Ecological Restoration Must Be Held to More Robust Standards, says Interdisciplinary Team of Scholars



Annapolis, Md — Policy communities increasingly call upon ecological restoration as a means to address many of the major threats facing the world’s ecosystems. But internationally accepted best practices for restoration efforts are noticeably absent.

A new article published online today in Science calls on parties to global agreements, such as the United Nations’ New York Declaration on Forests, to take up a set of holistic guiding principles for restoration projects. The authors—experts from the fields of ecology, economics, law, political science, geography, and philosophy—outlined the principles as part of an interdisciplinary working group on restoration funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

“Global initiatives point towards ecological restoration as a solution to many of the world’s environmental problems. However, current understanding of the term is so broad that it encompasses efforts that are not consistent with ecological science,” said Katharine Suding, a community ecologist at the University of Colorado and lead author of the paper. “It’s critical that policy and planning documents consider in detail what restoration means and what it looks like to ensure these projects have meaningful, long-term results.”

Many of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded or entirely destroyed by human activities, and the impacts of transformed landscapes can have far-reaching consequences for natural ecosystems and human communities alike. Although it’s widely acknowledged that human intervention through ecological restoration is necessary to correct or remediate these altered landscapes, exactly what such intervention should entail is still much debated.

Bringing their collective perspectives to bear in a series of workshops, the interdisciplinary team determined that restoration projects should be guided by four comprehensive principles to maximize benefits such as conserved biodiversity and sustained livelihoods. The authors concluded that ecological restoration should [1] increase ecological integrity, [2] be sustainable in the long-term, [3] be informed by the past and future, and [4] benefit and engage society. Initiatives that emphasize one principle over the full suite are not true restoration—and therefore are insufficient to address restoration goals of international agreements such as the Declaration on Forests.

The scholars say these principles are needed now more than ever before.

“An unprecedented number of recent commitments have been made to restoration at very large scales, but there is no global campaign or clear guidance to ensure success. The worry is that shortcuts, sufficient for achieving only limited goals, will be used to meet restoration targets,” explained Eric Higgs, an environmental scientist at the University of Victoria and co-author of the paper.

The principles outlined by the researchers provide a clear framework for avoiding the very shortcuts Higgs warns against. The authors point out that, thanks to the diversity of their disciplinary backgrounds, the principles are applicable across different cultural and regulatory contexts.

“We’re trying to provide legal, policy, and planning audiences with a more focused definition of ecological restoration to avoid a false advertising or greenwashing of the term,” said Baird Callicott, an environmental philosopher at the University of North Texas who led the SESYNC working group. “The misapplication of ‘restoration’ has egregious consequences—we don’t have to look far to see how this happens and what it means for natural ecosystems and human communities.”

The authors point to compensatory mitigation for mountaintop removal mining as an example of so-called restoration that fails to hit the mark. Coal companies are required by federal law to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the destructive impacts of their operations on waterways. But regulatory criteria for restoration do not match up with fundamental scientific standards.

“On paper, mining companies are in compliance with federal requirements—but only because restoration is defined ambiguously. In reality, the term restoration is being coopted for activities that do not address the physical, chemical, and biological processes of a healthy stream,” said Kelly Hondula, an ecosystem ecologist at SESYNC and co-author of the paper.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The scholars say the adoption of their principles now will help local-to-global restoration initiatives achieve sustainability and resilience into the future.

In addition to Suding, Higgs, Callicott, and Hondula, the article’s co-authors are Margaret Palmer, SESYNC executive director and a restoration ecologist at the University of Maryland; Christopher Anderson, an ecologist at the Argentine National Scientific and Technical Research Council and the National University of Tierra del Fuego; Matthew Baker, an ecohydrologist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; John Gutrich, an ecological economist at Southern Oregon University; Matthew LaFevor, a human–environment geographer at SESYNC; Brendon Larson, an environmental social scientist at the University of Waterloo; Alan Randall, an environmental economist at the Ohio State University; J.B. Ruhl, a legal scholar at Vanderbilt University; and Katrina Schwartz, a political scientist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

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The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

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