Degraded farmlandOne of the world’s leading restoration ecologists has questioned the way we use the term ‘degraded’. According to CEED Chief Investigator Professor Richard Hobbs this is far more than simple semantics. How we assess whether a system is degraded has major implications for whether restoration is required.

In a paper just published in Restoration Ecology, Richard Hobbs examines the perceptions and values that are associated with term ‘degraded’ and how this affects the decisions we make on whether intervention is appropriate.

“An underlying premise of ecological restoration is that it focuses on the recovery of degraded systems,” says Richard Hobbs, Director of the Ecosystem Restoration and Intervention Ecology (ERIE) centre at the University of Western Australia.

“While this is an apparently straightforward aim, there is in fact considerable variation in how the term ‘degraded’ is defined, used and assessed.”

Hobbs points out that there is a notable subjective component to decisions regarding what is degraded and what is not, and this often relates to the values and goals being considered.

“There is likely to be little argument over highly degraded systems where damage and loss of valued characteristics are evident,” notes Hobbs.

“But where system change is less stark and the changes have mixed benefits and disadvantages, the decision on whether the system is degraded (and hence in need of restoration) becomes more difficult.”

This debate is timely given the many impacts we are witnessing connected to climate change. As systems continue to change in the face of ongoing climate, land use and other environmental changes, decisions become more difficult regarding which systems are degraded and which are merely different from what was there before.

Hobbs examined how degradation is defined in recent textbooks, policy documents, and papers in the literature, and found there is enormous variability. Just as important is how these definitions translate into what happens in practice.

Decisions to ‘restore’ areas to alternative ecosystem types are often taken on the basis of perceptions of what was there, or what ‘should have been’ there, rather than a consideration of the relative value of the existing system and the costs versus benefits of the restoration.

“Difference does not necessarily equate to degradation,” says Hobbs.

“Effective use of scarce management resources relies on an improved ability to openly debate and resolve such issues.”

More info: Richard Hobbs This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reference: Hobbs, R.J. 2016. Degraded or just different? Perceptions and value judgements in restoration decisions. Restoration Ecology doi: 10.1111/rec.12336

Image: This severely eroded farmland is ‘degraded’. There is obvious damage and the land has lost its productivity. In many other cases degradation is not so obvious. In some situations it might be because the system simply looks different to what people expect.