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Research guide for ecological restoration

Ecological Restoration Introduction

In 2002 the Society for Ecological Restoration published a definition of ecological restoration:

"Ecological restoration is an intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability. Frequently, the ecosystem that requires restoration has been degraded, damaged, transformed or entirely destroyed as the direct or indirect result of human activities. In some cases, these impacts to ecosystems have been caused or aggravated by natural agencies such as wildfire, floods, storms, or volcanic eruption, to the point at which the ecosystem cannot recover its predisturbance state or its historic developmental trajectory." -The SER Primer on Ecological Restoration (2002), page 1.

The Society also provides a shorter definition:

"Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed" -The SER Primer on Ecological Restoration (2002), page 2.

Early examples of ecological restoration were health-related, such as, the condition of London's River Thames, which began around the time of the "Great Stink" of 1858 and continued until the river's near restoration in 2010.  

Twentieth-century environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold championed the principle of restoration, which took shape as an academic field of study in the 1980's with works such as A.D. Bradshaw and M.J. Chadwick's The Restoration of Land and the founding of the Society for Ecological Restoration in 1987 and their sponsored journal, Restoration Ecology in 1996 (Cairns and Heckman, "The State of An Emerging Field" (1996)).

Planting grass to restore a coastal prairie. Uploaded by user mypubliclands under cc 2.0 license.

The definition of "ecological restoration" has been the subject of some disagreement. In 1992 the U.S. National Research Council urged federal agencies to agree that ecological restoration is "the return of an ecosystem to a close approximation of its condition prior to disturbance" (Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems, page 5).  However, this term has sometime been to describe areas of partial restoration, for example, shorelines where spilled oil has been removed as much as possible with current technologies, or areas where a particular species has been successfully introduced ("Ecological Restoration," The Encyclopedia of Ecology & Ecological Management, page 217). Controversy also surrounds particular restoration strategies and tools, such as the use of Corexit and other chemical dispersants in response to oil spills.

Ecological restoration often requires cooperation among many stake-holders. Accordingly, the question of whether the practice of ecological restoration is a science or a societal activity (or whether these are distinguishable) has been a matter of continuing discussion (See Eden "Ecological versus Social Restoration?," 2006).

Repairing damage

A worker uses a hose to wash oil from coastal rocks, follwoing the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

A worker cleans the Alaskan coastline near the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Taken in 1989 and uploaded in 2010 by user ARLIS Reference. Image permission via cc 2.0 license.

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Guide Responsibility

This Libguide was created by Mark Dahlquist.

Questions about ecological restoration and other environmental topics may be directed to:
Susan Braxton, Prairie Research Institute Librarian
505 Funk ACES Library
1101 S. Goodwin
Urbana, IL 61801