In the future, how will restorationists think about the past?

The extinct Toolache Wallaby, as painted by John Gould. Source:  Wikipedia.
The extinct Toolache Wallaby, as painted by John Gould. Source: Wikipedia.

It’s easy to argue that history has a bigger influence on why we restore ecosystems than on how we restore them. As climate change intensifies, that distinction can only grow.

Information from the past underpins ecological restoration. In fact, many people argue that history is essential to restoration. “To ignore the legacy of an ecosystem,” writes Eric Higgs, “even in cases where specific historical information is scanty, is to practice something other than restoration.”

But as climate change intensifies – causing species to move and ecosystems to change – the philosophy and the practice of restoration will also change. Will historical information still be relevant? In the future, how will restorationists think about the past?

To answer these questions, we have to look in the mirror. We have to ask ourselves: “how on earth do we use historical information to guide restoration?” Right here, right now. And if we discover that we use historical information in lots of different ways, we can then look forward and ask: “which of these approaches will remain relevant, and which will fade away, as global change progresses?”

The long mirror

Eric Higgs – the environmental philosopher quoted above – must spend way too much time looking in the mirror. He recently co-wrote a fascinating paper on the many ways that we use historical information when we restore ecosystems, and on how these approaches may alter as global change intensifies.

Higgs and colleagues thought of not one, not two, but nine, different ways that historical records inform restoration. They argued that – no matter how far species move or ecosystems change – history will always be important to us, because it influences why we save ecosystems. Ecologists and restorationists rarely talk about that stuff. We focus on numbers and facts, on how history can inform what we restore and how we restore it, not why we bother.

Higgs and co describe their paper as an “initial step” to stimulate “ongoing debate and refinement” of the topic. In that spirit, I have re-organized their framework and changed their categories in the essay below, so it works well for me. I encourage everyone to read their paper, and to contemplate how you use information from the past when you save and restore ecosystems. As we reshape our views of the past, we co-create restoration for the future.

The great wheel of history. We use information from the past in many different ways, and for many different reasons, when we save and restore ecosystems.
The great wheel of history. We use information from the past in many different ways, and for many different reasons, when we save and restore ecosystems.


The most obvious way we use historical records is to copy them. Old paintings and pictures provide a stencil or template that guides restoration projects. We can mimic the historical structure of an ecosystem – the height, density and spacing of trees – and its composition.

In reality, this plant-by-numbers approach is a crude caricature. Old pictures are rarely that accurate, our tools are rarely that good. The process is usually more abstract, less literal. We compile a vision from fragmentary sources: pictures, texts, maps and lists. We work towards something that resembles a stretch goal more than a stencil; a goal we strive towards but may never attain – even as we continue to make substantive improvements.

The guide book

Should you ever visit the Sistine Chapel, it helps to have a guide book. Even with one, it’s a glorious, bewildering spectacle. Who the hell is that guy? Why is everyone naked? What on earth – or is that heaven or hell – is going on?

The amazing Sistine Chapel. Photo source: The Times.
The extraordinary Sistine Chapel. Photo source: The Times.

To restore an ecosystem, we need to know the context, the ecology, the story behind the scenery. A stencil alone is not enough, we also need a guide book to show us how the system works. Historical records help us to understand the processes that shape ecosystems: the impact of Indigenous peoples; the legacies of fires, floods and grazing animals; the effects of soils and nutrients. These records give us clues about how disturbances may affect our works. They invoke constraints: we cannot hope to restore a wetland with too little or too much water.

History as process

You may choose to restore things in a completely different way; to reinstate indigenous fire regimes, re-introduce top-level carnivores, or replenish environmental flows in degraded rivers. These goals all share a common feature. They aim to restore historic processes, disturbances and interactions instead of an historic structure or composition.

When we do this we cross our fingers and hope that the reinstated processes will deliver something we like. They don’t always. Many processes cannot be reversed. Many outcomes are unwanted, including invasive exotic species. Nonetheless, when we re-align processes towards their ‘historical range of variation’ we acknowledge the dynamism of ecosystems, and the importance of disturbances and interactions. We can (and should) learn these things anew through trial, error and experiments. But history broadens our horizons and can expand our choice of treatments.

The historical ledger

History provides a book of accounts, a ledger, with which we can assess changes and set priorities. The simplest measure of change is a decline in distribution or abundance: “the Golden Ephemera was eliminated from 97% of its range”; “Turquoise Lipustras occurred in their millions, now fewer than 800 survive”; “less than 1% of native grasslands persist in high quality remnants.” This way of using historical records is fundamentally different from a template or guide book. A template shows us what to restore. A guide book suggests how to restore it. The ledger tells us which things to restore and which to ignore.

