1. Maintenance of ecological integrity and biodiversity must be based on well-grounded principles of disturbance ecology. However, non-equilibrium aspects of ecosystems, such as unpredictability, instability and stochasticity due to various natural disturbances, have not been satisfactorily integrated into practical application. Failure to acknowledge the dynamic nature of systems will inevitably lead to unexpected changes and unachieved conservation goals.
2. This review discusses non-equilibrium ecology in terms of natural disturbances and the conservation and management of terrestrial ecosystems and landscapes.
3. Several key components, which require further ecological consideration, are specifically discussed. These include the hierarchical disturbance regime, disturbance legacy, multiple post-disturbance pathways, climate instability, spatial and temporal variability, and resilience.
4. Natural disturbance regimes are complex and difficult to define. This is because some disturbances can be nested, and they interact with other qualitatively and quantitatively different disturbances, constituting a hierarchy of natural disturbances. Large temporal and spatial perspectives are therefore required to incorporate the hierarchical context of natural disturbance regimes into regional management plans.
5. Conservation managers may often seek some kind of dynamic equilibrium based on protection of species and seral stages from extinction. However, because climate instability interrupts any shift toward an equilibrium, most terrestrial vegetation systems are inherently prone to large environmental changes and diverse disturbances, and thus, are dynamic and non-equilibrating.
6. Synthesis and applications. Resiliency is the key to conserving ecological integrity via the ability to cope with inevitable changes. As long as ecosystems are resilient and disturbances are natural, we should not impede natural shifts in disturbance regimes and resultant ecosystem changes, even if changes are abrupt and unpredictable and thus have large consequences. If ecological resilience has already been eroded by humans, it is important that resilience should be enhanced by restoring keystone features of vegetation systems to prevent disturbance-induced undesirable ecosystem degradation.