A perspective on the evolving science and practice of ecological restoration in Australia


  • Tein McDonald,

  • Jann Williams

  • From small beginnings, Australian restoration is strengthening in quantity and quality, providing some promising examples of repairing damaged ecosystems. Does this point to potential for restoration to make a real difference to the conservation challenge?

Tein McDonald is a Restoration Consultant, Tein McDonald & Associates, (P.O. Box 42, Woodburn 2472 Australia; Email: teinm@ozemail.com.au); Jann Williams is Adjunct Professor at the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research,(University of Tasmania, P.O. Box 3523, Burnie, Tasmania, 7320 Australia; Email: jann.williams@utas.edu.au) and Managing Director of NRM Insights Pty Ltd. Tein and Jann work together on a range of projects associated with their roles as editor and chair, respectively, of the journal Ecological Management & Restoration, including the development of this year’s EMR ‘virtual issue’ and judging the recent search for Australasia’s ‘Top 25 Ecological Restoration projects.


Summary  This brief review of the science and practice of ecological restoration and rehabilitation in Australia shows that, from small isolated efforts in the first half of the 20th century, substantial numbers of programmes are steadily emerging from natural area, agricultural landscape, mining and aquatic management sectors. With support from numerous research programmes in the last two decades, restoration and rehabilitation work is increasing in scale and ecological rigour; and researchers and practitioners are increasingly engaging with the international restoration discourse. Future improvements in prioritization, goal-setting, monitoring, evaluation and communication are, however, still needed to improve Australia’s capacity to meet its increasingly serious environmental challenges and do its bit to reduce and halt global degradation.


Australian ecosystems have been managed and shaped by Aboriginal peoples for tens of thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans (Walsh 1990, Yibarbuk et al. 2001). Post-colonial industrial, agricultural and urban development in Australia, while carving a modern society and economy, has led to the reduction in condition and area of many ecosystems (NLWRA 2002, Marine Biodiversity Decline Working Group 2008). This degradation and the hope of a more sustainable future have spurred individuals, the private sector (including non-government organizations (NGOs)) and governments to improve land management and pursue ecological restoration, supported by increasingly active restoration science.

This article outlines the authors’ current understanding of the extent, origins and outcomes of ecological restoration in Australia and the science that supports it. It sheds light on how restoration practice and science have begun to merge over time into a more integrated discipline that shares information between what have been, until recently, fairly separate restoration ‘management sectors’. It addresses the causal factors and issues that underly some of the limitations to restoration science and practice in Australia and ways to address them to enable a stronger future.

This article is not designed to review all ecological restoration projects carried out in Australia. Rather, it draws on the authors’ exposure to a wide range of restoration projects, some of which have been the subject of articles published in the journal Ecological Management & Restoration (EMR) over its first 10 years (1999–2009) or have been shortlisted or highly commended in EMR’s search for the ‘Top 25’ Ecological Restoration projects in Australasia, showcased on the Global Restoration Network website (http://www.globalrestorationnetwork.org/countries/australianew-zealand/australia/).

Defining ecological restoration

Definitions of ecological restoration used in Australia are largely consistent with those used by the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SER International) (see http://www.ser.org/content/ecological_restoration_primer.asp). There has, however, been some looseness in the use of terminology in Australia, particularly where participants have come to restoration indirectly from an ecosystem management or other related field. In line with SER International standards, this review defines restoration as the practice of reinstating the structure and function of pre-existing ecosystems that have been damaged or depleted by human impacts. The definition includes discrete sites (site level projects) where holistic restoration (Clewell & Aronson 2007) can reasonably be achieved as well as larger-scale (landscape level projects) where restoration of the entire landscape is not possible but where staged, strategic restoration and linking of fragmented habitats is likely to achieve higher order functional outcomes, i.e. ‘landscape restoration’ as defined by Williams (2008).


Australia is a large continent with a diverse range of ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic. High rates of endemism are reported across numerous taxa for both plants and animals (Williams et al. 2001) with about 84 per cent of plants, 83 per cent of mammals, and 45 per cent of birds found only in Australia (http://www.environment.gov.au/ accessed 12/05/2009). A large proportion of the interior of the country is arid/semi-arid, dominated by such communities as spinifex grasslands, savanna and chenopod shrublands (Orchard & Thompson 1999). Higher biomass sclerophyll systems, often mixed with grassy understoreys, predominate in the more mesic coastal areas (heathlands, shrublands, woodlands and forests) with pure grasslands occurring in only a few regions. Rainforest, although extensive during the Tertiary period, is now naturally confined to relatively smaller areas scattered along the east coast, from Tasmania to north Queenland, although some genera, more typical of rainforests, still occur in more fertile locations or are mixed with sclerophyll elements across the continent (Groves 1994). Australia has a long coast-line, with a consequent broad range of marine ecosystems including important mangrove and seagrass systems. Freshwater systems also provide a range of important habitats in the world’s driest inhabited continent.

