Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed. (SER 2004)
These National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia (the ‘Standards’) adopt the above definition of ecological restoration—as articulated by the world’s leading ecological restoration body, the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER 2004).
The Standards recognise that the same term ‘ecological restoration’ is commonly used to describe not only a process (i.e. the activity undertaken) but also the outcome sought (i.e. the restored state). These Standards favour the term restoration for the activity undertaken and recovery for the outcome sought or achieved. Thus the Standards define as a restoration activity any project that aims to progress an ecosystem as far as possible towards full recovery, relative to an appropriate local native reference ecosystem - regardless of the period of time required to achieve that state. Full recovery is defined as the state whereby all ecosystem attributes closely resemble those of the reference ecosystem. Where only lower levels of recovery are possible despite best efforts, the recovery would be referred to as being in a state of partial recovery; although all such activities need to aspire to substantial recovery of native biota of the reference ecosystem to qualify as ecological restoration. (For definitions of all terms, see Glossary, Section 6.)
The fully restored state can only be considered achieved when the ecosystem’s attributes are on a secure trajectory (pathway) to highly resemble those of the reference ecosystem without further restoration-phase interventions being needed. After full recovery has been attained, ongoing management interventions would be viewed as a form of ecosystem maintenance.
The activity and the outcome of ecological restoration are therefore inextricably linked. If the desired restoration outcomes are identified from the outset then these outcomes can direct the optimal restoration process. Similarly, where outcomes are uncertain, applying appropriate processes can help us to arrive at satisfactory outcomes.
Projects that focus solely on reinstating some form of ecosystem functionality without seeking to also recover a substantial proportion of the native biota found in an appropriate native reference ecosystem would be best described as rehabilitation. Such rehabilitation, as described in Appendix 1, is especially encouraged and valued where it: (i) improves ecological condition or function and (ii) is the highest standard that can be applied.
The ethic of ecological restoration
The ethic of ecological restoration is one of conservation, repair and renewal. There is global recognition that local native ecosystems are of high intrinsic biological, societal and economic value but are diminishing in extent and condition. While protecting remaining ecosystems is vital to conserving our natural heritage, protection alone is not sufficient. Human societies are increasingly recognising that we to need to achieve a net gain in the extent and function of native ecosystems through supplementing conservation with environmental repair.
Ecological restoration therefore seeks the highest and best conservation outcomes for all ecosystems at increasingly larger scales. That is, ecosystem restoration seeks to not only compensate for damage and improve the condition of ecosystems but also to substantially expand the area available to nature conservation. This ethic informs and drives a process of scaling-up restoration efforts.
Ecological restoration in Australia—the need for Standards
The practice of ecological restoration is widespread in Australia and the demand for this activity is increasing across terrestrial, freshwater and marine biomes. Many government and non-government agencies, community groups, companies and private individuals choose to engage in the repair of damage, often inherited from previous generations, (non-mandatory restoration); while others are required to undertake restoration as part of consent conditions for current developments (mandatory restoration). While successes have occurred, often the outcomes from both pursuits fall short of their objectives due to a lack of appropriate effort, resources or insufficient or inappropriate knowledge or skill. Substantial progress could be made, however, with improved focus and greater resourcing.
Important foundation documents exist that inform and guide ecological restoration, namely the SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration (SER 2004)— expanded upon in Clewell & Aronson (2013) — and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) guidelines(Keenleyside et. al. 2012) . However this document (and its international adaptation Gann et al 2019) are considered necessary to supplement these foundation documents. This is particularly to clarify the guiding principles and minimum standards expected if a project is to be described as an ecological restoration activity; and to clarify the degree to which outcomes are to be evaluated as ecological restoration. Australian Standards are also needed to more specifically tailor information to Australian planners and practitioners; drawing lessons from ecological restoration practice around the world but especially from Australia, a continent rich in unique species and ecosystems of extraordinary diversity and ecological complexity.
What are the Standards and for whom are they designed?
The Standards list (i) the principles that underpin current best practice ecological restoration and (ii) the steps required to plan, implement and monitor restoration projects to increase their chance of success. The Standards are applicable to any Australian ecosystem (whether terrestrial or aquatic) and any sector (whether private or public, mandatory or non-mandatory). They can be used by any person or organisation to help develop plans, contracts, consent conditions and closure criteria.
The Standards will be updated periodically or on a five-year cycle as required. They are designed to be generic in nature and thereby compatible with more detailed guidelines and standards that may already exist or which are yet to be prepared for a specific aspect of restoration, or geographically distinct biome.