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Ecological Restoration

Ecological Restoration Standards by SERA

If you are about to embark on a restoration project did you know that Australia has a peak body the Society for Ecological Restoration Australia (SERA) who have created an impressive document on the standards to apply to an ecological restoration project.

This document is comprehensive and well thought out and my aim in this post is to give an overview of the process.

Ecological restoration is assisting the full recovery of a degraded, damaged or destroyed ecosystem relative to a reference ecosystem.  If your project is not aiming for full recovery it is defined as a rehabilitation project.

SIX KEY PRINCIPLES OF ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION PRACTICE

 Principle 1.         The restoration is based on an appropriate local indigenous reference ecosystem.

 Principle 2.         Restoration inputs will be dictated by level of resilience and degradation. This means that that if disturbance is low the ecosystem may have the capacity or resilience to naturally recover. However if there is substantial damaged then much more will be required to achieve full recovery, such as weed removal and appropriate plantings.

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

Principle 4.         Full recovery is the goal of ecological restoration even if outcomes take long time frames. To help managers track progress toward project goals over time, the Standards offer a tool (five-levels or “stars”) for progressively assessing and ranking degree of recovery.

Principle 5.         Restoration science and practice are synergistic. Practitioner and stakeholder knowledge and experience, particularly where arising from local sources, is important to restoration practice. Science is not the preserve of professional scientists—rather it is a logical approach to thinking based on systematic, repeatable observations and experiments to test a prediction (hypothesis). To optimize our ability to gain knowledge from restoration practice and be informed by science, science–practice partnerships should be encouraged.

 Principle 6.         Social aspects are critical to successful ecological restoration. Restoration is carried out to satisfy not only conservation values but also socioeconomic values, including cultural ones. Without considering these values, particularly relationships between a site and its stakeholders, a restoration project may not gain the social support needed for success and may fail to deliver important benefits to ecosystems and to society.

PLANNING AND DESIGN

Stakeholder engagement. Stakeholder engagement is essential to the sustained success of any project. Meaningful engagement must be undertaken at the planning stage of a restoration project, with all key stakeholders (including the land or water manager, industry interests, neighbors, and Indigenous stakeholders).

External context assessment. Plans are informed by regional conservation goals and priorities and should:

  • Contain a diagram or map of the project in relation to its surrounding landscape or aquatic elements.
  • Identify ways to align habitats at the restoration site to improve external ecological connectivity with the surrounding landscape or aquatic environment to optimize colonization and gene flow potential between sites.
  • Specify mechanisms for the project to interface optimally with nearby indigenous ecosystems or land- or water-use areas.

 Ecosystem baseline inventory. Plans identify the site’s current ecosystem and its condition including the following:

  • A list of all native and non-native species evidently persisting on the site, particularly noting any threatened species or communities.
  • Status of current abiotic conditions—including the dimensions, configuration, and physical and chemical condition of streams, water bodies, land surfaces, water column, or any other material elements relative to prior conditions.
  • Relative capacity of the biota on site or external to the site to commence and continue recovery with or without assistance (i.e. degree of resilience). This includes undertaking an inventory of:
    • Indigenous and nonindigenous species presumed absent and those potentially persisting as propagules or occurring within colonization distance;
    • Any areas of higher and/or lower condition, including priority resilient areas and any distinct spatial zones requiring different treatments.
  • Type and degree of threats that have caused degradation, damage, or destruction on the site and ways to eliminate, mitigate or (in some cases) adapt to them, depending on degree of reversibility.

 Reference ecosystem identification. Plans identify and describe (to the level needed to assist project design) the appropriate local native reference ecosystem(s), actual or compiled from historical or predictive records. The reference ecosystem will represent the composition and any notable structure or functions (reflecting the six ecosystem attributes) including:

  • Substrate characteristics (biotic or abiotic, aquatic or terrestrial);
  • The ecosystem’s functional attributes including nutrient cycles, characteristic disturbance and flow regimes, animal–plant interactions, ecosystem exchanges, and any disturbance-dependence of component species;
  • The major characteristic species (representing all plant growth forms and functional groups of micro and macro fauna);
  • Any ecological mosaics, requiring the use of multiple reference ecosystems on a site (in cases where intact ecosystems are being disturbed and then restored, the pre-existing intact ecosystems must be mapped in detail prior to site disturbance);
  • Assessment of habitat needs of important biota (including any minimum range areas for fauna and their responses to both degradation pressures and restoration interventions).

