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The Myths of Restoration Ecology

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From introduction: "Based on our experiences as researchers and practitioners in conservation and restoration ecology, we propose five central myths (Table 1) under which many ecological restoration and management projects seem to be conceived and implemented. Myths have value because they help us to organize and understand complex systems and phenomena. Identifying myths can help make the tacit explicit by revealing assumptions that are otherwise hidden. However, they remain simplified and potentially misguided models for understanding and application. The first Myth, the Carbon Copy, addresses the goal-setting process, and as such, it forms the basis of how restorations are evaluated. The Carbon Copy is closely tied to the remaining four myths, which involve the process of restoration and management: the Field of Dreams; Fast Forwarding; the Cookbook; and Command and Control: the Sisyphus Complex. We believe that describing these myths will be useful in understanding how some management or restoration strategies are conceived, designed, and implemented. For example, adherence to different myths may direct actions in divergent directions, as could be the case when choosing between a focus on ecosystem structure (Carbon Copy) or on key processes (Field of Dreams). Examining these myths may also help us better understand why some restoration projects do not meet our expectations. In the pages below, we briefly describe each myth and its assumptions, and give examples where the myth exists. "Our objective is not to abandon what we propose to be prevalent myths in ecological restoration--there are elements of truth in each--but to recognize that there are tacit assumptions associated with each myth. Failure to recognize these assumptions can lead to conflict and disappointing results despite large expenditures of time and effort. Our challenge is to recognize the limitations and not accept sometimes dogmatic beliefs without critical examination. We do not claim that every project is rooted in myth, but suggest that many perceived failures may be traced to over-reliance on one or more of the myths. We do not condemn restoration ecology, but rather provide a means of self-examination so readers can identify from their own experiences what worked and possible reasons for perceived failures."
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Copyright © 2005 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.
Hilderbrand, R. H., A. C. Watts, and A. M. Randle 2005. The myths of restoration ecology. Ecology and
Society 10(1): 19. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol10/iss1/art19/
Perspective
The Myths of Restoration Ecology
Robert H. Hilderbrand
1
, Adam C. Watts
2
, and April M. Randle
3
Key Words: carbon copy; command and control; cookbook; ecological restoration; fast forward; field of
dreams; myths; resilience; restoration ecology; Sisyphus complex
INTRODUCTION
Humanity’s ever-increasing ability to effect
environmental change on a number of spatial and
temporal scales requires tough decisions about how
we view, value, and manage ecosystems. For
example, advances in agriculture that support vastly
more people per unit area than hunting and gathering
are clearly a positive outcome for society. However,
many beneficial land-use practices, including
agriculture, may ultimately degrade ecosystems. To
function as a society, some amount of ecosystem
alteration must occur to support the human
population, but we are ultimately dependent on
ecosystem services. Our actions both intentionally
and unwittingly alter the goods and services of many
ecosystems on which we rely, and by entering into
this relationship of altering ecosystems, we incur
responsibility to our neighbors and to future
generations. However, the difficult decisions have
largely been avoided by the expectations and
confidence in conservation and, in particular,
ecological restoration.
Given the widespread alteration of natural systems,
it is clear that conservation measures alone will not
suffice to protect ecosystem functions, services, and
habitat for a large number of species in the future.
Conservation has traditionally been a rearguard
measure to prevent further degradation rather than
a means for increasing resources or natural capital.
As such, simple maintenance as opposed to
enhancement of ecosystems may often leave
ecosystems and species vulnerable. Despite
conservation policies such as roadless areas and the
“No Net Loss” concept for U.S. wetlands, losses
continue to exceed gains (Dahl and Allord 1996),
and gains are often not functionally equivalent to
losses (Zedler 2000a, National Research Council
2001). Increasing human population growth and
resource consumption continue to place additional
stresses on systems and demands more capacity and
services, rather than simple maintenance of current
services. Thus, we must either alter consumption or
rely on our ability to create, restore, and enhance
ecosystems and their services.
Despite our dependence on healthy ecosystems,
society has made the decision to continue life as
usual until a loss of valued goods and services is
realized; then, society will expect and rely on
science to clean up the mess and make it look
natural. Many government policies concerning
development and extractive resource use already
assume the ability to mitigate ecosystem damage
through the restoration of degraded land or creation
of new habitats. However, many restorations are not
successful either in structure (Lockwood and Pimm
1999) or function (Kentula 1996, Zedler and
Callaway 1999) when compared with reference
ecosystems. Such results underscore the need to
evaluate our underlying beliefs and expectations in
restoration.