Need for restoration

Ecological restoration has emerged in response to the reduction in quality and quantity of native vegetation and fauna which has progressively occurred since the Colonial settlement of Australia in the late 18th century. Clearing and modification of natural ecosystems for urban development and intensive agriculture has taken place largely in southern and eastern Australia, known as the ‘Intensive Land-Use Zone’ (ILZ) (NLWRA 2002), which includes around 13% of Australia. The rest of the continent is covered by semi-arid, arid and tropical/savanna environments and is referred to as the ‘Extensive Land-Use Zone’ (ELZ) (Fig. 2). Most of the ELZ, except for the most arid areas, is utilized for grazing. The mineral resources of Australia, including iron-ore, bauxite, zinc, gold, coal, uranium and natural gas, have been utilized in both the ILZ and ELZ.

Figure 2.

Innumerable restoration projects are carried out across Australia, both in the less modified Extensive Land-Use Zone (ELZ) and in the more modified Intensive Land-use Zone (ILZ-hatched areas). Great potential exists in Australia for scaling up the restoration effort to meet increasing challenges in both zones. (Map redrawn from Graetz et al. 1995.)

Changes to many ecosystems in Australia, particularly temperate grassland and woodland habitats which have been converted to agriculture, have been substantial and widespread (NLWRA 2002, Prober & Thiele 2005). In these areas, landscape level processes in both terrestrial and aquatic systems have been severely disrupted, leaving only fragments and degraded habitat patches to act as building blocks and models for restoration (Hobbs & Hopkins 1990).

In the ELZ, fragmentation has been less severe, but degradation is widespread because of impacts, such as inappropriate grazing regimes, invasive species and altered fire regimes (Stafford Smith & Morton 1990, Ludwig et al. 1997, Hobbs & McIntyre 2005, Alford et al. 2009). Increasing pressure is being put on northern Australian systems, which the largely uncleared are demonstrating some concerning trends in species dynamics and landscape function (Hobbs 2005, Woinarski et al. 2007). The existing range of pressures in both the ILZ and ELZ is now being overlain by a process of anthropogenic climate change (Dunlop & Brown 2008, Garnaut 2008).

A total of 49 plant and 54 animal species have already become extinct in Australia and a further 1269 plant species and 366 animal species are listed as threatened with extinction under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (http://www.environment.gov.au/ accessed 12/05/2009). Particularly, hard hit have been the small mammals of the arid and semi-arid zones (Cardillo & Bromham 2001, Dickman 2007) and rapid declines are currently occurring in groups of species including woodland birds (Reid 1999) and mammals across northern Australia (Woinarski et al. 2005).

In addition to the widely reported impacts on terrestrial systems, marine systems are in decline around the country, with five major threats identified (Marine Biodiversity Decline Working Group 2008). Severe impacts are also occurring in freshwater systems (Georges 2001).

Management sectors from which restoration practice has emerged

The emergence of ecological restoration in Australia began with small-scale community efforts in diverse locations and gradually involved non-government organizations and various levels of government. Practices and the emerging discipline have derived largely from several relatively independent management ‘sectors’ (i.e. distinct areas of specialty and/or a focus on particular land tenures or biomes). Examples of such sectors include the management of urban bushland; national parks and reserves (usually including threatened species management); biodiversity conservation in agricultural areas; mine site rehabilitation; riparian and stream condition (including water quality); and the sustainability of marine and estuarine ecosystems (Table 1).

Table 1.   Management sectors involved in on-ground restoration in Australia, along with the types of projects and actors involved
Management sectorTypes of restoration programmesTypes of ‘actors’ within sectors
Public open space urban bushland managementCommunity or local government-led natural area restoration programmesLocal councils, urban national parks and public land management agencies, regional NRM organisations, restoration NGOs, ‘care’ groups, landholders
National estate reserve and threatened species managementState/Federal government and NGO-led plant community and habitat restoration; recovery planning and implementation; Aboriginal Protected Area managementNational parks (both State and Federal level), National and State-based private trusts, restoration NGOs, Zoological Parks
Biodiversity management in production landscapesRural habitat patch restoration and landscape reintegration; rangelands regenerationState agencies; regional NRM organisations; restoration NGOs, National and state-based private trusts; private landholders
Riparian and stream managementRiver, stream and floodplain wetland restorationState agencies; regional NRM organisations, restoration NGOs; private trusts, landholders
Marine and estuarine managementCoastal zone restoration, marine reserve establishment and fishing controls for restoration purposesState and federal agencies; local councils; regional NRM organisations, restoration NGOs
Extractive industriesMine site and associated ecological restorationPrivate industry, state agencies (consent authorities)

