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SER’s new International Standards: Raising the bar for restoration efforts around the globe

Contributed by George Gann, SER Global Restoration Ambassador

The field of ecological restoration has experienced tremendous advancement over the past 30 years and is now widely recognized as an essential component of the fields of conservation and sustainability. Restoration projects and related environmental repair activities are being implemented at a variety of scales and in a variety of contexts around the world. Innumerable success stories attest to our ability to recover damaged and degraded ecosystems. Despite substantial strides, however, many projects meet with limited success due to inappropriate planning and implementation, a lack of appropriate effort or resources, or insufficient knowledge and skill. There has been a growing need for a clear set of standards to establish benchmarks for the technical application of restoration treatments across ecosystem types, and to maximize ecosystem recovery within a framework that engages stakeholders and respects socio-cultural realities and needs. To that end, SER spent much of 2016 actively working to address this need, and to distill the key principles and concepts that underpin successful project planning, implementation, and monitoring.

As previously reported in SERNews, in December I had the privilege of heading up the launch of SER’s new International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 13th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Cancun, Mexico, along with several other SER delegates. The release of the International Standards was the culmination of nine months of intense work by a dedicated team of SER leaders, including key members of the SER Australasia Chapter, the SER Science and Policy Committee, SER executive staff, and a corps of more than two dozen international reviewers representing both science and practice. These international standards follow pioneering efforts of SER Australasia to develop National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration in Australia, the first such initiative anywhere in the world. The Australian National Standards provided important stepping stones from which to develop an internationally applicable framework, as did several other SER foundation documents (e.g., The SER Primer on Ecological Restoration [2004], the SER/IUCN statement Ecological Restoration: A Means of Conserving Biodiversity and Sustaining Livelihoods [2006], and the IUCN/Parks Canada/SER document, Ecological Restoration for Protected Areas [2012]). Tein McDonald, the lead author of the Australian standards, SER board member Kingsley Dixon, and I partnered with many others in the effort to adapt and finalize the International Standards prior to the CBD COP.

We chose the CBD meeting as the venue for releasing the International Standards given its importance in bringing together not only environmental delegates from countries around the world, but also key stakeholders from across the international policy arena who have been instrumental in driving the global initiatives to implement large-scale restoration programs (Box 1). Building on a growing political will, these initiatives have succeeded in garnering ambitious commitments from a growing number of countries to restore large areas of degraded land. The Bonn Challenge, for example, aspires to “restore” 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. Unfortunately, some of these new international commitments may not be based on sound restoration science as we understand it, and suffer from a lack of clarity about what constitutes the restoration of forests or other ecosystems. Without this clarity, well-intentioned ecosystem repair programs may lead to variable and even undesirable outcomes, including new forests comprising nonnative species and the idea that planting tree seedlings alone constitutes the restoration of forests. The International Standards were designed in large part to fill this need for a “common and coherent approach” to achieve restoration-related targets under such initiatives as the Bonn Challenge, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the CBD Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and numerous other global initiatives. The International Standards emphasize that, while ecological restoration can help deliver needed ecological services such as carbon sequestration, it must also assure biodiversity conservation – a core element of global sustainability targets. To assist with setting biodiversity and other appropriate restoration targets, the International Standards call for the use of a reference model based upon a local native ecosystem that also incorporates anticipated environmental fluctuations such as climate change and sea level rise.


Box 1. Since 2008, SER has partnered with the CBD to help mainstream and advance ecological restoration around the world, while simultaneously helping the CBD achieve its biodiversity conservation targets through best ecological restoration practice. We chose to launch the International Standards at the CBD COP in Mexico to pay special attention to the need to advance global restoration initiatives within a framework of sound restoration science and practice, and to do that now, before it is too late.

George Gann presenting International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration at COP13


While benefits from high-quality ecological restoration accrue regionally and globally, improvements in the practice of ecological restoration will originate at the level of individual projects or programs. The International Standards are, therefore, fundamentally based on improving practice at the local, project level. As a practitioner with more than 40 years of experience working on restoration projects, this is critically important to me. Will the new International Standards help make my projects better? I believe they will, as they present the steps required to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate restoration projects in a practical way, to increase the likelihood of success and increase quality. The International Standards provide a framework for guiding the development and implementation of ecological restoration projects in any ecosystem, in any country, anywhere in the world. By necessity, they are not ecosystem specific, though we intend to collaboratively develop ecosystem-specific standards with SER members and other practitioners in the future.