The incredible complexity of nature forces us to
simplify the systems we study in order to develop
theory and generalities by reducing them to
understandable subsets. Although we cannot
function without theory and conceptual models,
their creation often ignores the variability that is so
important to accurately describe, predict, and re-
create current and future system attributes. In
essence, restoration ecology strives to (re-)create
complex systems from simplified guiding principles
1
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Appalachian Laboratory,
2
University of Florida,
3
University of Pittsburgh
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or myths. Failure to recognize the limitations and
tacit assumptions can lead to failures because of the
over-application of over-simplified concepts to
complex systems (Holling 1995, Holling and Meffe
1996). We believe the same is true in ecological
restoration.
We believe that many unsatisfactory restorations
result from a failure to recognize and address
uncertainty, and from a focus on inappropriate time
scales. Ecological restoration is trying to do in a
matter of years what takes decades or centuries
under natural conditions. Expecting complete
restoration on human time scales is unreasonable,
even where full recovery may eventually occur.
Nonetheless, many of our underlying beliefs tacitly
assume that systems will return to a “natural” state
in fairly short order if they are just nudged in the
right direction through adjustments to physical
attributes or by regulating species composition.
Additional problems arise in defining what is
“natural” and in our inability to accept that systems
are dynamic and may have multiple trajectories
leading to numerous possible outcomes. Finally,
because we are extrapolating from oversimplified
concepts, ignoring uncertainty may result in
surprise and failure because we have not created a
system capable of adapting or responding to future
drivers or events. Therefore, restorations should not
be one-time events, but are likely to require periodic
attention and adaptive management to increase the
chances of responsive, adaptive, and successful
projects.
Based on our experiences as researchers and
practitioners in conservation and restoration
ecology, we propose five central myths (Table 1)
under which many ecological restoration and
management projects seem to be conceived and
implemented. Myths have value because they help
us to organize and understand complex systems and
phenomena. Identifying myths can help make the
tacit explicit by revealing assumptions that are
otherwise hidden (Holling 1982). However, they
remain simplified and potentially misguided models
for understanding and application (Holling 1982,
Timmerman 1986). The first Myth, the Carbon
Copy, addresses the goal-setting process, and as
such, it forms the basis of how restorations are
evaluated. The Carbon Copy is closely tied to the
remaining four myths, which involve the process of
restoration and management: the Field of Dreams;
Fast Forwarding; the Cookbook; and Command and
Control: the Sisyphus Complex. We believe that
describing these myths will be useful in
understanding how some management or
restoration strategies are conceived, designed, and
implemented. For example, adherence to different
myths may direct actions in divergent directions, as
could be the case when choosing between a focus
on ecosystem structure (Carbon Copy) or on key
processes (Field of Dreams). Examining these
myths may also help us better understand why some
restoration projects do not meet our expectations.
In the pages below, we briefly describe each myth
and its assumptions, and give examples where the
myth exists.
Our objective is not to abandon what we propose to
be prevalent myths in ecological restoration—there
are elements of truth in each—but to recognize that
there are tacit assumptions associated with each
myth. Failure to recognize these assumptions can
lead to conflict and disappointing results despite
large expenditures of time and effort. Our challenge
is to recognize the limitations and not accept
sometimes dogmatic beliefs without critical
examination. We do not claim that every project is
rooted in myth, but suggest that many perceived
failures may be traced to over-reliance on one or
more of the myths. We do not condemn restoration
ecology, but rather provide a means of self-
examination so readers can identify from their own
experiences what worked and possible reasons for
perceived failures.
