Special Feature: Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere

The following is an introduction by Leighton Reid and James Aronson to a special feature in Annals of Missouri Botanical Garden about ecological restoration in a changing biosphere. The eight papers described are derived from presentations last October at the 65th Annual Plant Symposium. The full issue can be found here.

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.

In the post-COP22 world, when all three of the UN’s “Rio Conventions” call for scaling up and mainstreaming of ecological restoration (UNCBD 2012; UNCCD 2015; UNFCCC 2015), and dozens of governments have made ambitious restoration commitments (IUCN 2016), it is clear that restoration programs will affect hundreds of millions of hectares – and as many people – over the coming decades. At the same time, we find ourselves in an era of unprecedented change where climate, ecological baselines, and future land-use changes are highly uncertain (Steffen et al., 2015). This raises the crucial question: What will large-scale restoration activities look like in the coming years?

Unsurprisingly, there are differences of opinion about the future of restoration and how to scale it up and integrate it with larger programs in an era of major, anthropogenic changes. Hobbs et al. (2011; pg 442) observe that “…the basic principles and tenets of restoration ecology and conservation biology are being debated and reshaped. Escalating global change is resulting in widespread no-analogue environments and novel ecosystems that render traditional goals unachievable. Policymakers and the general public, however, have embraced restoration without an understanding of its limitations, which has led to perverse policy outcomes.” [Emphasis added]

This perspective has received considerable attention (ESA 2016) and also pointed criticism (Murcia et al., 2014). Aronson et al. (2014; pg 647) retort that “…Restoration includes a wide range of practical possibilities for dealing with transformed ecosystems, including rehabilitation, reclamation, and remediation. Some will bring the ecosystem back to its historical trajectory, some will bring back only some attributes, but the intention is that the end product is better than the degraded ecosystem. Importantly, a label such as novel ecosystem implies no need for further intellectual exertion – and ignores the growing science of the young discipline of ecological restoration.” [Emphasis added]

The debate goes on about what we are trying to restore (Hobbs, 2016; Kattan et al., 2016; Miller & Bestelmeyer, 2016), with implications far beyond academia. Billions of dollars are now being spent to rehabilitate and restore degraded ecosystems, sometimes at large scales, and the science of restoration ecology must adapt to be integrated in larger planning and management schemes, wherein conservation, management, and restoration will all take place.

On 8 Oct 2016, we convened a panel of six scientists, one historian, and a journalist, all with long-standing involvement in the field of restoration ecology. The goal was to discuss ecological restoration in a changing biosphere at the 63rd Annual Fall Symposium at Missouri Botanical Garden. Each speaker has contributed a paper to this special issue.

The first set of papers focus on the question: Has global change outpaced and rendered obsolete the so-called “classical” ecological restoration approach? Aronson et al. (2017) say no, far from it; for example, the historically-based reference system ‒ a pillar of ecological restoration to date ‒ is more valid than ever and can indeed be adapted to landscape and higher levels of complexity. They emphasize that while restoration ecology has produced many useful ecological models, a participatory approach and consensus-building among stakeholders are crucial at these higher levels of integration. Falk (2017), in contrast, says yes: global change calls for radical rethinking of ecological restoration. He focuses on ponderosa pine forests in the southwestern US, which are undergoing a major, climate change-induced biome shift from forest to shrub land, and he concludes that a shift towards resilience-based management is necessary to supplement traditional ecological restoration. Meine (2017) takes the middle ground through an historical analysis; he notes that Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) would likely have concluded that a simple “yes” or “no” was inappropriate and that ecological novelty is neither novel nor absolute.

Whereas the first group of papers asks what we should restore, the second group focuses more on how we will restore at larger spatial and temporal scales. Brancalion & van Melis (2017) suggest that to bridge the gap between science and practice, we need to innovate; rather than refining current approaches, restoration ecologists must look outside of their disciplinary silos for fresh solutions to contemporary dilemmas. One source of new insights will be through joint research between scientists and practitioners. To this end, Holl (2017) presents several new directions for tropical forest restoration research (graduate students – take note!). She emphasizes that for research to best inform practice, it should be conducted at large spatial and temporal scales, research projects should be undertaken jointly with stakeholders, and resulting knowledge should be shared across regions. Chazdon (2017) argues that natural regeneration, more than any other method, is the key for scaling up to efficient forest and landscape restoration, and she emphasizes the need to identify priority areas where natural regeneration is maximally feasible and minimally competitive with alternative land uses. Finally, Reid et al. (2017) argue that however we restore ecosystems, we should plan to make them last; the longevity of restored ecosystems, they suggest, is variable, often finite, and determined to some degree by stakeholder preferences, environmental attributes, and the umbrella of governance. These papers emphasize tropical forest restoration, particularly in Latin America, which is appropriate given this biome’s global importance, yet the topics addressed will be of interest to readers with experience in many ecosystems.

