UW Professor: Historic Ecological Restoration Not Always Best Choice
July 31, 2009 — Human disturbances and changing climates may require new designs for ecological restoration efforts, rather than attempting to restore ecosystems to their historical conditions, according to an article published today (Friday) in the global scientific journal, Science.
Stephen Jackson, professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Botany and director of the university's Ecology Program, says that efforts to achieve many historical targets for restoration may be unsustainable and a waste of resources. Jackson, along with Richard J. Hobbs of the University of Western Australia, are the authors of "Ecological Restoration in the Light of Ecological History."
Jackson notes that an understanding of ecological history plays many roles in ecological restoration, most notably as a tool to identify and characterize appropriate targets for restoration efforts. However, due to natural and human-caused changes and disturbances, ecological history also reveals that many historical restoration targets will be unsustainable in the coming decades.
For example, disturbances caused by coal mining in Wyoming's Powder River Basin may make it difficult to restore minelands to their exact preexisting state. In that case, ecologists would have to design reclamation efforts better suited to the new conditions.
Design and engineering of new ecosystems, Jackson says, should emphasize maintenance of ecological goods and services desired by society. Ecological goods would be those qualities that have economic value, such as timber resources, habitat that supports fishing and hunting, and aesthetic qualities of landscapes that would attract tourists.
Ecological services would include such things as designing systems that would best manage water resources, regulate snowmelt runoff or stabilize landscapes to prevent erosion.
"The paleoecological record gives ecologists permission to ... intervene in ways that will foster biodiversity and vital ecosystem functions. In many cases, this will lead to ecosystems unlike those of the past," the article states. It continues, "Preventing damage is more cost effective than trying to repair damage ... an unstated aim in restoration is to avoid creating bigger problems than those we seek to solve."
Ecologists are cautious when assessing the effectiveness of designing restoration efforts that can be sustainable in light of changing environmental influences. However, Jackson says scientists are acquiring the knowledge necessary to meet the challenges presented by the rapidly-changing environment.
"I think it will take years, and maybe decades to get to the point where we can consistently design and engineer ecosystems that will be sustainable and provide the goods and services to make the enterprise cost effective," he says. "However, we face serious risk that global change will outpace our scientific capacity to prescribe adaptive strategies, let alone implement them."
Historical insights, together with modeling, experimentation and
observation, will advance the capacity to engineer successful
ecosystems, he says.
To read the complete Science article, go to http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/sci;325/5940/567
Posted on Friday, July 31, 2009