Because of the broad scope of ecological restoration activities in Australia and the range of management sectors involved, the field has involved a number of ‘actors’. These include local communities, whether urban or rural; local, state and federal governments responsible for the management of land, water and biodiversity; regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) organizations; industries including mining, agriculture and tourism; and the research institutions that advise these sectors. Indigenous groups are increasingly playing a role in restoration projects, in both marine and terrestrial systems.

The involvement of this diverse range of groups in restoration projects, coupled with differences in legal requirements and available resources, has led to a variety of approaches and ideologies that have arisen independently, as practitioners and researchers grapple with the complexities of finding urgent solutions. This variety can potentially enrich the knowledge base available for successful restoration, but it has meant that sharing and integrating that knowledge between the largely disconnected sectors has not been optimum.

Early emerging Restoration Practice

The lights of ecological restoration in Australia, as elsewhere, have turned on one by one in Australia, starting with the isolated on-ground efforts of concerned, visionary individuals. Arguably the earliest recorded effort to rehabilitate a degraded ecosystem appears to be the fencing,in 1925, of a 390 hectare reserve at Koonamore Station, South Australia by Professor TGB Osborn of Adelaide University (Hall et al. 1964), although the original purpose may have been more for ecological curiosity than restoration of the ecosystem for its own sake. The next recorded cases emerge at opposite ends of New South Wales (NSW) in the mid-1930s with the efforts of Ambrose Crawford (in subtropical Alstonville) and Albert Morris (in arid Broken Hill) (McDonald 2008). Crawford was motivated to conserve and repair a sample of the local rainforest he had a close attachment to; while Morris successfully reinstated local desert vegetation communities around the mining town of Broken Hill to protect it from prevailing dust storms. Morris's work was subsequently validated by a university-based evaluation (Pidgeon & Ashby 1941) and went on to influence minesite rehabilitation techniques in northern Australia (Webber 1992).

These cases were followed in the two decades immediately after World War II, by more widespread efforts to raise standards of environmental practice, efforts which started to reflect the emergence of different management sectors. Soil stabilization and revegetation (e.g. Breckwoldt 1988) work was carried out, for example, in the agricultural, water supply and extractive industries, partially in response to rising community expectations. The urban bushland ‘regeneration’ movement emerged in Sydney in the late 1960s in response to a growing public environmental consciousness. This work in urban areas saw the development of a minimal-intervention approach to assist the natural regeneration of native vegetation degraded by weeds, increased fertility and altered fire regimes (Bradley, 1971); modified approaches of which later spread to most of the cities and major towns in Australia (Buchanan 1989, Gye & Thomas 2007).

Soon after, in the early 1980s, the growing community awareness of the value of native habitat spawned NGOs and extension programs such as Greening Australia, Land for Wildlife, Trust for Nature Victoria, Trees for Life, Landcare and others who largely work in agricultural areas. These groups helped direct a rising tide of willingness by governments and communities to address degradation by active revegetation and habitat reinstatement. The quickening of the pace of restoration-related activity provided a fertile learning environment for practitioners intent on broadscale (largely woody) revegetation and rescuing remnant vegetation and faunal populations from ongoing decline. The period was characterized by a plethora of local workshops and conferences and the formation of a number of specialist restoration associations in various parts of Australia, with many restorationists beginning to draw on resources from overseas workers and organizations, including the gradually internationalizing North American-based organization, the Society for Ecological Restoration.

In the freshwater aquatic and marine sector, the 1980s to early 1990s saw increasing attention being given to issues of habitat loss and the introduction of legislation to prevent poor water quality across Australia. Some small-scale marine and estuarine restoration works were starting in this period, along with the beginnings of what were to later become the main tools of aquatic restoration, fishing regulation and the establishment of aquatic and marine reserves. A number of inquiries into the state of the aquatic environment (e.g. Cappo et al. 1998) were needed, however, before governments could take decisive action.