Targets, goals, and objectives. To produce well-targeted works and measure whether success has been achieved, plans identify a clearly stated:

  • Restoration target—reference ecosystem (including description of ecosystem attributes);
  • Restoration goal(s)—the condition or state of that ecosystem and attributes that are aimed to be achieved;
  • Restoration objectives—i.e. changes and immediate outcomes needed to achieve the target and goals relative to any distinct spatial zones within the site. Such objectives are stated in terms of measurable and quantifiable indicators to identify whether the project is reaching its objectives within identified time frames.

Restoration treatment prescription. Plans contain clearly stated treatment prescriptions for each zone, describing what, where, and by whom treatments will be undertaken and their order or priority. Plans should include:

  • Descriptions of actions to be undertaken for elimination and mitigation of (or adaptation to) causal problems.
  • Identification of (and brief rationale for) specific restoration approaches, descriptions of specific treatments for each zone, and prioritization of actions.

Assessing security of site tenure and of post treatment maintenance scheduling. Some indication of potential for long-term conservation management of the site is required before undertaking a restoration plan. Plans identify the following:

  • Security of tenure of the site to enable long-term restoration commitment and allow appropriate ongoing access and management.
  • Potential for adequate arrangements for ongoing prevention of impacts and maintenance on the site after completion of the project to ensure that the site does not regress into a degraded state.

 Analyzing logistics. Some indication of potential for resourcing the project and of likely risks is required before undertaking a restoration plan. Plans address practical constraints and opportunities including:

  • Identifying funding, labour (including appropriate skill level), and other resourcing arrangements that will enable appropriate treatments (including follow-up treatments) until the site reaches a stabilized condition.
  • Undertaking a full risk assessment and identifying a risk management strategy for the project, particularly including contingency arrangements for unexpected changes in environmental conditions or resourcing.
  • A rationale for the duration of the project and means to maintain commitment to its aim, objectives, and targets over that period.
  • Permissions, permits, and legal constraints applying to the site and the project.

 Review process scheduling. Plans include a schedule and time frame for:

  • Stakeholder and independent peer review as required.
  • Review of the plan in the light of new knowledge, changing environmental conditions, and lessons learned from the project.

IMPLEMENTATION

 During the implementation phase, restoration projects are managed in such a way that:

  • No further and lasting damage is caused by the restoration works to any natural resources or elements of the landscape or waterscape that are being conserved, including physical damage (e.g. clearing, burying topsoil, trampling), chemical pollution (e.g. over-fertilizing, pesticide spills) or biological contamination (e.g. introduction of invasive species and pathogens)
  • Treatments are interpreted and carried out responsibly, effectively, and efficiently by suitably qualified, skilled, and experienced people or under the supervision of a suitably qualified, skilled, and experienced person.
  • All treatments are undertaken in a manner that is responsive to natural processes and fosters and protects natural recovery. Primary treatments including substrate and hydrological amendments, pest species control, application of recovery triggers, and biotic reintroductions are adequately followed up by secondary treatments as required and appropriate aftercare is provided to any planted stock.
  • Corrective changes of direction in response to unexpected ecosystem responses are facilitated in a timely manner and are ecologically informed and documented.
  • All projects exercise full compliance with occupational work, health, and safety legislation and all other legislation including that relating to soil, air, water, oceans, heritage, species, and ecosystem conservation (provided that all permits required are in place).
  • All project operatives regularly communicate with key stakeholders (or as required by funding bodies) to keep them appraised of progress.

MONITORING, DOCUMENTATION, EVALUATION AND REPORTING.