THE MYTH OF THE CARBON COPY
The myth of the Carbon Copy relates to the selection
of restoration goals and end points, and maintains
that we can restore or create an ecosystem that is a
copy of a previous or ideal state. The myth is rooted
in the Clementsian (1936) idea that ecosystems
develop in a predictable fashion toward a specified,
static, end point or climax. Accordingly, any
disturbance or degrading activity will reset the
system, resulting in a phase of rebuilding and a
return to the previous trajectory of ecosystem
development. However, restoration sites are
different from those where secondary succession
occurs after disturbance (Zedler 2000b), and
restoring or creating an ecosystem of specific
composition becomes quite difficult. Most
successes appear to be only transitory (Lockwood
and Pimm 1999). Despite the shortcomings, the
myth of a carbon copy persists in ecological
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Table 1. The myths of restoration and their core issues
Restoration Myth Core Issues
Carbon Copy Community assembly predictable; a single endpoint exists
Field of Dreams Sole focus on physico-chemical conditions;
systems self-organize
Fast Forward Succession and ecosystem development can be accelerated
Cookbook Methodology overused and not sufficiently validated
Command and Control:
Sisyphus Complex
Nature is controllable; Treating symptoms will fix the
problem
restoration. The main reason is that the
underpinnings of restoration ecology involve
ecological succession and assembly rules (Young
2000), which tend to reinforce subconsciously the
concept of a static, climax end point. Indeed, van
der Valk (1998) described restoration as accelerated
succession. Ecology is rich with examples of
succession (Glenn-Lewin et al. 1992), and there is
little doubt of its importance in community and
ecosystem development (Odum 1969), or potential
in restoration (e.g., van der Valk 1998). The main
issue is the extent to which succession is equilibrial
and can be predicted or controlled to arrive at a
predefined state under human time scales. Most
landscapes are a mosaic of different vegetation
types that shift through both space and time
(Bormann and Likens 1979, Pickett and White
1985), and identifying a single state as the only end
point is not realistic for most systems.
The myth of the Carbon Copy has influenced
resource agencies, such as the U.S. National Park
Service, that have mandates to restore and manage
some systems to pre-settlement conditions. At its
extreme, the Carbon Copy emphasizes a natural or
primeval state that existed before European
settlement, and becomes the restoration or
management objective. As the natural state existed
before corruption by modern influences or before a
need for restoration, its return is the objective.
Although the purpose of restoration and
management outside of legislative mandates should
guide the goals and end points, a de facto end point
is all too often what the system was like in an
undisturbed state.
Restoration to a pre-disturbance state may be
desirable when concerns are for the “naturalness”
of the system, but many difficulties exist during
implementation. Few would debate that a pre-
disturbance state is, in most cases, preferable to a
degraded one, but the ability to (re-)create a system
resembling pre-disturbance may be difficult, if not
impossible. Given the sheer number of non-native
species that have invaded and been integrated into
virtually every ecosystem, it is arguably impossible
to achieve a pre-settlement target condition. Even
if such a goal could be achieved, selection of the
appropriate target remains in question—do we
restore for the ecosystem of 1500 AD, 500 AD, or
1000 BC? Another difficulty arises when the
underlying parameters and drivers have changed (e.
g., Ehrenfeld 2000) or the system is too degraded to
achieve pre-disturbance conditions (Hobbs and
Norton 1996). Changes such as a rise in sea level,
atmospheric acid deposition, and altered hydrology
because of urbanization, dams, and water
withdrawals may all substantially alter both
structure and function as a result of changes in
salinity, soil and water chemistry, and hydrography
and geomorphology, respectively. Thus, we may
aim at a target that is not only moving, but also at a
target that is no longer attainable at a specific locale.
Tension and conflict arise when the Carbon Copy
is an unrealistic or inappropriate goal. Pre-
disturbance or “pristine” conditions are often in
conflict with stakeholder wishes, particularly in
more urbanized situations (Shore 1997). Even
setting goals that recognize multiple end points can
be politically and socially problematic when various
stakeholders each desire a different and conflicting
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result. In these cases, a pre-disturbance condition
may not represent the best solution, when the
objective is to maximize an ecosystem service,
function, or aesthetic. Rather than focus on restoring
to some primeval state, a more profitable approach
would be to accept that ecosystems are dynamic and
focus on repairing damaged systems to the extent
possible (Hobbs and Harris 2001).
The Carbon Copy myth prevails in extractive
resource industries, such as forestry and mining, and
its foundations are used as arguments to justify
access to resources in undisturbed environments—
the belief being that these systems will return to their
previous state after disturbance. Although few
ecologists pretend that the more destructive forms
of mining can be fully restored, the belief in this
ability is promoted by those backing the extraction
industries. Despite limited success, the Carbon
Copy myth has resurged in the USA in the form of
the “No Net Loss” paradigm of wetland protection
policy and mitigation (Zedler 1996), which assumes
that created or restored wetlands provide equivalent
ecological services, function, and value as those
destroyed. Although success stories exist, many
now consider the assumptions invalid because few
created or restored wetlands have achieved structure
or function equivalent to existing wetlands (Zedler
and Callaway 1999, National Research Council
2001, Seabloom and van der Valk 2003), and natural
wetlands continue to disappear without equivalent
replacement (Whigham 1999).
