Grassland vantage-points # 1: looking back

If you never change your mind, why have one? ~ Edward de Bono

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

A view from the past …

If ever you need to liven up a boring dinner-party amongst fellow conservationists, the best of topics is to question the values of ecological restoration. Is it a populist distraction, of little substance or a value? Or, at the other extreme, could it be the future of vegetation management, especially in regions where only small remnants survive? It’s easy to find dinner guests who’ll support both views. The truth, no doubt, lies somewhere in between.

Many restoration debates are fueled by different interpretations of the term, restoration. What do we mean: weeding the odd Paspalum from a fantastic remnant, or converting the local tip to a native grassland or wetland? Luckily, we don’t have to re-invent a linguistic wheel to refine the debate, as many other groups have dealt with similar issues. Vintage car enthusiasts lovingly restore rusted, gun-shot-riddled wrecks to shiny pride. They also build, from scratch, replicas of long-lost models, using original designs, but all new materials. Perhaps conservationists could also distinguish these two activities, restoration and replication – building new ecosystems from scratch, based on an idealised model of the original. Then we might restore a depauperate woodland, or build a “replica” of a native grassland or a wetland.

The merits of restoration can be debated independently of the merits of replication. Restoration projects (giving existing remnants a helping hand) can be seen as an integral part of conservation management. By contrast, replication projects have very different starting points (virtually no indigenous vegetation), different problems (weeds, horrible “soil”) and they often have very different objectives. Many replication projects have multiple aims including employment creation, community education and urban beautification. Worthwhile as these aims obviously are, none are directly concerned with the biological outcome of the activity.

So, what priorities should we give to restoration and replication? The most obvious advice seems facile. Start with the projects that have the most chance of succeeding. And yet, grassland restoration projects always seems to start at the hardest starting point, in the worst sites, with the biggest weed problems and the most species to re-introduce. We regularly read of admirable ideas to create new grasslands from scratch. Unfortunately, we rarely hear of projects to mend (i.e. “restore) damaged or depauperate, but otherwise intact, remnants. Most vintage car enthusiasts would leap on the most intact wrecks to restore, but grassland restorers seem to delight in the worst.

Building a replica ecosystem on an old building site may have many values, including community education and involvement, employment creation, and urban beautification, but it isn’t likely to change the conservation values of the site in the foreseeable future. If a group of biologists had to rate the significance of a replica ecosystem, using the same criteria as are used on natural remnants, then it is extremely unlikely that any replica will be rated as being of high biological significance. Even the most ordinary natural remnant possesses far more native species than can rapidly be established in a replica, without enormous sums of money being pumped into the project. We already have a lot of ordinary remnants, why make more? Instead, why not devote some of that effort to converting an existing ordinary site into a high quality site?

If a small proportion of the work involved in a replication project was devoted to healing existing remnants (i.e. to “restoration” rather than “replication”), then these sites might eventually be transformed to extremely high biological significance. A medium quality remnant may be enhanced through weed control and re-planting to become of high value. More importantly, high quality remnants can be maintained as such, rather than being gradually worn away to low quality by neglect. At the moment, hardly any high quality remnants receive enough on-ground management. They desperately need the attention.

So, is restoration a useful activity? It’s obviously imperative. Replication may also be valuable, for social educational and other reasons, although its biological relevance is probably not as great as is often imagined. But we must ensure that the sites with the best chances of success become the highest priorities for restoration.

To revert to our motoring analogy, we have to stop fussing over the rusted hulks of battered fenders, and choose instead the less ambitious, but reasonably intact, old jalopies in sagging barns. Otherwise, we’ll never see our shiny vehicles on the road.

And, just as importantly, we have to have a precise aim in mind when we begin to restore a site or build a replica. The target may never be attained, and it may often be modified, but at least it provides a steady goal to strive for. If our goals for restoration (or replication) are a fuzzy mix of sustainable jobs, warm inner glows, pretty lakes with ducks, Themeda dominance, and a foggy notion of pre-European landscapes, then we haven’t a hope of achieving anything.