Ecological restoration projects adopt the principle of observing, recording, and monitoring treatments and responses to the treatments in order to inform changes and different approaches for future work. They regularly assess and analyse progress to adapt treatments (adaptive management) as required. Partnerships with research bodies are sought in cases where innovative treatments or treatments applied at a large scale are being trialed and to ensure all necessary research permits and ethical considerations are in place.

Monitoring begins at the planning stage with the development of a monitoring plan to identify success or otherwise of the treatments.

  • Monitoring is geared to specific targets and measurable goals and objectives identified at the start
  • of the project and include:
  • Collection of data prior to works and at appropriate intervals (e.g. at higher frequency early in the recovery phase) to identify whether objectives, goals, and targets are being attained.
  • Collecting data on work sessions, specific treatments and approximate costs.
  • A minimum standard of monitoring for small, volunteer projects is the use of photo points, along with species lists and condition descriptions. (Note that photographic and formal quantitative “before and after” monitoring is ideally undertaken not only at the restored site but also at untreated areas and any actual reference site.)
  • Projects also identify and monitor the performance of the recovery using preidentified indicators consistent with the objectives. In professional or larger projects this is ideally carried out through formal quantitative sampling methods supported by a condition assessment (taking account of any regionally appropriate benchmarking system).
  • Sampling units must be an appropriate size for the attributes measured and should be replicated sufficiently within the site.

 Adequate records of treatments and all monitoring are maintained to enable future evaluation.

  • Consideration should be given to lodging data with open access databases such as the Atlas of Living Australia and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN).
  • Secure records of the provenance (i.e. source) of any reintroduced plants or animals are held by the project managers. These records should include location (preferably GPS-derived) and description of donor and receiving sites, reference to collection protocols, date of acquisition, identification procedures, and collector/breeder’s name.

Evaluation and documentation of the outcomes of the works is carried out, with progress assessed against the targets, goals, and objectives of the project (i.e. reference conditions).

  • Evaluation can use any system that adequately assesses results from the monitoring.
  • Results are used to inform ongoing management.

Reporting involves preparation and dissemination of progress reports to key stakeholders and broader interest groups (newsletters and journals) to convey outputs and outcomes as they become available.

  • Reporting can use any system that conveys the information in an accurate and accessible way customized to the audience.
  • Reporting must clarify the level and details of monitoring upon which any evaluation of success or otherwise has been based.

POST-IMPLEMENTATION MAINTENANCE

The management body is responsible for ongoing maintenance to prevent deleterious impacts and carries out any required monitoring of the site after completion of the project to ensure that the site does not regress into a degraded state. Comparison with an appropriate reference ecosystem will be ongoing.

Download form to evaluate Recovery

 Appendix 1

 Generic one- to five-star recovery scale interpreted in the context of the six attributes used to measure progress toward a restored state.

