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Vol. 12 No. 4 - October 2006

Social Justice and Habitat Restoration

A Commentary on the Science and Practice of Ecological Restoration

By Anton G. Endress

Throughout the world, there is an expanding interest in restoring terrestrial and freshwater environments. Some are motivated by the disappearance of wild places and the species that inhabit them; others are motivated by the loss of recreational opportunities; and still others are concerned about the declining quality of life and wonder what the legacy to future generations will be. Whatever the motivation, the role of restoration ecology in revitalizing transformed and often degraded landscapes by increasing their natural character, restoring ecological integrity, and conserving biodiversity is so powerful and fundamental that it has been identified as the career for the 21st century and the future of conservation biology. Definitions vary, but an essential aspect of restoration ecology in the United States is the goal of bringing an ecological system back to some or all of its original or former state. Elsewhere, the goal of restoration is less directed towards a particular historic assemblage of organisms than it is directed towards establishment of a self-regulating system that functions ecologically within its particular landscape context. Achieving such goals requires both the understanding of ecological and evolutionary processes ranging from the molecular to landscape levels of organization and the integration of ecology, economics, sociology, psychology, and public policy among several disciplines.

Landscape Modification Drives the Need for Ecological Restoration

Environmental problems today are unprecedented in nature and magnitude. As a result of agriculture, industry, recreation, international commerce, and urbanization, the ever-expanding human population has extensively transformed the landscape. The resulting consequences have been significant: loss of biodiversity, climate change, biotic species additions and losses, atmospheric eutrophication, and altered biogeochemistry. For example, the Midwestern USA comprises a region in which agricultural, urban, and suburban development has placed increasing demands on the region's land. In terms of the proportion of land that remains in a natural or semi-natural state, this region is one of the most degraded landscapes in North America. In Illinois for example, much has changed since 1820 when Euro-American immigrants began to settle in its forests, grasslands, and savannas. Habitat losses were rapid: annual rates of forest clearing in the late 1800s approached 2% (equivalent to contemporary tropical deforestation rates) and prairie conversion to cropland occurred at the annual rate of 3.3% between 1830-1860. The remaining pre-settlement forest, prairie, and wetlands are ca. 0.1%, <0.01%, and 5% respectively of the pre-settlement ecosystems. Most of its landscape was converted to agriculture; Illinois ranks 49th nationally for its portion of pre-settlement habitat remaining, and often leads the USA in annual maize and soy production. Habitat fragmentation has also been significant: <17% of the remnant prairie is in parcels >4 ha; only ca. 11% of remnant forest sites are >40 ha; 14 prairie bird species have declined at an average of 38%; and edge species are flourishing. Invasions of non-indigenous species are increasing in severity and scope. In the past century, one in seven native fish species in Lake Michigan was either extirpated or suffered severe population crashes and exotic species have assumed the roles of major predators and major forage species. Nearly 32% of the vascular plant species in Illinois today are non­native, up from 10% in 1878 and 16% in 1950. Members of the Poaceae and Asteraceae contribute ca. 25% of the non-native taxa.

Which restorations? Where? What goals? Who decides?

From such extensive landscape transformation and degradation, however, is the phoenix of ecological restoration borne. Complex restoration efforts are underway or have been envisioned in urban, rural, terrestrial, and aquatic systems. Although restoration is often accomplished (or attempted) at a small spatial scale, some of the largest restorations in the USA are now underway or planned in Illinois and surrounding states (e.g., Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Lost Mound, Kankakee Sands, and Badger Arsenal). The intention is to enhance natural structure and function to restore ecological health.

Ecosystem restoration has roots in ecology, landscape architecture, conservation, reclamation, environmental mitigation - and a corresponding diversity of approaches and applications. Generally, the practice of ecological restoration is based on individual experiences of practitioners that are usually gained at the local level. However, the theoretical foundation of ecology is often drawn from research conducted in pristine habitats or places largely free of severe anthropogenic impact; specific theory-driven predictions in the local context are often lacking. The Midwestern landscape is dominated by agriculture, but is also punctuated by numerous communities with large human populations. Therefore, efforts to develop theory for restoring habitat and preserving biodiversity must also account for the complexity and variation within an urban-exurban framework.