An alternative to creating a carbon copy of species
complement is to create a system equivalent in
function to the pre-disturbance state. Restored
systems can be functionally superior to pre-
disturbance systems, as in the case of wetlands
engineered for nutrient removal (e.g., Peterson
1998). The growing field of ecological engineering
is rich with examples of such enhanced systems
(Ansola et al. 1995, Kadlec and Knight 1996,
Knowlton et al. 2002, Kangas 2003), and will
become ever more important to society as we
continue to degrade natural systems. Functional
replacement could be more easily accomplished
than replacement of taxonomic composition
because of the shared ecological function of many
species (Stanturf et al. 2001). The danger in this
approach is that some functions may be enhanced
yet more subtle functions (e.g., species’ habitats) or
indirect interactions (e.g., heightened predation due
to habitat differences) may suffer. Questions that
remain include the resilience of functional
replacements to disturbances and their acceptability
to society. The heightened public awareness of
invasive species modifying ecosystems and the
potentially foreign look of a functional replacement
may be socially unpalatable.
THE MYTH OF THE FIELD OF DREAMS
The Field of Dreams stems from the notion that all
one needs is the physical structure for a particular
ecosystem, and biotic composition and function will
self-assemble—if you build it, they will come.
Similarly, restoration of a process, such as fire or
hydrologic regime, is expected to re-create pre-
disturbance structure. Although re-creating the
physical template and drivers are a necessary first
step, it is rarely a final step and sometimes a misstep
(e.g., Smith 1997). A fundamental assumption of
this myth is that the community and ecosystem
assembly process follow a repeatable trajectory, and
uncertainty is implicitly ignored. Although there are
some encouraging generalizations emerging about
community assembly (Christensen and Peet 1984,
Drake 1990, Keddy 1999), community assembly is
in many ways reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s
(1902) Just So Stories: communities are historically
contingent products (Parker 1997), and much
uncertainty still exists given the influences of initial
conditions (Grace 1987) and stochastic or neutral
assembly (Hubbell 2001). Failure to accept
uncertainty and the dynamic nature of community
assembly can lead to the traps of the Carbon Copy
myth.
The Field of Dreams approach is common in both
wetland and stream restoration, where emphasis is
often on re-creating physical attributes with little
attention paid to biotic responses. For example, the
Rosgen approach (Rosgen 1994, 1998) is probably
the most widely used stream restoration method in
North America, but it deals almost exclusively with
geomorphic attributes of stream channels.
Restoration goals in systems such as urban
watersheds often involve preventing streambed
erosion and destruction of buried utilities, such as
sewer and water lines. Although stabilization of the
stream channel is quite important, stopping at a
geomorphic end point is similar to ensuring that
mining excavations in terrestrial landscapes are
filled after a job is completed, and then not
proceeding with revegetation. Similar examples
exist for wetland restorations (van der Valk 1998),
where the concept of self-design (Mitsch and
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Wilson 1996, Mitsch et al. 1998) is embraced after
the hydrologic conditions are restored. Restoration
sites do become revegetated, but may be of different
species composition and degree of cover (Seabloom
and van der Valk 2003), owing to dispersal
limitations of many wetland species (Galatowitsch
and van der Valk 1996). Thus, the effectiveness of
self-design depends on the restoration goals, but
adopting a concept of self-design does implicitly
recognize and embrace the existence of multiple end
points.
An effective restoration of the physical variables
will create the template for biotic recovery, but
physical structure does not always beget biotic
structure, and biotic structure does not necessarily
result in similar ecosystem functions across sites.
The concept of self-organization, or self-design, is
an intuitively appealing approach and is very
attractive to resource managers who have limited
time and budgets. A self-assembling ecosystem
would substantially cut down on the amount of
effort required to restore ecosystems, and we feel
this is why the Field of Dreams is commonly
employed. However, its effectiveness in restoring
structure and function is still debatable (Simenstad
and Thom 1996, Zedler and Callaway 1999,
National Research Council 2001), and restored
areas may be quite different from undisturbed sites
(Seabloom and van der Valk 2003). In defense of
self-assembly, composition of restored sites is
expected to approach reference sites given sufficient
time (Mitsch 1997). Effective restoration using this
approach must overcome issues of recolonization
and dispersal, stochasticity in community assembly,
and assembly of energy transfer pathways. One
commonly used strategy to circumvent these
limitations is to jumpstart the process by adding
organisms, but our understanding of accelerating
ecosystem development is incomplete and may lead
to the myth of Fast-Forwarding.
