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What’s Wrong with Novel Ecosystems, Really?

Thursday, October 6, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Jim Miller
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Brandon Bestelmeyer
USDA-ARS Rangeland Management Research Unit
Jornada Experimental Range
New Mexico State University

The novel ecosystems concept has become immensely popular over the last decade, but it has also raised the ire of a number of prominent figures in restoration and conservation circles. The result has been a heated and sometimes acrimonious debate, ongoing in journal articles and at professional meetings.

“The novel ecosystems framework deserves a place in a broad conceptualization of ecological restoration,” conclude Jim Miller and Brandon Bestelmeyer, authors of a paper recently published in Restoration Ecology, “this includes efforts to return fully to a reference state, as well as strategies for reinstating lost ecological processes and enhancing ecosystem services in transformed landscapes where such a return is infeasible.

A novel ecosystem, as defined by Richard Hobbs and his colleagues, is “a system of abiotic, biotic, and social components (and their interactions) that, by virtue of human influence, differs from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.”

Miller and Bestelmeyer evaluate three key aspects of the debate: irreversible thresholds that prevent restoration to a historic state, non-native species and restoration, and a hybrid state that includes elements of novel and historic ecosystems.

Irreversible thresholds have been acknowledged in restoration for years,”Miller and Bestelmeyer note, “but predicting when a threshold will be crossed and the degree of reversibility is problematic. Oftentimes reversibility is a function of multiple factors, such as cost and public support. In this sense, a novel ecosystem is not an alternate state but a decision.”

Proponents of the novel ecosystem idea adopt a pragmatic view of non-native species and recommend that management decisions be based on a species impacts, regardless of their origin.

“The concept of a hybrid state has proven difficult to operationalize,” say Miller and Bestelmeyer, based on their review of the literature. Many restorationists ignore the hybrid state and instead focus on natural versus novel ecosystems.

Miller and Bestelmeyer offer a decision tree to guide restoration that integrates aspects of novel ecosystems with other perspectives in modern restoration ecology.

Rather than continuing the debate about the merit of the novel ecosystem concept, Miller and Bestelmeyer conclude that what’s really needed is clear articulation of best practices and policies for land managers, and clear statements of restoration goals and strategies for attaining them on any given project.


Hobbs, R.J., E.S. Higgs, and C.M. Hall. 2013. Defining novel ecosystems. Pages 58–60 In: Hobbs, R.J., E.S. Higgs, and C.M. Hall (eds). Novel ecosystems: intervening in the new ecological world order. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, United Kingdom.
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Miller, J.R., and B.T. Bestelmeyer. What’s wrong with novel ecosystems, really? Restoration Ecology. doi: 10.1111/rec.12378.

About Restoration Ecology
Restoration Ecology is the Society’s bi-monthly scientific and technical peer-reviewed journal published Edited by a distinguished international panel, the journal addresses global concerns and communicates them to researchers and practitioners throughout the world

About SER
The Society for Ecological Restoration is an international non-profit organization dedicated to promoting ecological restoration as a means of sustaining the diversity of life on Earth and re-establishing an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture.

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