1. Environmental policies that use ecological restoration to offset the destruction of natural ecosystems assume that restorations readily compensate for the losses because they progress reliably and predictably over time, following deterministic successional trajectories. However, succession and restoration are spatially and historically contingent processes, often characterized by divergent trajectories that deviate from expectations.
2. We develop a framework for monitoring restorations that integrates two ideas from succession theory: convergence vs. divergence in species composition among successional sites, and progression towards vs. deviation from an expected community state. We apply this framework to short- and long-term monitoring data from 11 restored wetlands in Illinois, USA, by comparing plant species composition among restored wetlands over time and between restored wetlands and two sets of reference wetlands (high integrity, ‘target’ wetlands and low integrity, degraded wetlands).
3. Over the first 4 years, restored wetlands that were initially similar in species composition diverged, progressing towards different high integrity target states. Planting a large number of native species in restorations increased their similarity to reference wetlands.
4. Over longer time scales (5–11 years post-restoration), however, restored wetlands deviated from the ideal trajectory and converged upon the species composition of degraded wetlands, mainly because of non-native species invasion.
5. Synthesis and applications. Framing restoration trajectories in terms of compositional convergence/divergence and progression towards/deviation from an acceptable range of reference sites is useful for monitoring restoration progress, identifying constraints to success and predicting restoration outcomes. Barriers to restoration, including non-native species and a lack of native propagules, can limit long-term progression towards target communities and constrain restoration to undesirable outcomes. Furthermore, convergence of restored wetlands on an undesirable community state limits the effectiveness of wetland mitigation policies.