Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. History vs. the Future

History vs. the Future: What’s Guiding Restoration These Days?

Conferences are interesting things; so much information comes your way in such a short time that you have to wonder whether anything will stand out in your memory once It’s all over, or whether your brain will simply give up in the face of such an onslaught of data.

But the miraculous human brain does normally prevail, and what stand out are those points with the greatest significance, the most long-term salience. At least, That’s how I feel right now, two weeks after returning from the annual gathering of minds of the Society for Ecological Restoration International. Ask me in two years how my memory’s doing, and I hope to still be as positive about my brain’s filtration and storage capacity.

While the volume of details, the minutiae of the myriad talks I attended, are already lost to the recesses of my brain, the big debates in the field, the questions and emerging strategies that will determine the future of restoration, are the points that fill my mind right now.

Most significant to me from this conference is a fundamental divergence of thought regarding the value of history in a time of climate change. Restoration as a field has characteristically relied heavily on history, with past reference conditions of a site (to the maximum extent to which they could be determined) guiding efforts toward a restored site’s future. Makes sense: restoration essentially means bringing back what once was, so what better place could there be to start than the past?

But many of the top practitioners and scientists in the field are now questioning the logic of rebuilding and restoring ecosystems that existed historically given that, with all likelihood, most sites will be very different in a future of climate change.

For example, an area characterized in the past by, say, moist conditions may in the future be very dry. As such, restoring a plant community adapted to moist conditions makes little sense if conditions will in the near future be more suited for drought-adapted flora and fauna. It needs to be asked whether restoration to a historical state makes sense when historical conditions that would favour plant communities of the past aren’t likely to exist in the future.

In fact, some even question whether it is responsible to potentially squander precious–and limited–resources on projects geared toward restoring historic communities when logic indicates that they may not survive in a changed climate.

On a grand scale, say at the regional level, such logic is inarguable. However, questions regarding this mode of reasoning arise when you get down to the small, fine, local scale at which restoration projects generally take place. While global climate change can be seen to be marching right along and regional changes may be able to be predicted with admirable accuracy, there are those in the restoration field who are asking for a humility check when it comes down to what we can reasonably predict about the future of site X?say that degraded prairie ecosystem down the road.

Following this line of reasoning, it is argued that presumption rather than scientific understanding may be at the heart of the emerging guiding principles in restoration. Can we really presume to predict the exact future conditions of this exact location? And are we really able to do better work, to achieve greater ecological benefit, by acting on educated guesses (no matter how well educated) than by replacing what historically existed here?

These are the questions that will shape the future of restoration ecology, and of sites restored by scientists and practitioners partial to one perspective or the other.

As I mull these questions over, what strikes me as perhaps most significant of all within this debate is something kind of revelatory. Such fundamental divides in understandings illuminate the fact that restoration science, like all sciences, is not just about observed fact (e.g., historical conditions, changing climate), but about how we understand these observed facts, and what they mean for our practice, within the perspective in which we reside.

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