Hang on a moment. On second thought, perhaps one outcome is both achievable and eminently sustainable: more and more non-restorative dinner parties, dominated by endless, replicated debates.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And back to the present …

Sound familiar? If so, perhaps the sentiments reflect the state of play where you live or work. Alternatively, if you grew up in Victoria in the 1990s, and you’ve got an amazing memory, you may have read a longer version of the above in an early issue of Indigenotes, the magazine of the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association.

I wrote this article in 1991. So why re-print it 20 years later?

As you might guess from the initial quotes, when I re-discovered this old article recently, I realized that I just didn’t believe many of these sentiments any more. I’ve changed my mind. Over the last 20 years we’ve learned heaps about grassland ecology and conservation. At the same time, the field of restoration ecology has blossomed. Key journals such as Restoration Ecology and Ecological Management & Restoration didn’t exist when I wrote this back in 1991.

So I thought this old polemic would provide a great launching point from which to explore what we’ve learned about grassland ecology and restoration. In coming blogs, I’ll provide a personal perspective on 30 years of research on conservation biology in Australian temperate grasslands, to describe the ‘game changer’ studies that have altered how we think about – and how we manage – these endangered ecosystems. Great work by amazing conservation biologists like Bob Parsons, Jamie Kirkpatrick, John Morgan, Sue McIntyre, Suzanne Prober, Josh Dorrough and others.

And then we’ll look forward, to build on this legacy and ask, what are our brightest options for grassland restoration from now on? Grassland ecologists and restorationists long ago left behind the ‘endless debates’ that I wrote about in 1991, to create a strong foundation for brighter outcomes in the future. I hope you enjoy the journey. Cheers, Ian

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5 thoughts

  1. Excellent Ian – really enjoyed reading that piece (and like you, it’s interesting to think of where we have come from, and where we are heading)
    JOHN Morgan

  2. I also enjoyed the piece very much. This would be a particularly timely series to engage in prior to the upcoming Wyndham grassland management conference in November 2011 (see link:, which hopefully reflects on earlier work and conferences spanning the 90s and early 2000s.

    I’m amazed at where your article suggests the debate was at in the 90’s. As a recent graduate in Natural Resource Management having undertaken honours in grassland management on a reconstructed (or otherwise ‘replicated’) grassland (sensu Grassy Groundcover Restoration Project) and having witnessed the poor condition of many permanently protected sites in the west and north Melbourne areas as a botanical consultant, it doesn’t feel as though things have progressed greatly on the ground in remnant grasslands as rapidly as the research has enhanced our understanding of grassland ecology.

    I suspect this is related to the human dimensions of grassland management as opposed to the breadth of technical and scientific knowledge on grassland ecology. Nonetheless many high quality examples continue to find their way to the negligible end of the planning process and I hope the sentiment to protect remnants prior to replicas remains strong despite these planning outcomes.

    I hope these comments in some way make a positive contribution to your retrospective.

    Looking forward to the series Ian,


    1. Hi Geordie, thanks very much for posting your perceptive comment. I think you’ve encapsulated the state of play of grassland management very well. By coincidence, a group of researchers (from ARCUE, Uni Melb, LaTrobe, CSU & GA) recently submitted a research grant application to look at exactly the issue you mention. We suggested that, “… our inability to effectively manage grasslands is a function of the values and beliefs of grassland managers and local communities rather than the lack of ecological knowledge.” Whether we’ll receive funding to investigate this issue (and to develop ways to overcome these barriers) remains to be seen. However, you’ve hit the nail on the head that we really need to strengthen the links between the social and ecological aspects of grassland management. Best wishes with your great conference, I hope you get a fantastic receptive audience, cheers Ian.

  3. Dear readers, my apologies for taking so long to write the follow up posts from this post. It has proved a more ambitious undertaking than I originally anticipated. I hope you enjoy the other posts in the meantime. Cheers Ian

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