, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 409-420

Choosing appropriate temporal and spatial scales for ecological restoration

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Abstract

Classic ecological restoration seems tacitly to have taken the Clementsian “balance of nature” paradigm for granted: plant succession terminates in a climax community which remains at equilibrium until exogenously disturbed after which the process of succession is restarted until the climax is reached. Human disturbance is regarded as unnatural and to have commenced in the Western Hemisphere at the time of European incursion. Classic ecological restoration thus has a clear and unambiguous target and may be conceived as aiming to foreshorten the natural processes that would eventually lead to the climax of a given site, which may be determined by its state at “settlement”. According to the new “flux of nature” paradigm in ecology a given site has notelos and is constantly changing. Human disturbance is ubiquitous and long-standing, and at certain spatial and temporal scales is “incorporated”. Any moment in the past 10,000 years that may be selected as a benchmark for restoration efforts thus appears to be arbitrary. Two prominent conservationists have therefore suggested that the ecological conditions in North America at the Pleistocene—Holocene boundary, prior to the anthropogenic extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, be the target for ecological restoration. That suggestion explicitly assumes evolutionary temporal scales and continental spatial scales as the appropriate frame of reference for ecological restoration. However, ecological restoration should be framed in ecological spatio-temporal scales, which may be defined temporally in reference to ecological processes such as disturbance regimes and spatially in reference to ecological units such as landscapes, ecosystems, and biological provinces. Ecological spatio-temporal scales are also useful in achieving a scientifically defensible distinction between native and exotic species, which plays so central a role in the practice of ecological restoration and the conservation of biodiversity. Because post-settlement human disturbances have exceeded the limits of such scales, settlement conditions can be justified scientifically as appropriate targets of restoration efforts without recourse to obsolete teleological concepts of equilibria and without ignoring the presence and ecological influence of indigenous peoples.