Engineering Change: Reflections on Restoration

January 22, 2015

Communications Coordinator

At first glance, the intent of ecological restoration may appear obvious: repair some of the damage humans have done to ecosystems and biodiversity. But a closer look reveals the complexity inherent in designing and carrying out a restoration plan—activities that necessarily engage a wide diversity of scientific, legislative, regulatory, and planning expertise.

Many of the world’s ecosystems have been altered, degraded, or entirely destroyed by human activities, and the negative impacts of transformed landscapes can have far-reaching consequences for natural and social systems alike. Intense urbanization, for example, can devastate the natural habitat of a species, driving it to local or global extinction. Researchers have found that one extinction can lead to another. These major ecological disruptions can ripple though interlinked ecosystems to impact human well-being.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that human intervention through ecological restoration is necessary to correct, enhance, remediate, or [insert-your-restorative-verb-here] these altered landscapes, exactly what such intervention should entail is still much debated. Notions of restoration range from the romantic to the bureaucratic. Restorationists may struggle to resolve the perhaps irreconcilable goals of returning a landscape to what it once was while producing benefits for the natural environment and the people who depend upon it. Regulatory requirements, technical limitations, and fiscal constraints can fundamentally influence the objectives and implementation of a project.

Photo courtesy Quinn Dombrowski

Suddenly, what restoration looks like and how it should be done is far less intuitive.

Cue: Baird Callicott, University Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Texas. As a SESYNC Sabbatical Fellow in the fall of 2014, he led an interdisciplinary synthesis group tasked with integrating philosophical, ecological, legal, economic, and ethical perspectives to explore the implications of using an ecosystem services approach to ecological restoration. The group was motivated by two questions underlying the restoration debate:

Should we frame restoration projects to replicate the historical community—i.e., rebuild the living and structural components of the “original” landscape? Or should we frame restoration projects to recondition ecological processes and functions—e.g., repair an ecosystem’s capacity to regulate nutrients or disturbances irrespective of whether the restored components were present in the historical landscape?

The following Q&As merely hint at the diversity of perspectives engaged in this synthesis group, but they begin to shed light on why “restoration” can mean different things to different people. Dr. Callicott points to one particular example of “cognitive dissonance,” as he calls it, that emerged during the project meetings:

“I conceive of restoration in terms of a long historical trajectory: how it was originally conceived in the 1930s, and how the concept has evolved over time,” he said. “Others may conceive of restoration as a relatively new field that’s only been around for 25 years. That dissonance can be explained in part by whether you approach the conversation through the lens of ecological restoration—the practice of restoring—or restoration ecology—the science that informs the practice.”

Despite their epistemological differences, however, the group participants rallied around shared ideas that resulted in several submitted papers. Non-spoiler: check back to for publication updates from the group!

Next page: Baird Callicott, Environmental Philosopher & SESYNC Sabbatical Fellow

Above photo courtesy Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr/Creative Commons

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 
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