The Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia (SERA) recently released for public comment their draft National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia.
The Standards include key principles underpinning restoration (and rehabilitation*). Although most mining companies aim for rehabilitation rather than restoration, the information contained within the Standards is relevant and ties in well with the requirements of the Guidelines for Preparing Mine Closure Plans (EPA/DMP 2015).
Key Principles Underpinning Restoration Practice
1. Ecological restoration practice is based on an appropriate local indigenous ecosystem
Identifying one or more ‘reference ecosystems’ that serve as a model for restoration targets and provide a basis for monitoring and assessing outcomes. Identifying a reference ecosystem involves understanding the composition (species), structure (complexity and configuration) and function (processes and dynamics) of the site to be restored.
In cases where irreversible environmental change has occurred and restoration of the pre-existing ecosystem is not possible, an appropriate alternative would be to establish another locally occurring ecosystem better suited to the changed conditions
2. Restoration inputs will be dictated by level of degradation
Three different levels of restoration approaches can be used alone or combined depending on the capacity of a site to recover:
a) Natural regeneration – Where damage is very low, pre-existing biota will be able to recover after the cessation of degrading practices (such as overgrazing). Plant species can recover through resprouting or through germination from remnant soil seed banks.
b) Assisted regeneration – At more degraded sites, removal of the causes of degradation and further active interventions are needed to assist recovery. These interventions could include controlling invasive plants and animals, triggering activation of dormant propagules and installing habitat features such as hollow logs and debris piles.
c) Reconstruction – Where damage is high, all causes of degradation need to be managed and desirable native species need to be introduced. Where the substrate has been altered (such as mining), correction of the substrate’s physical and chemical conditions may be required before the reintroduction of missing species.
3. Recovery of ecosystem attributes is facilitated by identifying clear targets, goals and objectives
Similar to the Guidelines for Preparing Mine Closure Plans, SERA recognise that a restoration project will have greater transparency, manageability and improved chances of success if restoration targets and goals are clearly defined and translated to measurable objectives. SERA recommends applying a 5-star rating system to six key ecosystem attributes to track restoration progress over time and between sites:
- Absence of threats
- Physical conditions
- Species composition
- Community structure
- Ecosystem function
- External exchanges
4. Full recovery is the goal of ecological restoration but outcomes may take long timeframes
Although full recovery of all attributes in the reference system is the ultimate goal of ecological restoration projects, this outcome is not always achievable in short time frames. SERA’s 5-star evaluation system provides a qualitative framework to interpret recovery.
5. Science is essential to good practice but the two processes are synergistic
Ecological restoration fundamentally depends upon scientific knowledge; In turn, information that accumulates from restoration practice adds to this body of knowledge.
Submissions on any aspect of the draft National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by 15 February 2016.
* SER (2004) define ecological restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. The term rehabilitation is applied to projects based on a local indigenous reference ecosystem which are unable to adopt the target of reaching full restoration.
Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) 2015, Guidelines for Preparing Mine Closure Plans.
Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia (SERA) 2015, National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia.
Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) 2004, The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration Version 2.