Ecosystem restoration in policy and practice: restore, develop, adapt

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RESTORE project completed

The RESTORE project was completed at the end of 2015. The publications coming out of the project (see the complete list) show the value of analysing ecological restoration practice in an interdisciplinary way crossing the boundaries between science & politics, water & land, and landscapes & species.

Our major objectives were to analyse the importance of societal actors’ interests, institutional structures, and ecosystem types in shaping and realizing restoration projects, to analyse the degree to which restoration can produce interactive effects that respond to anticipated changes in land use and climate, how those effects are affected by policies and practices across multiple sectors and levels, and to propose ways to develop ecosystem restoration policies and management tools in directions that support decision-making taking multiple objectives and adaptation into account.

Although ecological restoration as a concept is strongly founded on policies, restoration ecologists tend forget the policy perspective when reporting their results. Based on an analysis of papers within journals focused on restoration ecology we found strong evidence to believe that restoration ecologists fail to include themselves in policy formation and implementation of issues such as climate change. We suggest that more explicit reference to policies and terminology recognizable to policymakers might enhance the impact of restoration ecology on decision-making processes.

In a political-science perspective, we found that ecological restoration policy and projects encounter professional and institutional norms as well as local interests and values. Even when there is broad agreement about the need to restore nature, negotiation at an early stage shapes the specific proposals and solutions designed to address the restoration requirements. Implementation stages open up further debates not only about policy tools and instruments, but also between formal policy and practical implementation. Ecological restoration projects are often embedded in complex local-interest politics that relate to broader politics.

The formulation of an ecological restoration policy was investigated at the national level within the forest and water sectors in Sweden. There is yet no particular Act directing ecological restoration, and its implementation relies mainly on soft policy instruments. Restoration projects within various public funding programmes in agriculture, water environments, forests and nature protection were compiled in a data base comprising Swedish central government-funded nature conservation projects 1995-2011. It shows that ecological restoration activities counted for 11% (130 million USD) of the total central government funding and that water environments were highly prioritized. Large variations in funding over time were found related to the impact of programme profiles on ecological restoration prioritizations. Only a third of the funding involved multiple actors despite the policy emphasis on partnerships between public and private actors. Analyses of key policy documents as well as the data base show that ecological restoration is a rather holistic, long-term concept at the general, rhetorical level, but that the implementation results become piecemeal, small-scale and short-sighted, against ecological recommendations.

To illustrate this further, the implementation of ecological restoration activities in Sweden was studied in two river basins, Vindelälven and Emån, and in a forest landscape in south central Sweden. We found that restoration measures were capable of increasing the geomorphic and hydraulic complexity of stream reaches, accomplishments that theoretically should increase the potential for an increased biodiversity. However, although we studied several species groups and were able to establish a 25-year long chronosequence of restored stream reaches, we could not identify any clear biotic response. We have discussed the likely reasons for this in several papers. The most probable causes are lack of colonist pools and that time since restoration has been too short for recovery to take place.

The management debate over protected forests in Sweden displays a shift from a discourse centred on maintaining areas as untouched as possible toward a discourse centred on adaptive management for biodiversity, although the debate is not settled and naturalness remains a bridging notion. A comparative study of forest fire management debates and communication practices in Sweden and Australia explores how policy conditions and current public engagement practices in forest policy impact on deliberative decision making. Both countries focus largely on technical answers, while more intense dialogues would provide insights into the value conflicts and tensions embedded which in turn could enhance the quality of the debates.

We made a field study to evaluate the outcomes of forest management for biodiversity. We found that forest restoration for the white-backed woodpecker benefitted wood-living beetles that are threatened by commercial forestry. This finding provides support for that the woodpecker can be viewed as an umbrella species as well as stresses the added benefits of restoration for this bird species. The fact that restoration benefitted also important prey species for the woodpecker indicates that its requirements on stand level are fulfilled. However, our results based on simulation of the effect of different restoration practices and climate change on the occurrence of white-backed woodpecker in a landscape indicates that current restoration practice will not fulfill restoration goals and need to be improved. For example, more or larger areas need to be restored to provide sufficient habitat for maintaining viable and healthy populations of the woodpecker.

