystem has already taken place. Ecological restoration should rather be considered as a continuous measure that allows active and early counteraction for successful and faster recovery. Restoration activities should be started well before biodiversity is considerably lost. We cannot wait for nature to solve problems but need to actively assist ecosystem recovery early on.

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