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Restoration: What does success look like?

2 June 2016

Trees for Life's Glen Affric
Deer exclosure fence at Trees for Life's Glen Affric restoration in the Scottish Highlands.

A new approach to how we evaluate ecological restoration projects has been proposed by researchers from Cardiff and Umeå Universities.

The escalating extinction crisis shows that nature cannot support the pressure that humanity is placing on the planet, but can we ever restore damaged habitats and how do we know if we have succeeded?

This is the question explored in a paper published in Restoration Ecology this month. The paper “Ecological restoration success: a policy analysis” co-authored by researchers from Cardiff University and Umeå University, reflects on how projects which aim to restore our valuable ecosystems are currently evaluated, and helps improve our understanding of the complex factors shaping restoration success.

Professor Susan Baker from the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University and Professor Katarina Eckerberg of the Department of Political Science at Umeå University Sweden, who collaborated on the paper, argue that the aims and objectives of individual projects are linked, in turn, to interests and preferences and that this interaction needs to be reflected in subsequent evaluation:

“Projects aimed at restoring and recreating lost habitats have increased over the years and are often complicated initiatives with a number of drivers from pure ecology to economic incentives. These projects involve a huge number of people with competing interests. With these complexities at play it’s often difficult to evaluate success and even more difficult for these successes to inform policy development.” said Professor Baker.

Current methods for evaluation of these projects are often based on ecological criteria only. Combining social criteria with established ecological criteria, provides an integrated social-ecological perspective.

The research provides a new framework for both academic investigation and for practioners and policy makers working in this field. It sets out an encompassing set of both process and product criteria with which to assess restoration activities, helping those involved to better understand the linkages between competing interests and values and success criteria.

Developing a broader understanding of restoration success helps ascertain whether projects are seen as relevant and legitimate by those involved and, thus whether they are socially acceptable. While being clear that objectives can and will change over time is important, the authors warn of the need to ensure that subsequent evaluation is not linear in nature, but rather ongoing and flexible.

“An understanding of how and why restoration projects succeed is vital if we are to learn and grow. We hope this work will alter the way in which we appraise the success of projects, and contribute to a new approach to conservation that recognises multiple values so as better support both policy and practice.” said Professor Katarina Eckerberg, Umeå University.

Reference: Baker, S. and Eckerberg, K. (2016), Ecological restoration success: a policy analysis understanding. Restoration Ecology, 24: 284–290. doi: 10.1111/rec.12339

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