The International Standards document is organized into four core Sections (plus a glossary and appendices), the first of which is an Introduction outlining the worldwide need for ecological restoration, as well as the need for standards of practice to promote effective, efficient and engaging restoration efforts. The Introduction also provides definitions for important terms and concepts referenced throughout the International Standards.

Section Two builds upon earlier SER work by describing Six Key Concepts Underpinning Best Practice (Box 2). These concepts are meant to provide a framework for understanding how to explain, define and measure the activities and outcomes of ecological restoration. Interspersed throughout this section are sidebar boxes that elaborate on important themes such as: “What needs to be considered when developing a reference ecosystem?” and “What about cultural ecosystems?” In Key Concept 4, the International Standards provide a tool for progressively assessing and ranking the degree of ecosystem recovery over time using a 5-star system. This tool was first introduced in the National Standards for Australia and has been adapted for global use. The potential applications of this tool are outlined and explored via case studies elsewhere in this issue of SERNews.

 Box 2. Six Key Concepts Underpinning Best Practice

  1. Ecological restoration practice is based on an appropriate local native reference ecosystem, taking environmental change into account;
  2. Identifying the target ecosystem’s key attributes is required prior to developing longer term goals and shorter-term objectives;
  3. The most reliable way to achieve recovery is to assist natural recovery processes, supplementing them to the extent natural recovery potential is impaired;
  4. Restoration seeks ‘highest and best effort’ progression towards full recovery;
  5. Successful restoration draws on all relevant knowledge;
  6. Early, genuine and active engagement with all stakeholders underpins long-term restoration success.

The third Section lays out Standard Practices for Planning and Implementing Ecological Restoration Projects. This is a concise, hierarchical stepwise list of recommended activities for every stage of a restoration project, including: planning and design; implementation; monitoring, documentation, evaluation and reporting; and, post-implementation maintenance. The activities can be adapted to work within the size, complexity and other constraints of any project, making them an invaluable reference for ecological restoration practitioners. These suggested standard practices, when taken in the context of the key principles and concepts elaborated throughout the document, hold great promise for elevating the success and impact of ecological restoration efforts.

Section Four – Restoration and the ‘Big Picture’ Environmental Challenge – places ecological restoration into the larger context of environmental repair and explores the relationship between ecological restoration and other repair activities (e.g., rehabilitation, remediation). The section also includes discussion of potential trade-offs associated with scaling up restoration programs, as well as strategies and considerations for achieving large-scale impacts. Section Four wraps up by placing the combined efforts of ecological restoration and other natural resource management fields along a “Restorative Continuum,” to demonstrate the value of all recovery activities in improving environmental health (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Restorative continuum. Ecological restoration and restorative management can be seen to be aligned along a ‘restorative continuum’ where a broad range of activities undertaken by society to repair damage to the broader environment, complement ecological restoration and provide improved conditions for broad scale recovery. Photo credits (from left) 1., 2: S.Triggs. Inglis Rural, 3: Marcel Huijser; 4 and 6: T. McDonald; 5: J. Jonson.


Following the glossary and reference list is an important appendix, which places values and principles of ecological restoration into the three underpinning principle categories developed in the 2012 IUCN/Parks Canada/SER Ecological Restoration for Protected Areas document:

  1. Effective ecological restoration re-establishes and maintains values;
  2. Efficient ecological restoration maximizes beneficial outcomes while minimizing costs in time, resources and effort;
  3. Engaging ecological restoration collaborates with partners and stakeholders, promotes participation and enhances experience.

Though the International Standards received broad review and fill an important gap in the field, SER recognizes that additional review and input are critically important for improving the content and substance of the document and for gaining international buy-in and implementation. As such, SER considers the International Standards to be a living document, and we look forward to working with our partners and colleagues throughout the world to test, refine and strengthen the International Standards over time. We hope you will contribute to this most important effort, as we begin to operationalize the standards via SER webinars, conferences and other venues.

Please submit any feedback you have on the Standards here.


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