Attribute 1-star 2-star 3-star 4-star 5-star
Absence of threats Further deterioration discontinued and site has tenure and management secured Threats from adjacent areas beginning to be managed or mitigated All adjacent threats being managed or mitigated Larger scale threats starting to be managed or mitigated All threats managed or mitigated to high extent
Physical conditions Gross physical and chemical problems remediated (e.g. pollution, erosion, and compaction) Substrate chemical and physical properties (e.g. pH and salinity) on track to stabilize within natural range Substrate stabilized within natural range and supporting growth of characteristic biota Substrate maintaining conditions suitable for ongoing growth and recruitment of characteristic biota Substrate exhibiting physical and chemical characteristics highly similar to that of the reference ecosystem with evidence they can indefinitely sustain species and processes
Species composition Colonizing indigenous species (e.g. 2% of the species of reference ecosystem); no threat to regeneration niches or future successions Genetic diversity of stock arranged and a small subset of characteristic indigenous species establishing (e.g. 10% of reference); low threat from exotic invasive or undesirable species A subset of key indigenous species (e.g. 25% of reference) establishing over substantial proportions of the site, with nil to low threat from undesirable species Substantial diversity of characteristic biota (e.g. 60% of reference) present on the site and representing a wide diversity of species groups; no inhibition by undesirable species High diversity of characteristic species (e.g. >80% of reference) across the site, with high similarity to the reference ecosystem; improved potential for colonization of more species over time
Community structure One or fewer strata present and no spatial pattering or trophic complexity relative to reference ecosystem More strata present but low spatial pattering and trophic complexity relative to reference ecosystem Most strata present and some spatial pattering and trophic complexity relative to reference ecosystem All strata present Spatial pattering evident and substantial trophic complexity developing, relative to the reference ecosystem All strata present and spatial pattering and trophic complexity high. Further complexity and spatial pattering able to self-organize to highly resemble reference ecosystem
Ecosystem function Substrates and hydrology are at a foundational stage only, capable of future development of functions similar to the reference Substrates and hydrology show increased potential for a wider range of functions including nutrient cycling, and provision of habitats/resources for other species Evidence of functions commencing, e.g. nutrient cycling, water filtration and provision of habitat resources for a range of species Substantial evidence of key functions and processes commencing including reproduction, dispersal, and recruitment of a species Considerable evidence of functions and processes on a secure trajectory toward reference and evidence of ecosystem resilience likely after reinstatement of appropriate disturbance regimes
External exchanges Potential for exchanges (e.g. of species, genes, water, and fire) with surrounding landscape or aquatic environments identified Connectivity for enhanced positive (and minimized negative) exchanges arranged through cooperation with stakeholders and configuration of site Connectivity increasing and exchanges between site and external environment starting to be evident (e.g. more species, flows, etc.) High level of connectivity with other natural areas established, observing control of pest species and undesirable disturbances Evidence that potential for external exchanges is highly similar to reference and long term integrated management arrangements with broader landscape in place and operative

Appendix 2. Some examples of detailed objectives (using quantifiable indicators)

ATTRIBUTE DETAIL EXAMPLES
Controlling threats Nil incidence of undesirable livestock incursions

Climate-readiness of xx species considered and appropriate propagules arranged

Invasive plant threats under management in surrounding landscape

Fox and cat populations reduced to xxha and xxha respectively in surrounding landscape

Overharvesting regulated in surrounding marine area

Anti-fouling pollutants prohibited in surrounding waters

Physical conditions H of substrate is between e.g. xx.xx and xx.xx (Raupach test)

A minimum of xx mm of top soil (A horizon) and yy mm of subsoil (B horizon) is installed at establishment

Topsoil and subsoil are returned within 2 months of initial clearing

Soil compaction reduced to <xx psi across site

Nil sediment deposition in stream

Site topography and hydrological flow lines reinstated

Salinity level of substrate <EC Units

Turbidity level=xxx

Rocky outcrops cover xx% of site and remain without vegetation cover

Species composition Herbaceous exotics reduced to <xx% cover and represented by only benign species

>xx% canopy cover of indigenous trees and exotic trees reduced to rare seedlings

mesic shrubs reduced to <xx% cover and diversity of healthy shrubs maintained

Kangaroo Grass cover between ∼xx–xx% FPC and diversity of forbs and grasses maintained

Crown of Thorns Starfish reduced to >xx% cover and coral mortality <xx%

Carp reduced to <xx% of fish population and xx% of indigenous fish species of reference present

Community structure Characteristic diversity of indigenous plant species from each stratum established

Mosaic of vegetation patches reinstated

All ant functional groups present

All frog species present

Size of area sufficient to support populations of species “x”

Species “y” present at a density of x stems per ha

Ecosystem function All plant species regenerating after natural disturbance event

A diversity of genera of saprophytic insects found in all fallen timber

“xx” number of tree hollows per hectare

Owl pair breeding in area and feeding on site

Litter decomposition rate=xx

Filtration rate=x% of tide residence time

Appropriate fire regime reinstated for the target ecosystem

Carbon sequestered at a rate of xx tons per year

Positive change in the microbial functionality parameter “xx”

External exchanges Ground dwelling faunal species can readily disperse into and out of site
Site is connected to surrounding floodplain and river to enable periodic floodingFish passage reinstatedTidal flushing reinstated

Pollinators can readily connect with site

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