THE MYTH OF FAST-FORWARDING
The myth of Fast-Forwarding is based on the idea
that one can accelerate ecosystem development by
controlling pathways, such as dispersal, colonization,
and community assembly, to reduce the time
required to create a functional or desired ecosystem.
This idea stems from the initial floristics model of
succession (Egler 1954) in which the process of
ecosystem development is accelerated by
controlling initial species composition and
succession to achieve the desired end point (van der
Valk 1998). The major assumption is that we can
reliably recreate key processes and links between
the biota and physical environment. A driving force
behind this approach is the need to demonstrate
rapid recovery of disturbed lands in order, for
example, to have insurance or mitigation
performance bonds returned quickly.
Many types of restoration projects justifiably use a
fast-forwarding approach to jumpstart the recovery
process by using species desired in the ecosystem.
As most restorations include plantings to get the ball
rolling and stabilize the terrain, it is logical to try to
advance the successional process, and this is why
the practice is so common. However, relying on the
premise that fast-forwarding will produce the
desired ecosystem trajectory and speed the recovery
process may result in disappointment. Little
evidence exists for achieving desired trajectories or
functions within the shortened time spans promised
by fast-forwarding (Simenstad and Thom 1996,
Zedler and Callaway 1999, Campbell et al. 2002,
Wilkins et al. 2003). As with other myths, there is
some element of truth, and successes using fast-
forwarding have occurred (e.g., Clewell 1999).
Successful projects typically require multiple
plantings and a considerable amount of attention to
ensure survival of plantings in systems that may be
“premature” for the species’ arrival. Even when
successful, certain ecological processes, such as the
development of tree hollows for cavity-nesting
animals, soil development, mycorrhyzal associations,
and hydrologic regimes, present more difficult
challenges and may take years or decades. Mitsch
and Wilson (1996), for example, point out that the
5-year span in which “‘quick-fix’ wetlands” are
expected to become sufficient replacements for lost
or damaged areas is improbably short, and that 15–
20 years is a much more realistic expectation. Long-
term monitoring (5–15 years) of restoration projects
is indicating that a more likely time horizon is
several decades for a restoration to resemble a pre-
disturbance target (Zedler and Callaway 1999,
Wilkins et al. 2003). Many ecological restoration
projects—even ecological restoration itself—aim
for rapid progress from a damaged state toward
some more-or-less specific target. There is nothing
inherently wrong with such a goal, however, we
should not be so intent on attaining a specific point
that the system’s potential future state (i.e., after
restoration efforts cease and natural processes take
over) is ignored.
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THE MYTH OF THE COOKBOOK
When a particular restoration experience is
successful in one area or ecosystem, we naturally
want to apply the same techniques in other
restoration efforts; after all, science has little
relevance if the results are not repeatable. We refer
to the over-use or continued use of a locally
unsuccessful restoration prescription because it
worked somewhere else, or is in the published
literature, as the myth of the Cookbook. Perpetrators
of this myth assume that similar physical and
ecological systems respond identically and
predictably to restoration techniques. Although a
reasonable starting point, systems that appear very
similar may exhibit considerable differences in
variables that regulate slow processes (e.g., carbon
storage), and the same management prescription
applied to two such systems may have vastly
different results. The difficulty arises when
approaches are adopted that ignore uncertainty. A
non-adaptive technique forces us down a path with
few alternatives to a changing world.
The myth of the cookbook arises often in stream
restoration, and possibly wetland restoration and
creation, where recipes for restoration exist (Rosgen
1998). Cookbook approaches seem to be most often
present in engineering approaches to restorations.
We are not denouncing the goal of standard
methods, but we believe that there is still too much
uncertainty to commit totally to one technique in a
given situation. Even in chemistry, where well
developed standard methods exist, a good yield
from a single reaction may be 90% and a complex
set of reactions may yield less than 50%, meaning
that half the reactions did not go as they should.
