Ecological Restoration

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Ecological restoration (hereafter restoration) is "the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been damaged, degraded or destroyed" (Society for Ecological Restoration Science & Policy Working Group). Restoration ecology and ecological restoration are terms often interchanged: The former is the scientific practice that is contained within the broader embrace of the latter, which incorporates both science and many varieties of technological and political practice.

Restoration refers to an array of salutary human interventions in ecological processes, including the elimination of weedy species that choke out diverse native assemblies, prevention of harmful activities (such as excess nutrient loads), rejuvenation of soil conditions that foster vigorous plant communities, reestablishment of extirpated species, and rebuilt webs of social participation that foster ecologically rich and productive ecosystems. The metaphor of healing is often used to describe what restorationists do.

However not everyone regards restoration as a fully positive practice. Some view it as a technological response to ecological damage, while others worry that restoration deflects attention from avoiding harm in the first place. There is also concern that restored ecosystems may be simply pale imitations of nature, and that ecosystems are always more complicated than those seeking to restore them can truly understand. Restoration practice is driven by the tension between a technological approach to restoration—technological restoration—and a participatory, humble, culturally aware approach, or what this author terms "focal restoration." The furious debates among practicing restorationists regarding these issues and others provide particular perspectives on relations between science, technology, and ethics. Moreover, conceptual clarity offers practitioners a guide to pitfalls and opportunities for good restoration.

Concept and Origins

Restoration is practiced in all regions of the world, although what counts as restoration varies according to cultural perspective and socioeconomic condition. This has complicated the creation of a precise definition of this relatively new field, especially because international conversation and cooperative projects have become more common in the early-twenty-first century. In North America, the aim is typically to restore an ecosystem to its predisturbance condition under the presumption that reversion to a pristine, original state is the ideal end point. In Europe and other regions, long and continuous human occupation has resulted in landscapes that present a distinctively cultural benchmark. In many regions of the southern hemisphere, and especially in areas where poverty and civil disruption prevail, the focus is on restoration of productive landscapes that support both ecological and cultural ideals.

No comprehensive history of restoration is available, especially one that treats diverse international perspectives. North Americans often claim to be the founders of restoration, in part because of a tradition in the twentieth century of supporting scientific and practical restoration capacity including the formation of the premier organization devoted to restoration, the Society for Ecological Restoration International (founded 1987). Prairie restoration projects at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum under the direction of Aldo Leopold, Theodore Sperry, and Henry Greene in the 1930s are often cited as inaugural moments in modern restoration. Important as these efforts are, there were prior influential developments in applied ecology, rehabilitation (the recovery of a landscape to productive capability), revegetation, and naturalistic gardening that made the Wisconsin projects possible (Perrow and Davy 2002; Mills 1995; Jordan, Gilpin, and Aber 1987). Restoration was being practiced under different guises in North America, Europe, and other regions of the world prior to the twentieth century, and, as historical accounts of these efforts are written, a tangled and interconnected lineage will undoubtedly be revealed.

Points at Issue

A spate of articles written since the 1980s has positioned restoration as one of the most hotly contested issues in environmental philosophy. Why is this? Philosophers, many environmentalists, and some restorationists are uneasy about claims that ecosystems can in fact be restored. Much turns on the standards set for restoration, most prominently the demands for historical accuracy. If the aim is to reset ecosystems to some prior time or sequence, then restoration is by definition an austere and limited practice, depending on a limited ranges of options and choices.

If the demands for historical fidelity are relaxed, the practice opens up, although enlargement of scope creates other problems. What are appropriate boundaries on restoration? How much history is necessary? How precise ought be the demands for ecological integrity? (Ecological integrity is an umbrella term that describes the capacity of an ecosystem to adjust to change—resiliency, elasticity, stress response, and so on [Kay 1991]). How much should human agency matter? How much should human participation in ecological processes matter? Without much digging, restoration turns into a conceptual quagmire, which is occasionally vexing for practitioners and always intriguing for philosophers (Throop 2002).

