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K.R. Urbanska, N.R. Webb & P.J. Edwards (Eds) (1997)

Pp. xv +397. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

?55.00 (hardback), ISBN 0-521-58160-5.

This book is a collection of papers presented at the First International Conference on Restoration Ecology and Sustainable Development held in 1996 in Zurich, Switzerland. The book follows from the main objective of the conference – to provide a global forum to exchange information, concepts and experience in restoration ecology.

The book comes in five sections, the balance of the three main, central parts in terms of text is a fair reflection of the ‘state of the art’ of restoration ecology. In the first section, the brief introduction outlining the genesis of the book is followed by a short chapter (Bradshaw) which attempts to set out standard definitions for the subject. This is too rooted in dictionary definitions (which vary between dictionaries and variants of English, and ignore traditions in other languages), but which clearly highlights that in both research reports and in planning projects, careful use of language is necessary in defining goals and measures of success. The second section of six chapters that synthesise different aspects of the ecology of restoration demonstrates that we have learnt from mistakes in the past. Restoration is about function as well as appearance (Parker & Pickett); soil is usually the key to function (Bradshaw, Haselwandter); plant species need to reproduce and regenerate to remain a part of the system (Urbanska); animals play a role in function as well as looking good (Handel); and restoration happens in a landscape context, not in isolation (Webb). Unfortunately, as the conference was in 1996 and many of the examples are necessarily older, I had the feeling that the subject has already moved on.

The third part of the book (and the other major part) is concerned with the implementation and assessment of restoration schemes. These six chapters were the most readable and interesting of the book, as they dealt with specific problems associated with the ecosystems in question. Perhaps the interest was a result of me not working on these systems, so the material was possibly fresher, or perhaps it was because I could see that approaches that worked elsewhere could be applied in other situations. Strangely, none of these specific chapters dealt with grassland (or prairie), woodland, heathland or freshwater systems that are probably the most common target ecosystems and where considerable knowledge has already been generated. Also strange is the scanty treatment of the actual assessment of restoration schemes in a section that purports to cover this subject.

The fourth part of the book is brief and that brevity shows the weakness present in restoration ecology. Ecologists have shown they can restore ecosystems; however, there is still little to review or discuss about whether that restoration is economic or sustainable. Hence, the first chapter of this section is largely theoretical in content (Edwards & Abivardi). The second of the two chapters is put forward as an outsider's view of restoration (Clark), and it highlights clearly that the development/implementation of ecological/technological fixes is only a small part of the problem for restoration practitioners. Society has a role to play both at local scales (stakeholders) and at the large scale (policy and support). Without the involvement of society then restoration projects will not be sustainable. It is perhaps relevant to say here that the balance between this single chapter by a non-ecologist and the rest of the book shows that restoration ecology has a long way to go from an academic discipline to a necessary part of policy making and land management. This is also dealt with briefly in the short final (fifth) part that attempts to provide a vision for the future of this subject.

Overall the book is a good, though at times patchy, review of restoration ecology as an academic science, although it is somewhat limited in the coverage of systems. In trying to live up to its title, I would suggest that anyone expecting sustainable development to be a major part of the book would be disappointed. That is unless they were keen to find a relatively under-populated research area. Like many scientific disciplines, the key to its eventual utility is technology transfer, and what the book lacks are contributions from practitioners as well as academics. We may have developed an appropriate level of understanding to restore functioning ecosystems, but will that make a difference to the practice of restoration, the success of restoration schemes, and as importantly, is that restoration affordable and sustainable?

The book should appeal especially to students at degree or masters level, where it would be a good synthesis of the subject and a good lead into more specific areas. At a higher level, the book should serve as a good way into the subject for a postgraduate student, but more experienced researchers would derive little that has not been in the journals for a few years. I hope, however, that this book is bought and read by ecologists outside academia and other practitioners involved with restoration on the ground. Restoration science has moved a long way from the ‘get the vegetation established and everything else will follow’ stage, but are all our research outputs implemented in the field? Hopefully, this book should go some way towards this technology transfer, whilst at the same time highlighting what we still need to work on to do a better job.