We also synthesized the current knowledge on important linkages between forest and stream ecosystems, the effect of anthropogenic stressors on these linkages, and their implications for restoration planning. Exchange of subsidies between terrestrial and aquatic environments is very important for ecosystem functioning and this needs to be considered in restoration planning. If these linkages are disrupted due to stressors such as forestry and flow regulation they also need to be restored for successful recovery of either ecosystem. We therefore advocate joint consideration of adjacent forest and stream ecosystems in ecological restoration. Furthermore, evaluation of the success of ecological restoration projects needs to combine considerations of the effects of restoration on both processes and products.

To conclude, ecological restoration is an important part of nature conservation in Sweden that is increasingly focused on biodiversity management, in addition to protection of naturalness. An integration of natural and social sciences helps to understand the embedded values and improve efficiency. Both processes and products need to be considered in ecological restoration and its evaluation, not least the interactions between different ecosystems such as between land and water.

June 3, 2016   No Comments

Riparian plant recovery with restoration

Eliza Maher Hasselquist, one of the ecology PhD students on the RESTORE project, has published her first article: “Time for recovery of riparian plants in restored northern Swedish streams: a chronosequence study” in Ecological Applications, The article is co-authored with 4 other RESTORE project participants and 1 additional colleague.


A lack of ecological responses in stream restoration projects has been prevalent throughout recent literature with many studies reporting insufficient time for recovery. We assessed the relative importance of time, site variables, and landscape setting for understanding how plant species richness and understory productivity recover over time in riparian zones of northern Swedish streams. We used a space-for-time substitution consisting of 13 stream reaches restored 5 to 25 years ago as well as five unrestored channelized reference reaches. We inventoried the riparian zone for all vascular plant species along 60-m study reaches and quantified cover and biomass in plots. We found that while species richness increased with time, understory biomass decreased. Forbs made up the majority of the species added, while the biomass of graminoids decreased the most over time, suggesting that the reduced dominance of graminoids favored less productive forbs. Species richness and density patterns could be attributed to dispersal limitation, with anemochorous species being more associated with time after restoration than hydrochorous, zoochorous or vegetatively reproducing species. Using multiple linear regression, we found that time along with riparian slope and riparian buffer width (e.g., distance to logging activities) explained the most variability in species richness, but that variability in total understory biomass was explained primarily by time. The plant community composition of restored reaches differed from that of channelized references, but the difference did not increase over time. Rather, different time categories had different successional trajectories that seemed to converge on a unique climax community for that time period. Given our results, timelines for achieving species richness objectives should be extended to 25 years or longer if recovery is defined as a saturation of the accumulation of species over time. Other recommendations include making riparian slopes as gentle as possible given the landscape context and expanding riparian buffer width for restoration to have as much impact as possible.

The article is available at (with subscription)

January 28, 2015   No Comments

New publication on ‘naturalness’ and restoration

Anders Steinwall has published an article ‘Naturalness or biodiversity: Negotiating the dilemma of intervention in Swedish protected area management’ in Environmental Values.

This article analyses a discursive struggle around the management of protected forest areas in Sweden against the backdrop of debates within ecological restoration, protected area management and environmental ethics about intervention in nature. The Swedish case displays a shift from a preservationist discourse centred on maintaining areas as ‘untouched’ as possible toward a more interventionist discourse centred on adaptive management for biodiversity, although the debate is not settled and ‘naturalness’ remains a bridging notion, allowing an articulation with both discourses. The implications of the discursive struggle are discussed, concluding by pointing to a need to critically examine not only the older preservationist discourse and ‘naturalness’, but also the ascending interventionist discourse and ‘biodiversity’.

Final published version available with journal subscription.

September 4, 2014   No Comments

New publication on Swedish restoration policy

In a new article, Anna Zachrisson and Katarina Eckerberg explore aspects of complexity in the formulation process in an examination of ecological restoration policy (ER), using Sweden as an empirical illustration. In Sweden there is of yet no particular Act directing ER, but elements of ER are found in several Acts and Bills which are included in this analysis. Nevertheless, ER activities are already taking place, often as projects within the context of a public funding programme aiming at ecological sustainability or nature conservation (in agriculture, water environments, forests and so on).