Arguably what has proved most contentious is the instrumental character of restoration. At worst, some would argue, restoration is a mere technological fix, that is a forgery of nature, and deflects attention from pressing and underlying environmental problems (Eliot 1997). While few hold such a dim view and most acknowledge that restoration creates value, there is a fundamental concern that restoration is a practice that grew up and thrives in a technological culture. Indeed restoration is always a series of deliberate interventions in ecological processes. As restorative capacity rises, so does the risk that such capacity will be used as a justification for destruction or careless modification of ecosystems. The challenge is to keep restoration from becoming an apologia for environmental destruction while manifesting a powerful will to repair the damage that continues to be done. Hence most restorationists operate under the belief that their actions benefit nonhuman species and enrich the social engagement between people and ecosystems. Limiting human will and ensuring that restoration does not become an end in itself is a central challenge.

The Future of Restoration

The tendency to think of restoration in technological terms is abetted by increasingly large projects—restoration megaprojects such as Florida's Everglades restoration—that are driven by typically top-down imperatives and serve primarily as emblems of environmental responsibility. The dominant tradition in restoration encompasses relatively small-scale projects that depend on bottom-up participation; these projects are deeply embedded in locality and enliven human communities. While the appearance to some observers that restoration is a set of prescriptions imposed on nature, in fact most restoration projects to date are modest in intention, self-reflexive, and tentative; exactly the opposite of what one might think of as large-scale technologically constituted practices.

Restoration practitioners are approaching a crossroads at which they will have to choose between technological and focal restoration, which focuses on community and participation (Higgs 2003). Focal restoration is one term for describing the alternative or antidote to technological restoration, and derives from Borgmann's (1984) formulation of "focal practice," in which the relations between "things" and practices are brought to the center and given priority. When focusing on something that truly matters to a community—an ecosystem to be restored for instance—the values of that community and the integrity of the thing are given heightened respect. Other terms such as "ecocultural" restoration are found in the restoration literature with roughly the same intention, but this author prefers the identification of focal restoration with its robust commentary about, and philosophy of, technology. The choice between technological and focal restoration may not be exclusive or stark, but reflective practitioners must decide which vision of restoration is appropriate. Scholarly and popular criticism has raised awareness of the risks that restoration will become thoroughly enmeshed in technological culture. The challenge is to steer along the road of participation, with respect for ecological process, modesty, and humility.

Ecological restoration has stirred profound debates about the constitution of nature in a technological society and human relations with ecosystems. Perhaps as much as any other practice, restoration has brought a conceptual spotlight to issues that arise in environmental management, conservation biology and other related endeavors. In particular, restoration demands attention to the social, economic and political relationships people have with places, which inspires a broader perspective on the scientific and technical dimensions. It is, therefore, insufficient to discuss "restoration ecology" without "ecological restoration; both matter to achieving the socially constituted goal of good restoration. The dynamic character of ecosystems also poses some fascinating challenges to other uses of the term restoration, such as those found in art, architecture, and literature.


SEE ALSO Acid Mine Drainage; Ecological Footprint; Ecology; Environmental Economics; Rain Forest; Sierra Club; Wilderness.


Borgmann, Albert. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Borgmann's original book on technology—he has since published two others—has become a foundation for contemporary philosophy of technology.

Eliot, Robert. (1997). Faking Nature: the Ethics of Environmental Restoration. London: Routledge. The title derives from Eliot's oft-cited paper from 1982 that assailed restoration practice and sparked a significant portion of the philosophical debate about restoration.

Higgs, Eric. (2003). Nature By Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Sets ecological restoration in a technological culture, and identifies the perils and responses to those perils that restorationists should follow.

Higgs, Eric; Andrew Light; and David Strong. (2000). Technology and the Good Life? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Jordan, William R., III; Michael E. Gilpin; and John D. Aber, eds. (1987). Restoration Ecology: A Synthetic Approach to Ecological Research. New York: Cambridge University Press. Among the first synthetic accounts of restoration theory and practice.

Kay, James J. (1991). "A Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics Framework for Discussing Ecosystem Integrity." Environmental Management. 15(4): 483–495.

Mills, Stephanie. (1995). In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Landscapes. Boston: Beacon Press. A heartfelt and lyrical discussion of restoration.

Perrow, Martin R., and Anthony J. Davy, eds. (2002). Handbook of Ecological Restoration, 2 Vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A good initial if limited attempt at summarizing restoration practice internationally.

Throop, William, ed. (2002). Environmental Restoration: Ethics, Theory, and Practice. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.


Society for Ecological Restoration Science & Policy Working Group. "The SER Primer on Ecological Restoration." Available from


Ecological Restoration