Early emerging Restoration Science

The nascent restoration practice that was proceeding apace during the 1980s and early 1990s drew largely on the existing ecological and biological information about Australian ecosystems, coupled with technical knowledge from horticulture, forestry, agronomy, soil conservation, hydrology (including salinity) and other fields. Around this time, a recognizable discipline of more specialised restoration ecology was also beginning to emerge. In Western Australia, for example, research to inform Alcoa’s Jarrah forest minesite restoration was underway into local seed ecology, propagation, topsoil handling and other topics (see Restoration Ecology 2007) for a recent synthesis of this work). Issues of landscape fragmentation and its effects on fauna and flora were also becoming the target of research, particularly by CSIRO’s Division of Wildlife and Ecology in WA, resulting in the ‘Nature Conservation’ book series, which raised considerable awareness of degradation and potential for restoration among researchers and managers (Saunders et al. 1987, 1993, Saunders & Hobbs 1991, Hobbs & Saunders 1993).

In Victoria, where severe decline of temperate grasslands was the subject of substantial community concern, restoration research was commencing (McDougall 1989, Morgan 1989, Lunt 1990). Similar work was occurring for native pasture rehabilitation in northern New South Wales (Lodge & Whalley 1989); with rainforest restoration science starting to emerge in north coast NSW and south-east Queensland prompted by forest logging debates (Webb & Kikkawa 1990, Lamb 1993).

Improving Integration of Science and Practice

The sheer size of the interest in environmental work around Australia and the isolation of some management sectors and actors from others, meant that many on-ground works during the 1980s and 1990s were undertaken without an appreciation of the ecological processes involved. This is illustrated by early actions such as ‘tree planting’ (overlooking ground stratum degradation), ‘target weeding’ (overlooking complex weed ecologies), ‘quick fixes’ (overlooking potential for regression in complex systems) and ‘technological fixes’ (overlooking ecosystem processes). Projects were often characterized by a desire to remove symptoms of degradation rather than addressing and countering its causes. Many of these issues could have been addressed with better dissemination and uptake of scientific research, greater resources for on-ground activities including training and a greater appreciation by the scientific community and funding bodies of the constraints and realities faced by managers. The need to better integrate science and practice across a range of issues was clearly apparent.

In the last 10 to 15 years, increases in cross-fertilisation between theory and practice and between ‘management’ sectors have seen a burgeoning of both science and practice and an improved integration of knowledge between them (Box 1). This integration has been particularly enriched by contributions from a range of branches of environmental science including landscape ecology, conservation biology, community ecology, resilience theory, social theory, restoration theory and reserves theory.

Landscape ecology, community ecology and conservation biology have, for example, contributed an understanding of the need for restoration projects to consider the quality, quantity and configuration of habitats at landscape and population level to meet the needs of their multiple and interacting component species, particularly declining or threatened species (Hobbs & Norton 1996, Bennett et al. 1998, McIntyre et al. 2002, Lindenmayer & Hobbs 2007, Radford et al. 2007). Recent work is beginning to explore other aspects that need to be considered, such as the lag-times involved in the provision of habitat by revegetation and the impact of different management actions on these patterns (Vesk et al. 2008). Information from these areas of research is now actively sought out by managers working in the field of restoration planning and practice (Palmer et al. 1997, Pressey et al. 2007) and the topics are being incorporated into training at practitioner level (Buchanan 2010 forthcoming). Other actions that could enhance the interaction between the research community and practitioners, particularly aimed at increasing adoption of research findings, are provided in Lovett et al. (2008).

An understanding of community resilience and succession, and the importance of natural disturbance regimes, including the role of fire regimes, have increased restoration success (Young et al. 2005, Prober et al. 2008). While these theories have long been part of ecology and conservation management, appreciation of their special relevance to restoration has increased as a result of insights gained from restoration practice (McDonald 2000, Buchanan 2009, Clewell & McDonald 2009).

The social sciences have contributed to an understanding of the human dimension of land management (e.g. Briggs 2006, Lovett et al. 2008), which is critical if restoration activities are to be successful and sustainable in the long term. Substantial innovation in field extension to landholders has been contributed by some agencies, drawing on the experience of NGOs (Mendham et al. 2007). The increased focus on natural resource management at the regional level has promoted changes in the models, approaches and theories used in extension (Millar 2007). The economics of market-based instruments has also featured strongly as a research topic with implementation of a range of models for landholder incentives providing an increased understanding of the value of these approaches (Bright et al. 2003, Morrison et al. 2008).

Progress has also been made in the development of decision support tools to assist the prioritization of both on-ground projects and the science that supports them (Joseph et al. 2009). This is an area where considerable potential exists for research as well as improvements in restoration practice, given the importance of prioritization in implementation at continental and landscape level (Wintle 2008).

