New book: Primer of Ecological Restoration

Karen Holl is a professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. She describes her new book, which provides an introduction to the field of ecological restoration. Primer of Ecological Restoration is available from Island Press (Use promo code PRIMER to get 20% off).

My husband teases me that it took me over 25 years to write my new book, Primer of Ecological Restoration. Indeed, I was working on a restoration ecology textbook the summer of 1994 when we met. But I decided that writing a textbook during my post-doc wasn’t a smart career move if I wanted to succeed in becoming a tenured professor. So, I put the book project on hold. I periodically revisited the idea over the next two decades as I developed my research programs on restoring tropical forests in Latin America and grasslands and riparian forests in California; taught a yearly undergraduate restoration ecology course; and collaborated with many restoration practitioners. A few years ago, when Island Press asked me if I would write a succinct, “primer” for the field of ecological restoration, I decided the time was finally right. So, my husband is correct that I have been working on this book in some form or another for many years, and I am thrilled that it is finally available from Island Press and most major book sellers.

Book Cover

Primer of Ecological Restoration (March 2020) introduces restoration in short chapters written to be read by students, land managers, and anyone interested in the topic.

The science and practice of ecological restoration have grown exponentially over the past few decades, as we aim to compensate for the negative impacts humans have had on the ecosystems that we and millions of other species depend on. With the growth of ecological restoration has come a plethora of resources: thousands of articles in the peer-reviewed and management literature, countless websites describing individual projects, and many books focused on restoring specific ecosystems.

My goal with this book is to provide a broad but succinct introduction and guide to the rapidly growing field of ecological restoration for a few audiences.

  1. I and a few other instructors, including blog editor Leighton Reid, are already using my book as an introductory text for undergraduate courses in Ecological Restoration and Restoration Ecology. Instructors can complement the book with in depth readings on specific topics and case studies tailored to the focus of the course.
  2. My primer could be used as one of a few texts in courses on Conservation Biology and Resource Management where ecological restoration is not the only topic covered.
  3. I hope this book will be of interest to natural resource managers and others who want a short introduction to ecological restoration.

To that end, I have aimed to keep jargon to a minimum and define terms in both the text and the glossary.


Approaches to increasing habitat connectivity through restoration. From Primer of Ecological Restoration. Credit: Alicia Calle.

Restoring ecosystems requires an interdisciplinary background. It is essential to understand the ecology and natural history of the ecosystem being restored and know appropriate restoration methods. But, as any practitioner knows, successful projects require familiarity with many other topics, including managing stakeholder involvement and public outreach; experience with planning, goal setting, and monitoring; and knowledge of relevant laws, permitting processes, and funding sources. My book could not possibly discuss all these topics in detail while achieving the goal of brevity, so I provide an overview of key points and illustrate them with brief examples. I co-wrote several online case studies that provide detailed information and integrate various themes illustrated by the project.

The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” couldn’t be truer for ecological restoration. There is no substitute for seeing before and after photos of projects and visiting restoration sites in person. Nonetheless, I used selected diagrams and tables in the book and incorporated color photos in the online case studies, to make the book cheaper and more accessible to a broad audience. The book website has links to many restoration project websites, photos, and videos available on the internet, which I will continue to update over time to reflect new approaches in this rapidly changing field.


Key habitat features in a restored meandering river. From Primer of Ecological Restoration. Credit: Michelle Pastor.

This book is not intended as a thorough guide of how to restore specific ecosystem types, so readers are likely to want more in depth resources on specific topics. To this end, I have provided short reading lists at the end of each chapter. On the website, I provide questions for reflection and discussion that ask readers to apply the ideas presented in the book to a restoration project of their choice. The website also has examples of restoration project design plans that restoration practitioners have kindly shared, and I welcome suggestions from readers for additional resources to include.

I hope you find the book interesting and stimulating, and look forward to your feedback. You can review a detailed table of contents here. Finally, a quick tip that you can get a 20% discount on the book if you purchase the book at the Island Press website and use the promo code PRIMER.


Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere

If you were at the MBG Fall Symposium, we want to hear from you! How did the symposium change your perception of restoration? Send us an email at

On October 8th, Missouri Botanical Garden hosted its 63rd annual Fall Symposium. This year’s theme was Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere. Author and journalist Paddy Woodworth moderated the day, and seven speakers presented contemporary perspectives on a core challenge in modern restoration ecology. Namely: in the post-COP21 world, when all three UN conventions call for scaling up and mainstreaming of restoration, it is clear that restoration will affect hundreds of millions of hectares – and as many people – over the coming decade. 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. This raises the question: What should large-scale restoration look like in the remainder of the 21st century?


2016 Fall Symposium speakers. From left to right: Peter Wyse Jackson, Curt Meine, Robin Chazdon, James Aronson, Leighton Reid, Pedro Brancalion, Karen Holl, Don Falk, Paddy Woodworth, and Jim Miller. Photo by Andrea Androuais.

