Reference Ecosystems

Much research across the globe has been conducted over the last decade regarding how to succeed in ecological restoration projects. A key finding of this work is that to create natural communities that will be resilient over time, projects need to mimic ecological communities already known to exist naturally. The researchers call this having a Reference Ecosystem[1]. Much like a “future state model” is used in software projects to define the intended process outcomes after automation, a reference ecosystem sets the target for the assemblage of plants that together will have the best chance of creating a resilient natural community. In other words, to have the best chance of success, we should be adding plants consistent with the particular natural ecological community existing or which should exist in a particular location.

Until recently, the challenges of identifying an appropriate Reference Ecosystem were far beyond the capabilities of even experienced volunteers and many county counterparts. However, extensive research published by the State or Virginia in 2017 creates an infrastructure that can be applied to specific parks and restoration efforts. It now appears possible to begin restoration efforts by identifying what specific natural ecological community exists, or would exist, in a particular location, and to use this identification as the Reference Ecosystem to guide action over time.

[1] This is one of the core principles of the recent publication “International Principals and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration,” 2019, published by the Society for Ecological Restoration.