The analysis looks into the top-down element in policy formulation through taking departure in textual analyses of key policy documents, from the government and from the relevant central authorities. Evidence is also drawn from a data base that comprises Swedish central government-funded ER projects over the last ten year period. Specifically, it is analysed how the concept of ER is articulated and documented in government policy from the late 1980s until recently, and how the policy has been translated into implementation. This analysis comprises the policy objectives across levels, sectors and actors, as well as which policy instruments are emphasized and how they play out on the ground.

A non-dogmatic perspective is adopted that sees the policy stages as interlinked rather than necessarily following a chronological order. With the programmatic result of the policy as contrast to the articulated policy goals, the authors discuss the relationship between the formulation and the implementation of ER policy in Sweden, and draw conclusions that go beyond the formulated policy as such.

Citation: Zachrisson, Anna & Katarina Eckerberg, 2014. ”Defining ecological restoration policy in Sweden”, in Michael Hill (ed) Studying Public Policy: An International Approach, Policy Press/ Social Studies, pp. 149-166.

April 10, 2014   No Comments

Publication: Potential and actual geomorphic complexity

Three RESTORE members working on stream restoration have published a joint article in Geomorphology. The article, “Potential and actual geomorphic complexity of restored headwater streams in northern Sweden” authored by Lina Polvi, Christer Nilsson, and Eliza Hasselquist, uses 29 metrics to create a complexity gradient and concludes that  large scale controls (slope and median grain size) determine potential complexity. The team believes such complexity analyses can benefit restoration design and comparison with biodiversity.

Citation: Polvi LE, Nilsson C, Hasselquist EM. Potential and actual geomorphic complexity of restored headwater streams in northern Sweden. Geomorphology. Available online as accepted manuscript 3 Jan 2014.


Stream restoration usually relies on ecological theories presuming that increased habitat heterogeneity leads to higher biodiversity. However, to test this hypothesis a quantitative metric of overall geomorphic complexity is needed. We quantified geomorphic complexity using 29 metrics over five dimensions (sediment distribution, longitudinal profile, cross section, planform, and instream wood) of headwater streams in northern Sweden. We examined reaches with four different restoration statuses after a century of timber floating (channelized, restored, demonstration restored, and unimpacted) to determine (1) whether restoration increases complexity in all dimensions, (2) whether the complexity gradient can be quantified and which metrics can serve as proxies for the gradient, and (3) levels of potential complexity based on large-scale controls (drainage area, glacial legacy sediment, valley slope, valley confinement, old-growth forest/buffer zone, and beaver activity). We found a significantly higher complexity in unimpacted and demonstration restoration sites than in channelized sites in all five dimensions except the cross section (based on the two metrics quantifying variability in the cross section). Multivariate analyses were able to elucidate an apparent complexity gradient driven by three complexity metrics: longitudinal roughness, sediment sorting, and cross section chain and tape ratio. The large-scale factors of valley and channel gradient as well as median grain size, along with restoration status, drive differences in complexity composition. Restoring a reach to its potential complexity is beneficial in regions without reference systems or sufficient data to model flow and sediment processes. Unimpacted and demonstration restoration reaches displayed not only more intrareach variability than channelized reaches but also greater interreach heterogeneity in complexity composition, which supports a focus on reach-scale controls on potential complexity and a landscape-scale view on restoration.

January 14, 2014   No Comments

Publication: Policy Language in Restoration Ecology

A majority of the RESTORE team have jointly co-authored a new publication: Policy Language in Restoration Ecology, Restoration Ecology 22.1 (2014): 1-4. The final version is available online. The authors are D Jørgensen, C Nilsson, AR Hof, EM Hasselquist, S Baker, FS Chapin, K Eckerberg, J Hjältén, L Polvi, and LA Meyerson.