As well as the above-mentioned ‘process-based’ research, improved links have been ongoing between researchers and practitioners involved in the restoration of specific ecological communities, whether it be tropical or subtropical rainforest (Goosem & Tucker 1995, Kooyman 1996); rangelands and grasslands (Ludwig & Tongway 1996, Cole et al. 2005, Gibson-Roy et al. 2007); freshwater wetlands (Brock & Britton 1995, Roberts & Marston 2000); saline wetlands (Laegdsgaard 2006); riparian and freshwater aquatic restoration (Koehn et al. 2001, Arthington & Pusey 2002, Lake et al. 2007); and coastal and marine restoration (Little et al. 2005, Sleeman et al. 2005).

Steps to a Stronger Future

The emerging, mutualistic disciplines of ecological restoration practice and restoration ecology in Australia have demonstrated some very strong underpinnings and a growing sophistication, yet work in this area has really only just begun. Substantial work is needed to identify and attempt to fill a range of research gaps relating to the ever-increasing restoration challenge; to embed monitoring, evaluation and reporting as a core part of restoration projects; and, last but not least, to improve restoration programmes themselves so that restoration goals can be more securely met. Improved communication between the research community, practitioners and policy makers underpins each of these areas. These topics are addressed in greater detail below.

Filling research gaps

A range of current and new research directions, which cross many scales, has been identified by researchers and practitioners from across Australia (Box 2). These include the need to focus more on the dynamics of key ecological processes in space and time, as well as developing a greater understanding of the synergies between conservation and production. Because it is not possible to undertake research for every species or at every site, another topic identified as important was examining the ability to transfer scientific results between species and regions.

While the list’s terrestrial focus reflects the interests of those involved in identifying these directions (Box 2), research topics such as those listed earlier in this paragraph are also relevant to freshwater and marine systems. It is clear that there is substantial and additional new work to be carried out in freshwater and marine spheres. The National Adaptation Research Plan for Water Resources & Freshwater Biodiversity (NCCARF 2009), for example, identifies a range of research gaps, while gaps in research and management action are also identified in Marine Biodiversity Decline Working Group (2008).

Climate change is seen as a major factor influencing restoration science and practice in the future and substantial gaps in our knowledge about its likely impacts for Australian ecosystems have been identified by ecologists (Morton et al. 2009). Information is needed to guide both adaptation and mitigation strategies (Harris et al. 2006, Adam 2009). In terms of adaptation, for example, there is a particular need to guide restorationists more reliably about the connectivity requirements of groups of species, whether currently considered threatened or not. Current research by CSIRO on connectivity and corridors will help focus restoration activity, particularly in relation to identifying restoration goals (Williams 2008). In addition, the need for restoration to accommodate potential for altitudinal and latitudinal migration by species needing to adapt to climate change places greater emphasis on more careful sourcing of genetic material (Young & Clarke 2000, Broadhurst et al. 2008).

In terms of mitigating the causes of anthropogenic climate change, there is a need for more research into the potential to use restoration for sequestering carbon in trees and soil while addressing biodiversity issues (e.g. the Breath Easy program of Greening Australia). There is also a need for considerably greater cross-disciplinary work to identify and implement solutions to what are fundamentally socio-economic causes of climate change and other on-going damaging processes in ecosystems.

Embedding evaluation, reporting and communication in restoration projects

Sound evaluation and reporting of projects against the pre-identified restoration objectives and goals should be a key element of all restoration projects (Clewell & Aronson 2007). This is essential if we are to build a reliable body of knowledge about what is possible and what is not, particularly over the long-time frames and larger scales required to effect real change (Williams 2008). Evaluation and reporting depends on sound monitoring, i.e. measurement of the original degraded condition and how it has changed over time as a result of the restoration treatments. Monitoring rarely occurred in the early days of restoration practice, and a shortfall in monitoring and reporting is still a problem characteristic of some quite ecologically sophisticated restoration programmes.

Ways to improve monitoring have been identified in a number of systems by authors such as Chapman and Underwood (2000), Catterall and Harrison (2006) and Brooks and Lake (2007). An exemplary program of monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of riparian restoration on both terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity has been established by a group from Monash University (http://www.mdbc.gov.au/RRE), which shows how monitoring and reporting can lead to far more rigorous and reliable evaluation and thereby, through adaptive management, improved restoration outcomes in the future.

