Is it even possible in the Anthropocene to restore ecosystems to a pristine state?

Tim Ennis

Trees against sky

On August 29, 2016, the International Geological Congress declared that the earth had entered a new geological era sometime around 1950. They called it the “Anthropocene” or era of humans. We have created an indelible film of human-created material over every surface of the planet, including radioactive particles from nuclear explosions, soot from our factories, and micro-plastics from our waste. Modern humans have inhabited planet earth for approximately ten thousand generations, but in the past three or four generations the activities of our species have altered every ecological process at the global scale.

Ecosystem restoration practitioners rarely struggle with making value-based decisions about whether we ought or ought not to restore the Earth’s degraded ecosystems. The importance of this task and a sense of urgency is what gets us out of bed in the morning. There is an appealing illusion that it is also straightforward to determine what we ought to restore a degraded or lost ecosystem to. However, the uncertainties regarding what specific consequences global climatic changes will bring, coupled with the dawn of the Anthropocene, are sending many ecologists back for a second cup of coffee in the morning.

Philosophical debate rages on about whether or not the concept of a “natural” ecosystem outside of the influence of humans exists at all.

The reality is that it has never actually been easy to decide what the purpose or end result of an ecological restoration program should be. The topic has filled the pages of scientific journals, lecture halls, and conference auditoriums for at least 40 years. Philosophical debate rages on about whether or not the concept of a “natural” ecosystem outside of the influence of humans exists at all, particularly in the context of the often subtle but widespread resource stewardship activities of Indigenous cultures. Conceptual frameworks and principles to guide the process of setting restoration objectives are diverse and varied.

The notion of “ecological integrity” as a restoration objective is one such example that has been adopted as the guiding principle of many of the world’s leading conservation agencies, yet there is no universally accepted definition of what this term means. Historic or pre-contact condition, potential natural community, desired future condition, reference ecosystems, successional pathways, climax vs “dis-climax” ecosystems, natural disturbance regimes, key ecological attributes, novel ecosystems, and ecological function-based or process-based approaches all come into the conversation.

While this healthy but heady philosophical dialogue continues, other restoration practitioners focus on the challenges of setting quantifiable, measurable restoration targets by which to assess our success. Is there a single science-based numerical value that tells us what our restoration target should be (e.g., restore a self-sustaining population of 500 caribou in area X)? Perhaps the data and models show that there is a critical threshold above which we will declare success (e.g., >500 caribou). But what if there are logistical or other constraints? Perhaps our targets should occur as a gradient (e.g., 200-300 caribou is fair, 301-500 is good, but >500 is excellent). Ecosystems are complex. Maybe what we really need as a restoration target for the caribou of area X is a self-sustaining population of >500 with an average ratio of 5:1 cows to bulls of which at least 80% are of breeding age and >20% are >8 years old with periodic gene flow between areas Y and Z….

In the world of human health, the precept of non-maleficence (first, do no harm) is at the core of bioethics. In the sphere of ecosystem restoration, I argue that what we also need is a caveat of “don’t do nothing until the patient dies.”

In more than one case, the evasive nature of philosophically robust objectives and quantifiable, science-based targets has sent restoration practitioners back to their desks to design better baseline studies, improve models and refine objectives before taking any restoration actions on the ground. On the one hand, these delays are understandable. Restoration projects often cost tens of thousands if not millions of dollars to implement. Whether you are accountable to a client who expects a certain return on investment tied to an important government authorization, or accountable to the general public who may become upset if you “overachieve” with a prescribed burn in a national park, the stakes are high. Regardless, in some cases, the quest for perfectly articulated restoration objectives and detailed metrics of target percent cover values for desirable plant species has proven to be a formidable barrier to taking action in situations where time is of the essence.

In the world of human health, the precept of non-maleficence, primum non nocere (first, do no harm), is at the core of bioethics. This maxim has been extended to include the concept of not doing something or purposefully taking no action rather than risk causing more harm.

In the sphere of ecosystem restoration, I argue that what we also need is a caveat of “don’t do nothing until the patient dies.” With so many ecosystems dependent on one form or other of “life support” (e.g., salmon hatcheries, captive breeding programs, etc.), I believe it is prudent, if not essential, that the restoration practitioner take a more active and adaptive approach. This approach is justified in the context of the uncertainties posed by the dramatic destabilization of global climate regimes and other ecological processes in this new geological “era of humans.”

Restoration is defined as the act of returning something to a previous state or condition. We know that, ecologically, the future will be remarkably different from the 5,000 years or so of relative stability we have enjoyed, be it from climate change, the introduction of invasive species, or changing biochemical processes on the planet. The prefix “pre” means in advance of, or before.

Therefore, I would propose to the restoration practitioner that we engage ourselves with “prestoration”: manipulating degraded or lost ecosystems towards a state of ecological well being that predicts and is resilient to the forthcoming changes in the Earth’s system. Ecological restoration must stay grounded in the best available science; however, we must realize that our knowledge of natural systems will never be complete. Filling in the blanks is an art.

Tim Ennis is a conservation biologist and president of Latitude Conservation Solutions Company in Cumberland, BC.

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