Relating restoration ecology to policy is one of the aims of the Society for Ecological Restoration and its journal Restoration Ecology. As an interdisciplinary team of researchers in both ecological science and political science, we have struggled with how policy-relevant language is and could be deployed in restoration ecology. Using language in scientific publications that resonates with overarching policy questions may facilitate linkages between researcher investigations and decision-makers’ concerns on all levels. Climate change is the most important environmental problem of our time and to provide policymakers with new relevant knowledge on this problem is of outmost importance. To determine whether or not policy-specific language was being included in restoration ecology science, we surveyed the field of restoration ecology from 2008 to 2010, identifying 1,029 articles, which we further examined for the inclusion of climate change as a key element of the research. We found that of the 58 articles with “climate change” or “global warming” in the abstract, only 3 identified specific policies relevant to the research results. We believe that restoration ecologists are failing to include themselves in policy formation and implementation of issues such as climate change within journals focused on restoration ecology. We suggest that more explicit reference to policies and terminology recognizable to policymakers might enhance the impact of restoration ecology on decision-making processes.

January 7, 2014   No Comments

Publication: Political science and ecological restoration

Susan Baker, Katarina Eckerberg and Anna Zachrisson have published an article titled “Political Science and Restoration” in Environmental Politics from their work on the RESTORE project.


Ecological restoration has taken on a new significance in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss. Despite its growing policy salience, however, the social and political sciences have paid limited attention to the study of ecological restoration policy and practice. By drawing upon the political science study of multilevel governance, institutions, power relations, and place-based politics, a flavour is given of what a political science engagement might contribute to the rich tapestry of analysis that has already been produced by other disciplines on ecological restoration. As the use of restoration grows, it is increasingly likely that it will give rise to social dispute and be brought into conflict with a variety of environmental, cultural, economic, and community interests. Restoration policy and projects encounter professional and institutional norms as well as place-specific interests and values. There is urgent need to investigate how and in what ways some interests become winners and others losers in these activities, and how this in turn can influence ecological restoration outcomes. A political science lens could help build new criteria for evaluating the success of ecological restoration, ones that combine both process- and product-driven considerations.

January 7, 2014   No Comments

Publication on ecological restoration in the Convention on Biological Diversity

RESTORE researcher Dolly Jørgensen has published “Ecological restoration in the Convention on Biological Diversity targets” in Biodiversity and Conservation (2013) DOI: 10.1007/s10531-013-0550-0. The article is on early view via Springer. The unformatted final text is also available without a subscription.

Abstract: Ecological restoration has been incorporated into several Multilateral Environmental Agreements, including the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Target 15 of the Aichi Targets for 2020 sets a numerical goal of restoration of 15 percent of degraded ecosystems; however, the CBD has not established a clear statement defining restoration within this context. Without such a definition, the CBD will be unable to measure progress against the goal. The adopted definition of ecological restoration would have to allow for measurement against the numerical target, or the target should be modified to match the chosen definition.

September 2, 2013   No Comments

PhD student visiting COIL

Eliza Hasselquist, a PhD student on the RESTORE project in the Umeå University Landscape Ecology group, is visiting the Cornell University Stable Isotope Laboratory during May 2013.

Here’s what Eliza has to say about why she is spending time at COIL:

Eliza loading samples into the elemental analyzer in the COIL facility

During my first field season in 2011, I focused on describing how riparian plant communities developed during the time-since-restoration. I am now interested in determining why there are differences by evaluating the underlying processes that are responsible. In 2012, I collected soil, leaf, and fine root samples of a perennial forb, Filipendula ulmaria or “meadowsweet”, common to riparian zones in Northern Sweden to ask questions about the ecosystem processes of the restored streams. I’m working at the Cornell University Stable Isotope Laboratory (COIL) with Associate Professor Jed Sparks to analyze these samples for stable isotopes of δ15N to determine if N cycling in riparian zones changes with time-since-restoration. These results will help me better understand the effects of river restoration on N cycling.

The grant that made this opportunity possible is NSF award #1137336, Inter-university Training in Continental-scale Ecology.

May 20, 2013   No Comments

Special feature of Ecology and Society articles

RESTORE project leader Christer Nilsson is one of the co-editors of a special feature on Ecological Restoration in the Northern Regions in the journal Ecology and Society. The special feature includes two contributions by RESTORE team members that are now available online:

Jørgensen, D. and B. Malm Renöfält. 2012. Damned If You Do, Dammed If You Don’t: Debates on Dam Removal in the Swedish Media. Ecology and Society 18(1): 18. [online] URL:

Baker, S., and K. Eckerberg. 2013. A policy analysis perspective on ecological restoration. Ecology and Society 18(2): 17.  [online] URL:

May 17, 2013   No Comments