Given the complexity of many restorations, the
practice is fairly successful relative to the chemistry
analogy. However, incomplete chemical reactions
can be precipitated, discarded, or otherwise dealt
with quickly and inexpensively, but we do not have
the luxury to treat degraded systems similarly, nor
can we accept such a failure rate given the high
financial cost. The positive side is that systems are
rarely in worse condition after a restoration even if
the project did not meet the stated goals.
To resource professionals plagued by a lack of
information, time, and budget, cookbook
approaches may be the only realistic approach. The
opportunity to use a successful restoration effort as
a template for a similar system is a start, and may
be preferable to inaction. It may also be advisable
to replicate certain elements of proven restoration
techniques, because some valid generalities may be
made concerning the responses of a wide range of
ecosystems to the same actions (Zedler 2000a).
However, idiosyncrasies of each system (unique
ecological histories, differing assembly rules, or
even differing functional roles of components of
two similar ecosystems) may result in elements of
surprise and crisis when a uniform, cookbook
approach is used without detailed knowledge of the
ecological characteristics of the ecosystem to be
restored. As the community or ecosystem to be
restored becomes less and less similar to the system
in which a given restoration approach was
successful, the potential for unforeseen responses
and failure increases dramatically.
By defining the myth of the Cookbook, we do not
advocate reinventing the wheel with every new
project. One of the major goals of restoration
ecology is to develop a suite of methods that can be
used in a given situation to best effect. We believe
this desire or belief in repeatable methods is why
the cookbook remains. Problems arise when a
method is over used or used in the wrong situation
just because the method exists and is understood. A
number of approaches (e.g., Kershner 1997, Clewell
et al. 2000, Richter et al. 2003) provide general
guidance, but allow for site-specific adjustments to
deal with uncertainty. A more cautious approach,
acknowledging our inability to predict the exact
response of an ecosystem to manipulation, would
be the application of a varied management or
restoration regime across a landscape. Techniques
aimed at discovering and mimicking the character
of natural systems would be more likely to find
successful solutions (Mitsch and Wilson 1996),
while likely contributing to the resilience of the
system (Holling et al. 2002).
THE MYTH OF COMMAND AND
CONTROL AND THE SISYPHUS COMPLEX
The myth of Command and Control (Holling and
Meffe 1996) describes the “pathology of natural
resources management” where goals are achieved
by active intervention and unending control, or
manipulation of physical and biological components
of the ecosystem. This myth, articulated by Holling
and Meffe (1996), assumes we have the knowledge,
abilities, and foresight to actively control ecosystem
structure and function to manage for a particular
ecosystem state indefinitely into the future. Exerting
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command and control invariably decreases system
resilience by reducing the range of natural variation
and adaptive capacity for the system to respond to
disturbances (Gunderson 2000). As resilience
decreases, the likelihood of a disturbance shifting
the system into an undesired or degraded state
increases, and control is wrested from the manager.
Practice of Command and Control recalls the story
of Sisyphus, one of the most unenviable characters
in Greek mythology because he is compelled by the
Gods to forever push a heavy boulder uphill. Just as
he nears the top, Sisyphus becomes exhausted, and
the boulder rolls back down to the plain below,
where Sisyphus must begin again. Like Sisyphus,
we can become trapped in an endless cycle of effort
to compel ecosystems to remain in single, transient,
or unstable states, resulting in repeated episodes of
surprise and crisis that can mimic the ball-in-cup
analogy of system dynamics (Lewontin 1969,
Holling 1973, Beisner et al. 2003), with the ball
rolling around the cup and away from the manager’s
desired state. The Sisyphus Complex emerges when
we act through Command and Control to hold a
dynamic system static or force a system to exist in
a transient state. In any restoration, some amount of
Command and Control is required to perform the
restoration. Additional nudges to physical or
biological components will likely occur in the years
after the restoration as well. There is nothing wrong
with some tinkering—we cannot exist without
having some effect on our surroundings. Actions to
be avoided are those that are long term in nature or
will decrease the natural range of variability in key
processes, such as fire regime or hydrology.
The Sisyphus Complex often occurs when the
dominant, large-scale drivers of the system have
changed and are either not noticed or conveniently
ignored. When we fall into the Sisyphus Complex,
we become fixated on treating symptoms rather than
the root of the problem and so become susceptible
to failure. Urban stream restorations often occur in
response to severely eroded stream channels, and a
more flashy hydrograph that results from increases
in impervious surface area higher in the watershed.
