SECTION 2 - Six Key Principles of Ecological Restoration Practice

Six key principles are used to provide a framework for conceptualising, defining and measuring ecological restoration, particularly at a time of rapid environmental change. (See also Appendix 2 Values and principles underpinning ecological restoration.)

Principle 3. Recovery of ecosystem attributes is facilitated by identifying clear targets, goals and objectives

A restoration project will have greater transparency, manageability and improved chances of success if the restoration targets and goals are clearly defined and translated into measurable objectives. These can then be used to monitor progress over time, applying adaptive management approaches (see box 3 below).

Reference ecosystems identify the particular terrestrial or aquatic ecosystem that is the target of the restoration project. This involves describing the specific compositional, structural and functional ecosystem attributes requiring reinstatement before the desired outcome (the restored state) can be said to have been achieved. The Standards list the ecosystem attributes (rationalised from those of the SER Primer) as: absence of threats, physical conditions, species composition, community structure, ecosystem function, and external exchanges (Figure 2 below and at Appendix 5). These attributes in combination can then be used to derive a 5-star rating system (see Principle 4) that enable practitioners, regulators and industry to track restoration progress over time and between sites.

That is, a restored state is considered to have been achieved when the ecosystem’s attributes are on a secure trajectory approximating those in the reference ecosystem without further repair-phase interventions being needed other than ongoing protection and maintenance. At that stage the ecosystem under recovery would be considered ‘self-organising’ and increasingly resilient to natural disturbances.

Each ecosystem attribute will comprise a range of more detailed component properties that in turn inform goals and objectives, needed to achieve the target. These component properties have different expressions in different biomes and different sites, which will mean that each project will have site-specific targets, goals and objectives aligned with specific attributes (box 4). Specific indicators are selected to help evaluate whether these targets, goals and objectives are being met as a result of the interventions. (Box 3: Restoration monitoring and adaptive management, and Box 4: Targets, goals and objectives - what terms should we use?, and Appendix 4).

Figure 2. Progress evaluation recovery wheel. This template allows a manager to illustrate the degree to which the project is achieving its ecosystem goals over time (in this case a hypothetical 1-year old reconstruction site on its way to a 4-star condition). A practitioner with a high level of familiarity with the goals and achievements of the project can shade the segments for each sub-attribute after formal or informal evaluation. (A blank template for this diagram and its accompanying proforma are available in Appendix 5.)
Notes: Sub-attribute labels can be adjusted or more addeed to better represent a particular ecosystem. The scores must be based on informal or formal monitoring indicators for the project. These should be identified at the outset of the project to provide ecologically meaningful information about the sub-attributes and attributes being finally evaluated.

Box 3. Restoration monitoring and adaptive management

Monitoring the responses of an ecosystem to restoration actions is essential to:

  • identify whether the actions are working or need to be modified (i.e. adaptive management);
  • provide evidence to stakeholders that specific goals are being achieved (Box 4); and
  • answer specific questions - e.g. to evaluate particular treatments or what organisms or processes are returning to the ecosystem.

Adaptive management is a form of 'trial and error'. Using the best available knowledge, skills and technology an action is implemented and records are made of success, failures and potential for improvement. These learnings then form the basis of the next round of 'improvements'. An adaptive management can and should be a standard approach for any ecological restoration project irrespective of how well-funded that project may be

  1. The most direct and critical form of monitoring for adaptive management is routinely inspecting the site to identify whether restoration actions are working or need to be modified. Such monitoring is undertaken by the project supervisor to identify any need for a rapid response and to ensure appropriate treatments can be scheduled before problems become entrenched. Additional inspections are also needed after episodic events such as storms, floods, fire, severe frost and droughts.
  2. The minimum formal monitoring required for adaptive management - and to provide evidence to stakeholders and regulators that goals are being achieved - is to maintain a photo monitoring record of the site being treated, using a fixed photopoint. All monitoring, even time series photos, needs to have evidence of 'before' condition. This is because, once the whole site is treated, a photo may be the only evidence that change has occurred. Photo monitoring at control (untreated) sites is also recommended, where possible. For larger sites, aerial photography may also provide useful before and after imagery.