Monitoring and reporting, however, do not need to be highly formal to be useful to management practice, which can be enriched by the practical perspectives gained from years of on-ground trial and error. Great strides could be made in restoration in Australia if restorationists were to universally report and communicate their projects at least to a level consistent with the criteria used for the Top 25 projects reported on SER International’s Global Restoration Network. These require only basic information on prior condition, goals, causal factors, treatments and results (see reporting template on http://www.globalrestorationnetwork.org/countries/australianew-zealand/). This level of evaluation, reporting and communication is certainly within the realms of any management body serious about their work, and the time invested can be well justified by the range of benefits (not least the potential to inspire improved collaboration between sectors) that flow from sound reporting and communication.

Such reporting and communication can inspire improved collaboration and an increased transfer of knowledge between practitioners and researchers, and between researchers and practitioners (Lindenmayer & Hobbs 2007, Lovett et al. 2008). Improvements in communication also require the active seeking of engagement and the building of partnerships between research and management individuals and organizations (Gibbons et al. 2008, Wilson et al. 2009).

Improving the way we plan and implement restoration

There is substantial potential for greater adoption of emerging technologies in spatial science to translate the findings of research into strategic plans for restoration at regional and continental scales (Wilson & Lowe 2003, Crossman & Bryan 2009). This is particularly important in the context of climate change which increases the need for scaling up restoration and restorative management actions. Planners need to work in collaboration with managers and ecologists with sufficient experience to identify where intensive restoration approaches are needed and where there is potential for more diffuse approaches that spread limited resources more widely over time and space. Lessons learned from these interventions then need to be fed back into the growing knowledge base, including specific research programmes. This requires improved capacity among planning personnel to assess sites, taking into account complex ecological responses, as well as commitment from institutions and governments to support long-term adaptive strategies, linked wherever possible to community stakeholders.

There is an increasing need to scale up restoration so that it is both strategic and embedded in its social-ecological context. This will require links between groups including governments and non-government groups, regional NRM organizations, private land-holders, research institutions, restorationists and community stakeholders. While this is starting to occur with landscape scale projects such as Gondwana Link, the Kimberley Ecofire project and others, greater impetus for more ambitious ‘umbrella’ projects that capture the imagination of the community as a whole (such as the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/ger/) is being provided by a focus on the challenges presented by climate change (Adam 2009, Coghill 2009).

In addition, considerable work is needed by teams of managers and researchers to explore the range of governance models that may provide long-term support for the scale and standard of restoration projects that are becoming more and more necessary across the country.

Is Restoration Making a Difference?

The science and practice of ecological restoration in Australia is becoming increasingly sophisticated and is starting to tackle major issues such as restoring ecological processes at the landscape scale (Souléet al. 2004, McGregor et al. 2008). However, restoration is not a substitute for ceasing damage in the first place. Ongoing pressures such as land clearing, invasive species, altered fire regimes and inappropriate grazing practices continue to modify and degrade natural systems to the point where restoration actions are not guaranteed to succeed, particularly, with the additional pressure of climate change. Dealing with all these degrading pressures at their source is therefore part of the restoration challenge, but this cannot be addressed by restorationists alone. While the sheer scale of degradation pressures raises enormous challenges, a restoration philosophy is more needed today than ever before. Restoration, however, must have a broadened ecological view and a more urgent emphasis to attract substantial and ongoing support of mainstream society.

This article identifies some of the challenges facing restoration science and practice based on the authors experience in the field and how these challenges could be addressed. A more comprehensive review, which would be a significant undertaking, is likely to identify further lessons. Given that the restoration science and practice projects reported here show a trend of growing integration and sophistication, there is room for some optimism that progress with restoration will continue, and that this could help societies make a difference to conserve, and more comfortably co-exist with, the natural heritage of this planet.

Box 1. Some Current Cases

While restoration emerged from very small and individual beginnings in Australia, it is unlikely anyone can claim familiarity with the breadth and depth of work that is now ongoing, much of which remains unreported. Of the reported work, the following is a brief overview.

The ‘Extractive industry’ sector: Mine site rehabilitation

Most post-mining rehabilitation undertaken on minesites is guided, as elsewhere in the world, by the consent conditions set at the issue of the mining licence. While consent conditions vary across the country and few, if any, have formally required full ecosystem restoration, the higher goal of restoring the pre-existing indigenous plant and animal communities has been voluntarily (if informally) adopted by some companies. In the Jarrah forest sites of Alcoa in south-west Western Australia, for example, reports of nearly 30 years of restoration research concluded that the ecosystem restoration of a set of key measures following bauxite mining is progressing on a successful trajectory (Koch 2007, Koch & Hobbs 2007, Grant & Koch 2007; Fig. 1). Other programs, such as Alcan’s sites in the Gove Peninsula, NT (Reddell et al. 1993) and Mt Owen site, NSW (http://www.newcastle.edu.au/research-centre/cser/), have also sought to achieve ecological restoration goals.