Canberra remnant grassland

The accidental laboratory

And yet there’s more to see in Eric’s long mirror. Historical information helps us to interpret a natural laboratory of accidental experiments. We can work out how grazing affects grassland plants, for example, by observing the presence of rare plants in ungrazed remnants. These accidental experiments, and the hypotheses we draw from them, fast-track our knowledge of how ecosystems work. Looking forward, we integrate all these forms of information with other sources of knowledge as we create models and scenarios to appraise changes in the future. All our scenarios, all our predictions extrapolate from history. A little more, nothing less.

A toss of the coin

Old historians don’t predict, they know the unexpected is lurking. Unpredictability, contingency, uncertainty, stochasticity, the butterfly effect, alternative stable states, black swans, novel ecosystems, chance and luck; we discover all of these in the glitches of history. History is the coin toss in our models of the future. We cannot look forward without it.

Behind the facts

Restorationists and ecologists are comfortable using historical information in these ways. Information from the past lets us measure things, count things, add them up and divide them. Looked at this way, history is just a shitty dataset. But number-crunching ignores something bigger. Before you or I chose to restore anything, we were each inspired to restore or save something. Most of us realized this long ago. We grew up, took our inspiration for granted, and now wonder why the rest of the world just doesn’t get it. We need to remember why we care.

Santayana Tas Tiger

History inspires

Somewhere, deep in academia, there’s an unwritten law that says – should you ever write a popular article about Australian mammals, you must begin by reminding your readers of one inexcusable fact: “Australia leads the world in mammal extinctions.” Lack of imagination aside, this sentence is repeated ad infinitum for one simple reason; we don’t want it to happen again. Information from the past inspires us to save and restore species and ecosystems. (Regardless of whether or not we choose to restore ‘historical ecosystems’). Without history, conservation and restoration have no more future than the 22 species of extinct Australian mammals.

Redress and atonement

My grandparents worked hard to clear this land. The government told them to. They thought they were doing good. Now we know they made mistakes. We’re restoring the land to make it healthy again, to fix the problems they made.

Many of us – should that be ‘all of us’? – save and restore ecosystems for a bigger reason than breeding bilbies, poisoning weeds or boosting small populations. We restore as an act of atonement for past and present wrongs. Doubt me? How often have you read a quote like that above?

Atonement need not be rational. It doesn’t appear in any spreadsheet, threatened species policy or ecology paper. It preceded the algorithm, the policy and the science. It is the reason why we work, although we often forget that. We scientists and practitioners need artists to remind us that a field of plantings is more than a row of trees. Restoration is an act of redress and atonement. An action inspired by stories from our past.

Original photo: State Library of Queensland.
Soil erosion in Queensland. Original photo: State Library QLD.

Our place and community

When you finish this article, type tree planting in a Google Image search. You shall find thousands of photos of happy, smiling people, all digging holes and planting trees in the sun. It never rains on Google planting days. Every sunny photo sends a message: we restore ecosystems to enrich our communities and to engage with nature. Our sense of place and our sense of community are both drawn from our history. Before we can lament the Last Child in the Woods, we must first recall that there were more woods, and more children playing within them.

Choose your future

History informs restoration in so many ways. As climate change intensifies, causing species to move and ecosystems to change, which of these ways will blossom and which will fade away? Perhaps we will use history as a template less often. But will we still use the past as a guidebook and laboratory? Will one-in-100-year floods persist in our computer models and conservation scenarios? As the world morphs, will we join the mammal ecologists and wave history’s moral flag to inspire others to give a damn? Will we share stories to bind a sense of place in our restless population? As the climate distorts, will atonement be the first or last emotion to wither in the heat?

The environmental historian, William Cronon, once wrote:

[Historical] narratives remain our chief moral compass in the world. Because we use them to motivate and explain our actions, the stories we tell change the way we act in the world.

I’d wager that there is a big future for the past in ecological restoration. How will you choose to use it?


Cronon W (1992). A place for stories: nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History 78, 1347-1376. [Full text article]. I love this old paper. Curl up for an evening and enjoy it.