    Well-funded projects (or projects under regulatory controls e.g. mine site restoration) are expected to undertake formal comprehensive monitoring for adaptive management and reporting to stakeholders. This usually involves professionals or skilled advisors and is based on a monitoring plan that identifies, among other things, monitoring design, timeframes, who is responsible, the planned analysis, and frameworks for response and communication to regulators, funding bodies or other stakeholders.

    The monitoring design of projects may involve development or adaptation of a condition assessment system or formal sampling system to track the progress of specific indicators, whether they be abiotic or biotic. In some cases individual species or groups of species can function as surrogates for suitable abiotic conditions. For soil microorganisms, one or more quantitative determinants are used consistently throughout the life of the restoration project to ensure that the functional diversity of the microbial communities is restored in soils. Formal sampling of plant and animal populations can involve a range of faunal trapping and tracking methods or vegetation sampling using randomly located quadrats or transects. Design of such monitoring schemes should occur at the planning stage of the project to ensure that the project’s goals, objectives and their selected indicators are measurable and that the monitoring aligns with these goals. Care should be taken to ensure that the sampling commences prior to the commencement of restoration treatments, and where possible, control sites should be included in the design. If the necessary skills are not available in-house, advice should be sought from relevant professionals with experience in designing site-appropriate monitoring, documenting and storing data, and carrying out appropriate analysis.
  3. Monitoring can be used to answer questions (hypotheses) about new treatments or the return of organisms or processes - but only if the data collected are well matched to the particular question and an appropriate experimental design is employed. A restoration project that is comparing or trialling techniques needs to observe the conventions of replication and include untreated controls in order to interpret the results with any certainty. Rigorous recording is also needed of specific restoration treatments and any other conditions that might affect the results. A standard practice in such a situation would be for the practitioner to partner with an ecologist or relevant scientist to ensure the project receives the appropriate level of advice and assistance. Where new treatments are being considered or where the nature of the site is uncertain, treatments are first trialled in smaller areas prior to application over larger areas.

Example of integrating research and practice.

Box 4.Targets, goals and objectives – what terms should we use?

It is useful to have a hierarchy of terms such as 'target', 'goals' and 'objectives', to better organise planning so that proposed inputs are well matched to the desired ultimate outcomes.

While there is no universally accepted terminology and many groups will prefer to use their traditional terms, the Standards broadly adopt the terminology of the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation (Conservation Measures Partnership 2013

It helps to think of goals and objectives needing to be S.M.A.R.T.(i.e. specific measurable, achievable, reasonable and time-bound). They should be directly connected to key attributes of the target ecosystem. This is achieved by the use of specific indicators.

Hypothetical example:

  1. Target. The target of a project can be interpreted as the specific reference community to which the restoration project is being directed e.g. 'Box-Ironbark Forest', and will include a description of the ecosystem attributes.
  2. Goal/s. The goal or goals provide a finer level of focus in the planning hierarchy compared to the target. They describe the status of the target that you are aiming to achieve and, broadly, how it will be achieved. For example, goals in a project may be to achieve:
    1. An intact and recovering composition, structure and function of remnants A and B within five years;
    2. 20 ha of revegetated linkages between the remnants within 10 years; and
    3. 100% support of all stakeholders and neighbours within five years.
  3. Objectives. These are the changes and intermediate outcomes needed to attain the goal/s. For example preliminary objectives may be to achieve:
    1. I. Less than 1% cover of exotic plant species and recruitment of at least two obligate seeding native shrub species in the remnants within two years; and
    2. II. A density of 300 stems /ha of native trees and shrubs, at least three native herb species / 10m2 and a coarse woody debris load of 10 m3/ha in the reconstructed linkages within three years.
    3. III. Cessation of all livestock encroachment and weed dumping within 1 year and formation of a ‘friends’ group representing neighbours within 2 years.

(For other examples of some detailed indicators, see Appendix 4).

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