Talks during the morning focused on tropical forests, where much of the international restoration dialogue is focused.

  • Leighton Reid (Missouri Botanical Garden) opened with a presentation on restoration longevity – the idea that some restoration projects create ecosystems that persist for more than a century (e.g., Floresta da Tijuca), while other projects fail quickly. Dr. Reid argued that how long restored ecosystems persist is quantifiable, predictable, and manipulable, opening the possibility for more ambitious restoration planning.
  • Robin Chazdon (University of Connecticut and beyond) then spoke about forest landscape restoration, an approach that aims to regain ecological integrity and enhance human well-being in deforested, human-impacted, or degraded forest landscapes. Drawing on a wealth of large-scale studies, Dr. Chazdon made the case that natural forest regeneration is the most ecologically effective and economically feasible approach to forest restoration globally.
  • Karen Holl (University of California Santa Cruz) presented her take on research priorities for forest restoration in the Neotropics. She highlighted that researchers could make an impact by studying forest restoration at larger spatial scales, at longer temporal scales, and in collaboration with stakeholders. Improving information exchange and standardizing monitoring protocols were also among her top priorities. (Graduate students, take note!)
  • Dr. Pedro Brancalion (University of São Paulo) completed the morning session with a TED talk-style discussion of the linkages between science, technology, policy, and best practice in Brazilian Atlantic Forest restoration. Using Thomas Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions, Dr. Brancalion argued that restoration ecology is in a crisis period, in part because disciplinary research has predominantly created solutions at smaller spatial scales than the (growing) problems the discipline seeks to address. Perhaps restoration is ripe for a paradigm shift?

Dr. Pedro Brancalion (right) asks whether restoration ecology is ready for a new paradigm shift, as Paddy Woodworth (left) moderates. Photo by Robin Chazdon.

After lunch, the conversation turned towards a major academic debate in restoration ecology. Has global change outpaced the restoration approach? And is a new approach needed?

  • Curt Meine (The Aldo Leopold Foundation) drew on his long experience in the upper Midwest, and, in particular, his studies of author and environmentalist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). He argued that Leopold avoided the simple polarities through which some contemporary restoration debates are framed. He viewed nature in a relative way, neither entirely wild, nor entirely domesticated in any given landscape. Although he practiced ecological restoration in some contexts, he also advocated soil conservation and sustainable agriculture – activities motivated by his core values, as expressed in The Land Ethic (1949).
  • James Aronson (Missouri Botanical Garden) followed with an elucidation of the reference ecosystem concept. Reference ecosystems, he noted, help determine the social and ecological vision for a restoration project or program – a critical issue for restoring historic continuity in degraded landscapes. Dr. Aronson described a family of restorative actions for achieving progress towards the reference system, drawing on examples from Jordan and South Africa. He argued we need to look deeper into the past and ponder our choices from many angles as we decide how to do more effective restoration at the landscape and larger scales.
  • Donald Falk (University of Arizona) delivered the keynote address. He painted a disturbing portrait: rapid climate change is driving a massive forest-to-non-forest transition in the southwestern United States. In particular, many ponderosa pine forests will not be able to persist in the future where they have been in the recent past and present. Perhaps restoration ecologists should transition too. Rather than “chasing the ambulance”, maybe we could get out ahead of disasters and ease transitions between stable ecosystem states. Anticipating ecosystem transitions could mitigate the loss of ecosystem functioning that accompanies major climate-driven forest fires, but it would require a shift in restoration thinking. Importantly, Dr. Falk noted that ecosystems do not care what words we use – ecosystems respond to actions.

With moderator Paddy Woodworth’s help, we finished the day with a panel discussion, inviting questions from the audience. Among the thoughts and questions that we were left with:

  • Is ecological restoration more difficult in places with greater population density?
  • Should restoration focus on policy, economic, or cultural motivations for engaging people?
  • Are values a better guide for land management than ecological history? Are the two complementary?
  • How can the reference ecosystem concept accommodate rapid biome changes, as we are seeing in the Southwestern USA?
  • What is the way forward to mainstream serious, multisectorial monitoring and evaluation with all these new factors to consider? Who will fund it?
  • To what extent can we move from restoring degraded ecosystems to avoiding degradation in the first place?
  • Can forest landscape restoration and natural forest regeneration bridge the gap between small-scale, past restoration experience and present, large-scale restoration needs?

PhD candidates Ricardo Cesar (University of São Paulo) and Leland Werdan (University of Minnesota) compare notes on seedling functional traits in dry tropical forest restoration. Leland was the recipient of the annual Delzie Demaree award. Photo by Robin Chazdon.


More than 150 people registered for the symposium. They came from three continents, five countries, and seven US states.