Restoration ecologists are currently developing and refining an array of research- and experience-based techniques and technologies suitable for the challenges presented. Whether a particular restoration project is ultimately judged to be successful depends on the achievement of pre-established goals, of which some may be ecological in nature, while others not. Considering restorationists are a diverse community of scientists and practitioners who live with a variety of sometimes inconsistent goals, it is not surprising that any given target for restoration could be supported by a mix of science and values, and tenaciously argued by its proponents.

So how are restoration decisions involving today's fragmented and urbanized landscapes made? Most, if not all, of the alternative choices seem to require more than scientific knowledge: Which site to restore? Which habitat to preserve or species to conserve? Which restoration approaches are most likely to succeed? Will societal benefits exceed the costs? The power to affect human policy regarding the use of biotic resources and the maintenance of biological diversity depends on research and explicit public discourse about management alternatives and their actual costs. In consequence, social scientists, political scientists, and members of the general public also have important roles in ecological restoration.

Environmental decision-making about restoration has shifted away from accepting just the claims of experts and now accommodates a greater diversity of contentions. The expert-based processes of the past often grew from legal statutes developed by municipalities and agencies that outlined decision-making processes. Stakeholders, particularly those lacking political clout or scientific expertise, were excluded from decision forums, and at best, were treated as 'the public interest' by planning processes. While land management decisions previously were conducted based on science and expert opinion, the shift frames decisions as informed by science and expert opinion, but essentially driven by a more inclusive representation of stakeholder values. As a result, establishing restoration goals, determining priorities, and making decisions become a social process in which scientific expertise is democratized. Because restoration practice is typically conducted within a context of land use change, the forces influencing the goals of any given restoration frequently become tied to community-based decision processes. The empowerment of communities via socially just processes should thus become an increasingly important feature of restoration.

Issues related to empowerment often surface during implementation of a project, but they don't surface as often or often enough at the planning stage when project goals are being defined. This may result from a lack of stakeholder awareness, interest, or access. Or it might stem from the tension between scientists wondering whether citizens have the capacity to be meaningfully involved with decision making about complex issues and citizens who no longer accept uncritically the judgments of scientists in matters of social welfare and public interest. Yet such tension is moot given decisions whether defining restoration goals or prioritizing actions inevitably require, and citizens often demand, participation and active involvement. The scientists do not have the authority to place boundaries around the scope of dialogue relevant to goal setting.

Many of the values underlying the process of goal setting may have a strong emotional component attached to them. Unfortunately, these are frequently ignored when restoration advocates make decisions about the criteria to which a site will be restored. Ecological restoration projects can become volatile when public values are assumed, not assessed, or ignored. An example from an Illinois restoration project is illustrative. The removal of non-native trees associated with a prairie restoration was viewed as a necessary task with beneficial consequences. However, nearby residents, many viewing themselves as environ­mentalists, perceived the removal of non-native trees and brush as being a destruction of nature, as lacking respect for historical uses, and disrupting the area's sense of place. Other stakeholders, such as birders or hunters, viewed the removals as a shift in wildlife habitat, and one that precluded survival of their favourite species. Citizen groups felt ignored and struggled to voice their concerns to a seemingly closed decision process.


The challenge of ecological restoration is thus complex and profoundly important, requiring the integration of knowledge and methods across disciplinary, cultural, and social boundaries. While retaining its fundamental anchor in science, ecological restoration must engage an explicit social process in which diverse, and even conflicting, values beyond the science are articulated. Social justice emerges from a mutual sharing of knowledge amongst stakeholders (experts and non-experts included) within a forum where the discourse is larger than the science. When community stakeholders have been engaged in the process and perceive it to be fair, the restoration goals defined and priorities set are most likely to be supported community-wide. With such support, the community becomes invested in the restoration project and a successful outcome is more likely.

Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois U S A

E-mail: [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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