What are the grand challenges for restoration ecology?

I am a destruction ecologist not restoration ecologist.

 

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In most of my primary ecological fieldwork, we take things apart. We clear plots, remove individuals and sometimes immediate neighborhoods, or clip plants. This is not entirely without its merits. In some happy instances, the interactions we detected in the absence of others can inform restoration albeit indirectly. For instance, in an alpine-neighbourhood-removal experiment, plants near targets facilitate these individuals at higher elevations (Callaway et al 2002).

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In some of my dissertation research, I explored whether the loss of even tiny little desert annuals (but the relatively ‘larger’ ones) could influence patch dynamics.  We did selective removals of the subdominant annuals and demonstrated some positive not always negative effects of larger congeneric species as typically assumed for these systems (Lortie & Turkington 2008).

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I also like the much larger-scale ideas of biodiversity knockout experiments (http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/person/sinclair) as a means to explore the implications of loss of entire functional groups (or see metabolics/genomics approaches or the work of Diaz & others on different types of ecological removals).  Collectively, I suspect there is a nice opportunity for restoration to address some of the challenges it faces using experimental designs predicated upon removal.  Also, I suspect that anthropogenic effects can also remove players from ecosystems relatively regularly and that experiments emulating some of these perturbations can be informative.  This got me thinking that like most ecology, restoration ecology could be very plug and play.

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We add, we remove, and/or we observe. However, there is a fourth approach available to restoration ecology in the form of needs-driven research and perhaps in particular syntheses.  For instance, the work of Science for Nature and People exploring the importance of evidence in shaping human dynamics and management.

 

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Inspired by these initiative, I want to do a synthesis.  I do not want to do it alone. Help me! I love the idea of ‘grand challenges’ for a discipline.  If Obama can do it, we can do it too!  See the #wethegeeks series mostly for engineering. There is also a Grand Challenges in Global Health Program that is a really amazing.

I am very keen to become a restoration ecologist in some form maybe when I grow up. A synthesis of the challenges faced by the discipline, formally, would be a fantastic exercise in determining how an individual new to the field could contribute.  I imagine that some of the challenges that restoration ecology faces are not unique to it relative to other ecological disciplines such as access to open data, divergent semantics and non-standard vocabularies, funding, relevancy, and partnership expectation challenges.  However, I would love to know what challenges are unique to restoration ecology and how challenges faced in other disciplines also speak to this field. There have been some nice discussions of challenges in general for restoration (practice, paradigms, policy, & principles for specific systems), but to the best of my knowledge, there has been no formal and global synthesis as a primer to facilitate getting started and in avoiding/addressing some of the common pitfalls.  There has been many formal syntheses in the form of meta-analyses (see Gomez-Aparacio for instance on plant interactions for restoration or socioeconomic benefits of restoration by Aronson et al) but none at the global-thematic scale. I envisage the first steps to this process as a brainstorming of questions that need to be addressed for the discipline and a long list of challenges. Then, a matching exercise to explore whether there is correspondence between the questions being actively pursued and the challenges that restoration ecologists face.

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Final step, solutions – perhaps even a general blueprint.

 

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The synthesis could take many forms but a great step would be the big picture summarized.

General questions
1. How well does conservation biology and restoration ecology support and enable one another?
2. Does fundamental ecological theory significantly contribute to restoration ecology or does most restoration begin with a ‘problem’ that needs a solution?
3. Is most restoration ecology manipulative? How are mensurative experiments and observation leveraged in restoration ecology?
4. How inter-related are management and restoration in their alignment of needs and research agendas?
5. Are there syntheses of the local-versus-regional drivers that influence the outcome restoration efforts?
6. How commonly are the human factors included in restoration efforts or in experiments?
7. Does social science regularly contribute and support restoration efforts?
8. Does socioeconomic research support restoration? When it does, how it is used?
9. Is an effective restoration plan similar to a conservation blueprint?
10. What are main primary research topics that restoration ecologists examine?  Are there taxa and/or ecosystem specific biases and how general are the lessons?
11. What is the most common scale of restoration?
12. Are there themes that transcend restoration and speak to a wider audience?
13. Is restoration ecology increasing collaborative similar to other disciplines?
14. Are restoration ecology experiments often interdisciplinary?
15. What are the main challenges that most restoration ecologists would list in either doing research or in implementing a restoration effort?

I hope this set of questions is a good start in getting the ball rolling. I suspect a survey of experts in the field, a formal systematic review, and maybe a workshop and we would be up and running towards a nice list of grand challenges!

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