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Nature

Environmental Restoration May Not Be the Home Run It's Advertised As

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I remember the good old days, playing backyard baseball. Every now and then the perfect pitch would come, and, no matter how terribly I’d been hitting up to that point, I’d knock that ball out of the park. And the crowd would go wild…until everyone saw where that ball was headed. And with a crash it was realized: right through Mr. Saunders window. And then I had to fess up to old, grumpy Mr. Saunders that I, yes I, was the Great Bambino who had smashed his window. And he let me know darn well that I, yes I, had to pay to fix it. I, yes I, had to clean up my mess.

Cleaning up after ourselves is nothing new. And yet, if this be the case, why, then, do outsiders always have to ask companies and industries who affect the environment adversely, to clean up after themselves? Didn’t their mothers (and fathers) teach them that if they make a mess, it is their responsibility to return everything back to how they found it? Didn’t anyone tell them that the broken window won’t fix itself?

Well, people have stepped in, and in the United States, restoration regulations are in use. This clean-up process is known by a few names: environmental restoration, ecological restoration or environmental remediation. And this process, this act of “cleaning up,” is “a process in which a damaged resource is renewed. Biologically. Structurally. Functionally” (John J. Berger, Restoring the Earth: How Americans are Working to Renew our Damaged Environment). It is, in essence, no trace living.

But while policymakers across of the globe are relying on environmental restoration projects to fuel emerging market-based environmental programs, it is not certain whether these programs deliver the environmental impacts that they market.

Markets identify the benefits humans derive from ecosystems, called ecosystem services, and associate them with economic values which can be bought, traded or sold. In short, they put a monetary value on the environment. This value is used in order to compensate for the damage done or environmental services used.

But now, two known ecologists, Dr. Margaret Palmer and Dr. Solange Filoso of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, are raising concerns about the real impacts of restoration. They are concerned that there is insufficient scientific understanding  of the restoration process, namely, how to alter a landscape or coastal habitat to achieve the environmental benefits that are marketed.

“Both locally and nationally, policymakers are considering market-based environmental restoration programs where the science does not yet conclusively show that environment health will improve once the ‘restoration’ is completed,” said Dr. Palmer. “These programs may very well make economic sense, but the jury is still out whether or not the local environment will ultimately benefit.”

Currently ecosystem service market demand is driven by regulations requiring those who harm the environment to mitigate or provide offsets for their environmental impacts. However, many are hoping that the offsets will expand outside the regulatory context and into the voluntary, resulting in a net increase of ecosystem services rather than simply popping a fly out to left field and hoping that your man on third makes it home.

The two scientists urge that we recognize that restoration projects generally only restore a subset of the services that natural ecosystem provide. “There is an inherent danger of marketing ecosystem services through ecological restoration without properly verifying if the restoration actions actually lead to the delivery of services,” said Dr. Filoso. “If this happens, these markets may unintentionally cause an increase in environmental degradation.” It’s like fixing Mr. Johnson’s broken window by gluing it together. The window is there, but it isn’t quite the same as it used to be.

I found out early on that it takes more than just glue to fix a broken window, which brings up the age old idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Conservation of the environment is better and more efficient than trying to recreate it, replace it or repair it; just like it is easier to keep the ball out of Mr. Johnson’s window to begin with.

Source: Science Daily

Photo Credit: *nomi* & malcolm via flickr under Creative Commons License




One comment
  1. Professor Jim Harris

    Of course conservation is essential – but there are an awful lot of broken window panes out there that already need fixing. Ecological restoration versus conservation is simply a false dichotomy – they are not in competition, but complementary – let’s conserve what we have and fix what has been broken.

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