Figure 1.

 Responses to the need for restoration in Australia include both intensive, holistic projects as well as ‘restorative’ works extending over wide areas and long time frames. Pictured here are Conservation Volunteers planting at a NSW Department of Primary Industries Tarcutta Creek, Demonstration Reach Project. While not all such restorative projects can be called ‘ecological restoration’, many organisations managing extensive projects are progressively adopting ecological restoration goals and standards of practice. (Photo Luke Pearce).

Urban and peri-urban natural area restoration

Most capital cities in Australia operate management and restoration programmes in their remaining natural areas, many of which experience ongoing urban impacts. These programmes are largely managed by local government, with some involvement by state agencies. The greater Sydney area, for example, was estimated in 2007 to have 35 of its 39 local governments involved in community Bushcare programs, engaging a total of more than 8000 volunteers in regular (usually monthly) groups on an estimated 1000 sites (Case studies can be accessed at http://sydney.cma.nsw.gov.au/content/view/108/47/). Many of these local councils also employ their own professional bush regeneration staff and/or contractors, supported by extensive planning and, increasingly, evaluation. Other east coast NSW towns and cities have both paid teams and volunteers working in natural area restoration work for local or state government. These were estimated in 2007 to involve over 1800 people, contributing over 200 000 hours of restoration work largely on weed control to date; 60% of which was paid (Gye & Thomas 2007).

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[  One-year-old restoration works at Alcoa’s Huntly bauxite mine after the return of freshly salvaged topsoil and coarse woody debris. Germination from soil-stored seed and carefully prescribed additional seed produces a rapid recovery response, with forest structure and composition developing securely within a decade. In the background is unmined jarrah forest, which acts as the reference community for the restoration. (Photo courtesy Alcoa of Australia). ]

The greater Brisbane area claims over 2500 restoration practitioners connected to local government, with the Sunshine Coast also now highly active with some 500 workers (Gye & Thomas 2007). Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth also have major programmes similarly involving a mix of restoration activities. State-based restoration associations are active in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney; interfacing with a host of related conservation organizations of varying sizes operating in all cities.

Agricultural landscape restoration: integrating with reserve management

A range of coordinated extension programmes has developed in Australia’s rural areas over the last 25 years, involving both agencies and, particularly, groups such as Trust for Nature Victoria, Greening Australia, Land for Wildlife and Wetland Care Australia. While many established at a similar time to Landcare (which originally focused on soil and water rehabilitation), these groups offer technical guidance and facilitation for biodiversity conservation; with increasing uptake of more ecological approaches reported over the decade. Their work dovetails with that of conservation trusts, which have been established in each State to operate land management and covenanting services; offering landholders a range of options from more sustainable land management to involvement in full restoration, particularly where adjacent to publicly or privately owned nature conservation areas.

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[  Contract bush regenerators working at Fred Caterson Reserve, Castle Hill. Professional and volunteer bush regeneration programmes are now ongoing in public open space bushland reserves in the vast majority of local government areas in the Sydney area. These programmes involve restoration at both bushland edges (roads, creeks, behind residences) as well as extensive core areas. (Photo, Virginia Bear). ]

Many State agencies and private trusts responsible for reserves and threatened species management are becoming more involved in restoration as degraded sites are acquired for strategic linkages. They are also becoming more involved in offering restoration advice and support to surrounding landholders, particularly involving the control of pest predators and the reinstatement of improved fire regimes. Examples managed by State governments include South Australia’s Bounceback Project, and Western Australia’s Project Eden and Western Shield programs; while a number of projects have been instigated and managed by private sector, not-for-profit groups such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Australian Bush Heritage who manage substantial reserves. Other programmes, such as the Buntine-Marchagee projects in Western Australia, aim to establish models for more sustainable integration of biodiversity restoration and protection into agricultural production in the Intensive Land-Use Zone.