Higgs E, Falk DA, Guerrini A, Hall M, Harris J, Hobbs RJ, Jackson ST, Rhemtulla JM & Throop W (2014). The changing role of history in restoration ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12, 499-506. [Full text article]

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16 thoughts

  1. I am sure this piece of writing will go down in history – a classic in my mind already

    1. Hi Tein, thanks very much for your over-generous praise, I’m glad you liked it. I’ve never before created a classic before breakfast 🙂 Thanks once again, best wishes Ian

  2. An interesting read but if you are trying to pass on a message speak the language of a greater audience. I enjoyed deciphering the message within your writing, almost poetic in places but to help further your cause dull it down for us simple folk as it needs our input as well 🙂

    1. Hello Robert, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, sorry I didn’t nail this one as well as I would have liked. I think the topic is worthy, but to do it justice I should have spent more time editing the post. Unfortunately blog writing gets squeezed in between everything else. I finished this one at 1:30 in the morning, after a long night of writing and I think that shows. Hopefully the next one will be better. Best wishes Ian

  3. Thankyou for providing this information in this accessible manner. Both the article by Higgs et al, and the above interpretation of it, are once-in-awhile gems of thinking and expression.

    1. Hi Lisa, thank for writing in. Eric Higgs’ article does make you think a lot doesn’t it. I imagine that a trained historian would read it very differently than I did (and perhaps ask ‘what’s new?’) but it provides lots of interesting ideas for readers with a background in ecology (like me) and practical restoration rather than history. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Best wishes Ian

  4. Thanks Ian. A very thought provoking piece. Makes sense that historical info can’t always be replicated. The area I live in was once covered with Mountain Ash but was cleared for farmland. It would be unrealistic to think it could be returned as it was 200 years ago BUT farmers are replanting tree stock and the ecology and vista is changing to mirror past images albeit on a smaller scale. It never be the same but certainly be of greater benefit to all both fauna, flora and community. Susan McAlpine, South Gippsland

    1. Hello Susan, thanks for writing. Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. We do have limited ability to re-create past ecosystems precisely (and that will get harder over time) but we can learn a lot from the past about how to make better ecosystems for the future, especially compared to many of the degraded areas we see today. It is great to see so many people doing this round the country. Best wishes Ian

  5. How we restore ecosystems is so very dependent on funding, also; the problem is that if there is little difference to be made on an accounting ledger somewhere, many, including governments, will not garner enough energy to bother. If only more realised that it is beneficial for all, as protecting and nurturing our environment is a win-win situation. Farms on which much restoration in gullies and plantations has been undertaken shows this, as there is better weather protection for stock and crops, providing higher yields, as well as a more vibrant native ecosystem.

    1. Hello David, yes, great points. It’s all the work on the ground that counts isn’t it. Fortunately more and more people are doing great work, and this will only get bigger. It’s nowhere near enough yet, but you only have to look at old black and white air photos of many areas to see how much great work has been done. Hopefully we’ll see lots more in the future too. Best wishes Ian

  6. Hi Ian and All, one big problem with the restoration of ecosystems is the large number of “new players in the game” — that is the introduced plants and animals. For instance, in trying to manipulate conditions to encourage native herbaceous spp. ( e.g. soil disturbance/burning) we often encourage the deaded aliens instead. That makes the task very complex and difficult.

    1. Hi Neville, yes I guess is probably the biggest challenge to restoration in most cases. I imagine that many groups faced with this predicament modify their aims to creating a ‘better’ system with an acceptable level of exotics, rather than aiming for an unattainable original system. Thanks for writing in, best wishes Ian

  7. Hi Ian,
    I appreciate your thoughtful and creative extensions of the arguments we made in “The changing role of history in restoration ecology.” Perhaps this shouldn’t be admitted, but the first version of the manuscript included twenty-one types of historical knowledge, which wreaked havoc with the reviewers. We cut it down to nine, but I retain a lingering regret that the nuances captured by some of your categories weren’t presented in the article. Whatever the types, and there could be endless arguments about which ones are best or most important, the main message is to think of historical knowledge as constituted by a variety of types (or Genus History with several species). This makes it much easier to think of history providing guidance even in significantly altered and rapidly changing ecosystems.
    Many thanks for your fine ‘blog, Eric

    1. Wow, I can never predict who will read my blogs! Thank you very much Eric for reading the blog and taking the time to comment. And, more importantly, thank you writing for your fine paper. It gave me lots to think about. I changed your categories a wee bit, but – as you point out above – the fine details are far less important than the big picture view that you provided. I hope the blog encouraged many more people to read your excellent paper. Thanks once again, best wishes Ian

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