Many such restorations fail (sometimes multiple
times) despite tremendous expense and effort,
because the altered driver (the hydrograph) and the
root cause (impervious surfaces) were not
addressed. Other general examples include coastal
beach restoration in the face of ongoing, natural
erosion; rare species stocking/reintroduction
programs that ignore the root causes of rarity; and
attempting to direct succession to end points
incompatible with environmental conditions.
Sometimes the Sisyphus Complex results from
social or political mandates to do something despite
credible science to the contrary. In these situations,
we must make every effort for science to influence
decision making so that the inevitable repeated
failures are not perceived as employment
justification or incompetence on the part of science.
MOVING BEYOND THE MYTHS
Myths have value because they help us to organize
and understand complex systems and phenomena,
and provide a starting point toward the restoration
and management of degraded ecosystems. We feel
this is why the myths of restoration exist and persist.
We hope that proposing these myths (whether the
reader agrees with them or not) will begin a dialog
leading to a deeper thinking about and greater
understanding of natural systems and advancing the
science of restoration ecology and management.
Identifying myths has several implications for
restoration design. A common theme in the myths
is a failure to recognize and address uncertainty.
Ignoring uncertainty often results in surprise and
failure, because we have not created a system
capable of adapting or responding to future drivers
or chance events, and we are unable to exert ultimate
control over the system. An alternative approach
would be designing for resilience by planning for
surprise. Although we cannot anticipate all future
events, we can manage and restore in ways that
allow for uncertainty. Planning for resilience should
allow systems a greater ability to deal with and
recover from surprise and future change by focusing
on a diversity of approaches, functions, and taxa.
When viewed in the context of designing for
resilience, restorations become experiments in
adaptive management or adaptive restoration
(Zedler 2000b). Restoration projects with decision
points along the way allow for critical assessment
and possible intervention with contingency plans if
things are not proceeding appropriately. Rapid
learning can also be achieved by using a diversity
of restoration techniques and approaches likely to
be successful within the larger restoration.
Assessing the performance of multiple approaches
may increase cost, but it allows for testing multiple
hypotheses and adaptive learning, and may cost less
in the long run. If more than one approach is
Ecology and Society 10(1): 19
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successful, the restoration toolbox quickly expands,
and much about the system is learned. If, however,
no approach works, we will have quickly learned
the inability of several techniques compared with
the time it would take to gain the same results one
restoration at a time. The challenge is to implement
and design multiple approaches so that each can be
assessed independently of others, as well as
independently of adaptive responses that may occur
along decision points after periodic evaluations.
Multiple approaches within a larger restoration will
also likely increase system resilience because the
system created by each approach may have
differential response to and recovery from
disturbances. Maximizing species diversity in
restorations is likely to increase response diversity
(Elmqvist et al. 2003) and may increase the
likelihood of a restoration containing species
resistant or resilient to future conditions and
disturbances. Although the concept that diversity
begets ecosystem stability may itself be an emerging
myth, it seems worth pursuing for other reasons as
well.
Recognizing mythologies may also aid the goal-
setting process. The forest primeval no longer exists
and may not be attainable—exotic species, historic
disturbance regimes, and changes in climatic and
landscape drivers all serve to ensure that there never
was, and probably never will be a single, repeatable
end point. More realistically, goals should include
multiple scientifically defensible end points of
functional or structural equivalence. Although
maintaining biotic or ecological integrity is a noble
goal, invasive species are too entrenched in many
systems to consider their presence a restoration
failure, particularly when some may have similar
roles as native species. Providing for alternative
solutions to future conditions by setting multiple
end points implicitly increases resilience by
increasing the adaptive capacity and response
diversity of the system. In addition to being more
realistic and attainable, having several possible end
points may also reduce tension within and among
practitioners and stakeholders.
Restoration projects should expand goals and
expectations beyond quantitative targets or ranges
for ecological attributes, such as vegetation density,
biogeochemical processes, and hydroperiods.
Approaches that consider ecological capital,
connectivity, and variability are likely to improve
the ecological resilience of restored systems, and
therefore, their ability to absorb disturbances or
insults without resulting in a permanent change in
fundamental system attributes. One size does not fit
all, even when situations may appear very similar.
