Natural Regeneration | Tree Cover Change

Leadership, Environmental Context, and Governance Affect Persistence of Restored Ecosystems

Reid JL, Wilson SJ, Bloomfield GS, Cattau ME, Fagan ME, Holl KD, and Zahawi RA (2017) How long do restored ecosystems persist? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102:258-65.


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One of the oldest restoration projects in the world is the Floresta da Tijuca, an urban forest near Rio de Janeiro. In the early 1860s, this land was covered in coffee bushes and sugarcane, but a group of Brazilians restored the land by stopping farming and planting trees. The Floresta da Tijuca is now more than 150 years old, and it provides clean drinking water and habitat for many species. Unfortunately, not all restored ecosystems last so long.

How long restored ecosystems persist is important because the services that ecosystems provide increase over time. Fortunately, restored ecosystem persistence can be studied scientifically.

Restored ecosystem persistence refers to how old an ecosystem gets before people convert the land for another purpose. For example, when restored forests persist for longer amounts of time, they amass more carbon, more species habitat, and more timber, among other things. Since older forests are more useful than younger ones in many ways, it would be nice to know which restoration projects are going to promote long-lived forests rather than short-lived ones. Forest persistence is especially important now because of the large number of international restoration commitments that have been made for the Bonn Challenge.

We reviewed the literature to look for information about why some restored ecosystems persist longer than others. As a case study, we calculated the persistence of 54 restored rainforest plots in southern Costa Rica.

Three main types of things can affect restored ecosystem persistence. First are the people; effective leaders, long-term vision, and community engagement tend to increase persistence. Second is the environment itself; for example, restored ecosystems may persist longer when land is poorly suited for farming. Third is governance; for example, restored ecosystems in protected areas persist longer than those outside of protected areas. In our case study, we found that 18 plots (33%) were re-cleared within 10-12 years.

Based on this work, a new direction was to see how ecosystem persistence could be studied over a larger area. We have now completed a study on this for southern Costa Rica, and, in collaboration with others, we are studying it for the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil. The main ideas in this work have also been refined into a strategic article in the journal Restoration Ecology.


PARTNERS Connections
This idea came about during the Spatial Prioritization Working Group in the first meeting in Storrs in 2014. We were talking about where was the best place to restore forests, and it became clear that how long forests persisted into the future would be an important consideration. This idea was further developed for a symposium at Missouri Botanical Garden, later made into a special issue of Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. At this point the persistence project has spun off into at least five other projects, not including the excellent work being done by Naomi Schwartz and others.

A native tree plantation in northeastern Costa Rica. How long these trees grow will affect how much carbon they store and how many species can live among them. (Photo by Matt Fagan.