Can Degraded Sites Host “New” Ecosystems?

On the “About” page of this site, I made this sarcastic comment: “We can incorporate habitat restoration into most existing uses of lands. (Mountaintop mining…not so much.)”

Turns out such terribly degraded sites can be restored…just not to their previous condition. Conservation Maven (I love that site!) posted an article about researchers from the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) who established a new biotic community in an abandoned quarry.

The researchers were able to successfully establish plant species found on natural limestone pavements called alvars—a rare ecosystem that occurs naturally in other parts of the Great Lakes region.

With few inputs and little effort, the researchers were able to double species richness after three years and establish plant communities that resembled natural alvar systems.

The idea behind the approach is that for many degraded sites, analogous ecosystems with similar physical conditions exist naturally, and the species inhabiting these extreme environments have adapted over time to these conditions.

The goal in restoration has always been to return to an earlier, “pristine” state—whether it really existed or not. What if we loosened our grip on that goal—just a little—and asked instead, “What is the best we can do on this site?” Of course, we could sell ourselves, and degraded ecosystems, short by using this approach. But we might be able to create more functioning communities that way, even if they are not the communities we would prefer to have on that site.

Nature rearranges ecosystems all the time, and although Nature can still humble us, we are the second-greatest rearrangers of this planet. If we acknowledged the fact and approached restoration of terribly degraded ecosystems as a sculptor approaches a block of marble, we might be able to make something beautiful out of the waste that we left there before.

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I wonder if a company could make money by restoring such sites and then leading tours of them.

Source: “Extreme Conservation: Constructing New Habitat in Ecological Wastelands,” Conservation Maven, May 14, 2010