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[  The 1000 km Gondwana Link project in Western Australia includes both bushland protection and revegetation of agricultural lands. This photo shows 5-year-old revegetation at Bush Heritage Australia’s Chereninup Creek Reserve. The reserve protects 820 ha of existing bush plus 60 ha where farmland was direct seeded and planted with 50 local plant species. Monitoring results show this and other revegetation works returning to more functional habitat, with an increasing number of invertebrates, birds and mammals utilising the restored areas. (Photo: Amanda Keesing, Gondwana Link). ]

The logical consequence of the blending of theory and practice into such programmes is the development of Conservation Management Networks (Prober et al. 2001, Eddy 2005) as well as major biolink projects involving a full range of private and public landholders, conservation groups and restoration agencies. Perhaps the most ambitious well-established examples of the latter is the Gondwana Link project in south-west Western Australia, which provides an inspiring example of very large scale landscape reintegration utilizing reservation and repair as major restoration tools (http://www.gondwanalink.org/).

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[  Tom Daniel carrying out fish measurements from a survey at Joyce’s Creek restoration site, near Newstead, Victoria. This restoration project is one of five riparian projects (managed by Catchment Management Authorities and landholders) selected by scientists from Monash University to investigate the magnitude, rate and timing of ecological responses resulting from riparian restoration projects. (Photo Matthew Johnson). ]

Riparian and stream rehabilitation

Agencies responsible for water quality for industrial and town use have, in recent decades, become actively engaged in the challenge of rehabilitating riparian zones and stream beds. The main work involves programmes variously carried out by statutory authorities such as the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, who have adopted a Native Fish Strategy and have begun to implement many of its recommendations including the development of the Sea to Hume Dam Fishways project. They also support the work of the Murray Wetlands Working Group, which has been trialling the reinstatement of flooding regimes in water-excluded floodplains of the beleaguered Murray-Darling river system. The Riparian R&D Program, which ran for nearly 11 years and was managed by Land & Water Australia, provided a strong focus for both ecological and social projects examining the management and restoration of riparian lands, producing many relevant reports and products over that period (see http://rivers.gov.au).

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[  ‘Green Zones’ have been established in each of the 70 broad habitat types identified in Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to ensure protection and recovery or its highly varied ecosystems. Within 5 years, a wide range of positive environmental outcomes have already been detected by monitoring including the increase in Coral Trout numbers as well as the decreased incidence of the potentially devastating Crown-of-thorns Starfish. (Photo courtesy Great Barrier Marine Park Authority © Commonwealth of Australia.) ]

Marine and estuarine restoration

Marine restoration is an important field, to both overcome the widespread habitat degradation that occurred unchecked until the 1970s and to counteract pollution, over-fishing and climate change that are ongoing. Some encouraging projects in Australia include the establishment of marine protected areas in a range of States to protect and allow recovery of marine organisms. The most outstanding of these is the 2004 initiative of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) to reserve representative areas of Queensland’s vast reef system, a step that has already resulted in signs of increased aquatic biodiversity (GBRMPA 2009). Estuary management also figures highly, with outstanding examples of restoration including the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project (near Newcastle NSW) and the Clarence Floodplain Project (northern NSW). Multiple seabird and marine rescue projects exist in Australia to ameliorate impacts on birds, marine turtles and other organisms (such as the Carpentaria Ghost Nets project, see http://www.ghostnets.com.au/). Despite these initiatives, given the scale of habitat loss and modification nationwide, a significant ramping up of efforts is required for marine and coastal restoration.

Box 2. Current and new research directions in restoration science.

These direction were identified in a series of workshops and desktop studies across Australia (Williams 2008). Topics such as climate change, which were not directly identified in this list, are seen as major direct and indirect influences on restoration science and practice in the future.

  • 1Clarifying corridors and connectivity
  • 2Spatial and temporal dynamics of key processes (pollination, dispersal, fire, nutrient cycling etc.)
  • 3Transferability of scientific results between species (single to multiple) and regions
  • 4The role of cryptic biota in restoration (fungi, rhizobia etc.)
  • 5Ecosystem services (e.g. pest control, tropical agriculture, carbon sequestration)
  • 6Conservation and production synergies (managing the matrix)
  • 7Native vegetation: design, restoration: site and large scale
  • 8Developing a restoration framework based on nutrient management
  • 9Examining the biodiversity outcomes of ‘biolinks’
  • 10Experimentally trialling large-scale restoration approaches
  • 11Socio-economic research


We would like to thank all of the dedicated individuals and organizations who have advanced the understanding and implementation of restoration science and practice in Australia and beyond. Their ongoing commitment to the challenge of restoring ecosystems provides both inspiration and hope. Much thanks also goes to Noel Preece, Richard Hobbs and two anonymous reviewers for comments on an earlier draft. Sponsorship for this article has been provided by Biotropica Australia Pty. Ltd.