The last word (for this special issue, at least) is left to Paddy Woodworth (2017), an international journalist with broad and optimistic perspectives on ecological restoration (Woodworth, 2013). Looking across the contributions, he observes that the words we choose have meaning and cautions against the use of the word “restoration” for anything less than the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed (SER 2004).

We hope that readers from many backgrounds, including researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, will find this special issue worth pondering as they move forward with our collective task to progress towards a more sustainable, just, and desirable future.



Aronson, J., J. Blignaut & T. B. Aronson. 2017. Conceptual frameworks and references for landscape-scale restoration: Reflecting back and looking forward. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102(2): 188–200.

Aronson, J., C. Murcia, G. H. Kattan, D. Moreno-Mateos, K. Dixon & D. Simberloff. 2014. The road to confusion is paved with novel ecosystem labels: a reply to Hobbs et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29: 646-647.

Brancalion, P. H. S. & J. van Melis. 2017. On the need for innovation in ecological restoration. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 227–236.

Chazdon, R. L. 2017. Landscape restoration, natural regeneration, and the forests of the future. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 251–257.

ESA (Ecological Society of America). 2016. Ecological Society of America announces 2016 award recipients. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 97: 337-351.

Falk, D. A. 2017. Restoration ecology and the axes of change. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 201–216.

Hobbs, R. J. 2016. Degraded or just different? Perceptions and value judgements in restoration decisions. Restoration Ecology. doi: 10.1111/rec.12336.

Hobbs, R. J., L. M. Hallett, P. R. Ehrlich & H. A. Mooney. 2011. Intervention ecology: Applying ecological science in the Twenty-first Century. Bioscience 61: 442-450.

Holl, K. D. 2017. Research directions in tropical forest restoration. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 237–250.

IUCN (International Union for Nature Conservation). 2016. Bonn Challenge commitments. http://www.bonnchallenge.org/commitments. Date accessed: September 22, 2016

Kattan, G. H., J. Aronson & C. Murcia. 2016. Does the novel ecosystem concept provide a framework for practical applications and a path forward? A reply to Miller and Bestelmeyer. Restoration Ecology 24:714-716.

Meine, C. 2017. Restoration and “novel ecosystems”: Priority or paradox? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 217–226.

Miller, J. R. & B. T. Bestelmeyer. 2016. What’s wrong with novel ecosystems, really? Restoration Ecology 24: 577-582.

Murcia, C., J. Aronson, G. H. Kattan, D. Moreno-Mateos, K. Dixon & D. Simberloff. 2014. A critique of the ‘novel ecosystem’ concept. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29: 548-553.

Reid, J. L., S. J. Wilson, G. S. Bloomfield, M. E. Cattau, M. E. Fagan, K. D. Holl & R. A. Zahawi. 2017. How long do restored ecosystems persist? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 258–265.

SER (Society for Ecological Restoration). 2004. The SER primer on ecological restoration. http://www.ser.org/content/ecological_restoration_primer.asp. Date accessed: September 28, 2009

Steffen, W., W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney & C. Ludwig. 2015. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the great acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2: 81-98.

UNCBD (United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity). 2012. UNEP/CBD/COP/DEC/XI/16. https://www.cbd.int/doc/decisions/cop-11/cop-11-dec-16-en.pdf. Date accessed: 12 December 2016

UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification). 2015. Land matters for climate: reducing the gap and approaching the target. http://www.unccd.int/Lists/SiteDocumentLibrary/Publications/2015Nov_Land_matters_For_Climate_ENG.pdf. Date accessed: 12 December 2016

UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). 2015. Paris agreement. http://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/convention/application/pdf/english_paris_agreement.pdf.  Date accessed: 12 December 2016

Woodworth, P. 2013. Our Once and Future Planet. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Woodworth, P. 2017. Meeting  the twin challenges of global change and scaling up, Restoration needs insights from the humanities as well as analysis from science. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 102(2): 266–281.


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