Any ecological restoration or management effort
involves both explicit and implicit attempts to
prescribe and predict the ecological future of a site.
These efforts require extrapolating far beyond our
predictive abilities, and we must be aware of our
limitations as scientists, as well as our tendency as
humans to rely on partial truths and assumptions
when implementing ecological restoration and
management projects.
We conclude by suggesting a final myth of
restoration ecology, but one held by society—the
Bionic World. The myth of the Bionic World is a
belief that science and technology will solve the
pressing issues of human population growth, finite
resources, and altered ecosystems. In the Bionic
World, degraded landscapes will be fixed or
reconstructed with the precision and surety of the
“Bionic Woman” and the “Six Million Dollar Man”
in the U.S. television shows of the 1970s. If we
follow this logic, we have no tough choices to make
about how we view and treat our surroundings, and
decisions can be put off until the economic markets
demand or justify a solution. Let’s hope they’re
right, but until supporting evidence emerges, we
must maintain what we have.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol10/iss1/art19/responses/
Acknowledgments:
This work was conducted as part of the Theories for
Sustainable Futures Working Group supported by
the National Center for Ecological Analysis and
Synthesis, a Center funded by the National Science
Foundation (Grant #DEB-94-21535), the University
of California at Santa Barbara, and the State of
California. The authors thank Guy Barnett, Katia
Engelhardt, Lance Gunderson, Buzz Holling, and
two anonymous referees for helpful comments
throughout manuscript preparation. R. H. was
partially supported by a D. H. Smith Conservation
Research Fellowship from The Nature Conservancy.
This is publication DHS 2004-07 of the David H.
Smith Research Fellowship Program, University of
Maryland Center for Environmental Science
Appalachian Laboratory scientific contribution
Ecology and Society 10(1): 19
http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol10/iss1/art19/
number 3813.
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... The inherent urgency of addressing the biodiversity crisis and ecosystem degradation (Ripple et al. 2017) in a manner that encourages adaptive capacity in the face of climate change (Harris et al. 2006), combined with limited resources for restoration (Holl & Howarth 2000), means that restoration efforts that fail are costly in many ways (Suding 2011;Perring et al. 2018). And the failures are rather common (Hilderbrand et al. 2005) despite relatively few efforts to assess restoration success (Wortley et al. 2013). Even when projects declare that they were "successful," the basis for that success is often unclear and subjective such that the validity of that success is unknown (Zedler 2007). ...
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The creation and restoration of new wetlands for mitigation of lost wetland habitat is a newly developing science/technology that is still seeking to define and achieve success of these wetlands. Fundamental requirements for achieving success of wetland creation and restoration projects are: understanding wetland function; giving the system time; and allowing for the self-designing capacity of nature. Mitigation projects involving freshwater marshes should require enough time, closer to 15-20 yr than 5 yr, to judge the success or lack thereof. Restoration and creation of forested wetlands, coastal wetlands, or peatlands may require even more time. Ecosystem-level research and ecosystem modelling development may provide guidance on when created and restored wetlands can be expected to comply with criteria that measure their success. Full-scale experimentation is now beginning to increase our understanding of wetland function at the larger spatial scales and longer time scales than those of most ecological experiments. Predictive ecological modelling may enable ecologists to estimate how long it will take the mitigation wetland to achieve steady state.
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Wetland mitigation projects are changing the nation's landscapes, with habitat in one area being created or restored to compensate for damages in another. Ecologists are beginning to document substantial differences between what is lost and gained in the process, and the balance sheet often comes up short. Of great concern is whether either wetland area or wetland functions are sustained by such trades. The following papers comprise a forum of responses to mitigation policies and projects. The authors are scientists who have conducted research on mitigation sites, followed mitigation projects, and/or reviewed literature on the subject. This introductory paper defines mitigation in the regulatory context; identifies ecological issues under four headings relative to our ability to create specific ecosystems at will: predictability, structure and function, limiting factors, and landscape issues; and points out the declining status of wetlands and their nationally recognized value. The subsequent six forum papers are: Simenstad and Thom's long-term performance evaluation of a constructed tidal wetland, Bedford's discussion of hydrologic equivalence for freshwater wetland mitigation, Brinson's advice on reference wetlands, Mitsch and Wilson's reflections on how to improve functioning of mitigation wetlands, Zedler's call for regional mitigation planning in southern California, and Race and Fonseca's long-term perspective on mitigation policy.