New Models for Ecosystems Dynamics and Restoration

Recently I’ve been working on a review of the latest contribution to The Science and Practice of Ecological Restoration book series, entitled New Models for Ecosystems Dynamics and Restoration (edited by Hobbs and Suding). Here’s an outline of what I’ve been reading and thinking about – the formal review will appear in print in Landscape Ecology sometime in the future.

The Society for Ecological Restoration defines ecological restoration as an “intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability”. Restoration ecology is a relatively young academic field of study that addresses problems faced by land managers and other restoration practitioners. Young et al. suggest that models of succession, community assembly and state transitions are an important component of ecological restoration, and that seed and recruitment limitation, soil processes and diversity-function relationships are also important.

The ‘new’ models referenced in the title of the book are ‘threshold’ or ‘regime shift’ ecosystem models. These models are ‘new’, the editors argue, in the sense that they contrast gradual continual models and stochastic models. Gradual continuous models are described as those that assume post-disturbance ecosystem recovery follows a continuous, gradual trajectory and are associated with classical, Clementsian theory that assumes steady, uni-directional change towards some single equilibrium state. Stochastic models assume exogenous drivers dominate the behavior of ecosystems to the extent that non-equilibrium and unstable systems states are the norm. Threshold models assume there are multiple (in contrast to the Clementsian view) stable (in contrast to the stochastic view) ecosystem states and represent changes from one relatively distinct system state to another as the result of small changes in environmental (driving) conditions. Thresholds and regime shifts are important to consider in restoration ecology as there may be thresholds in system states beyond which recovery to the previous (healthy) state is not possible.

Two types of threshold model are considered in New Models;

i) state-and-transition (S-T) models that represent multiple (often qualitative) stable states and the potential transitional relationships between those states (including the rates of transition), and

ii) alternative stable state (ASS) models which are a subset of S-T models and generally represent systems with fewer states and faster transitions (flips) between the alternative states.

For example, S-T models are often used to represent vegetation and land cover dynamics (as I did in the LFSM I developed to examine Mediterranean landscape dynamics), whereas ASS models are more frequently used for aquatic systems (e.g. lake ecosystems) and chemical/nutrient dynamics.

New Models focuses on use of these models in ecological restoration and provides an excellent introduction to key concepts and approaches in this field. Two of the six background chapters in this introduction address models and inference, two introduce transition theory and dynamics in lake and terrestrial ecosystems (respectively), and two discuss issues in social-ecological and rangeland systems. These background chapters are clear and concise, providing accessible and cogent introductions to the systems concepts that arise in the later case studies. The case studies present research and practical examples of threshold models in a range of ecosystems types – from arid, grassland, woodland and savanna ecosystems, though forest and wetland ecosystems, to ‘production landscapes’ (e.g. restoration following mining activities). Although the case study chapters are interesting examples of the current state of the use and practice of threshold modeling for ecological restoration, from my perspective there are certain issues that are insufficiently addressed. Notably, there is limited explicit consideration of spatial interactions or feedbacks between social and ecological systems.

For example, in their background chapter King and Whisenant highlight that many previous studies of thresholds in social-ecological systems have investigated an ecological system driven by a social system, ignoring feedbacks to the social components. Explicitly representing the links between social and ecological components in models does remain a daunting task, and many of the case studies continue in the same vein as the ‘uni-directional’ models King and Whisenant hint at (and I’ve discussed previously). The editors themselves highlight that detailed consideration of social systems is beyond the scope of the book and that such issues are addressed elsewhere (including in other volumes of the Ecological Restoration book series – Aronson et al.). However, representing human-environment feedbacks is becoming increasingly vital to ensure appropriate understanding of many environmental systems and their omission here may prove unsatisfactory to some.

A second shortcoming of the book, from the perspective of a landscape ecologist, is the general lack of consideration for spatial pattern and scaling and their influences on the processes considered in the case studies. In their background chapter on resilience theory and rangelands, Bestelmeyer et al. do highlight the importance of a landscape perspective and considering land as being a ‘state mosaic’, but only a single case study really picks up on these concepts in earnest (Cale and Willoughby). Other case studies do indirectly consider spatial feedbacks and landscape context, but explicit representation of relationships between spatial patterns and ecosystems processes is lacking.

However, these criticisms do need to be considered in light of the objectives of New Models. At the outset, the editors state that the book aims to collectively evaluate threshold modeling approaches as applied to ecological restoration – to examine when and where these models have been used, what evidence is used to derive and apply them, and how effective they are for guiding management. In their synthesis chapter the editors highlight that the models presented in the book have been used heuristically with little testing of their assumptions and ask; “Does this indicate an obvious gap between ecological theory and restoration practice?” For example, in their chapter on conceptual models for Australian wetlands, Sim et al. argue that the primary value of threshold models is to provide a conceptual framework of how ecosystems function relative to a variety of controlling variables. The editors’ suggestion is that restoration practitioners are applying models that work rather than “striving to prove particular elements” (of system function or ecological theory), and that maybe this isn’t such a bad approach given pressing environmental problems.

Potentially, this is a lesson that if landscape ecologists are to provide ecosystem managers and stewards with timely advice they may need to need to scale-back (i.e., reduce the complexity of) their modeling aims and objectives. Alternatively, we could view this situation as an opportunity for landscape ecologists to usefully contribute to advance the field of ecological restoration. Most likely it is indicative that where practical knowledge is needed quickly, simple models using established ecological theory and modelling tools are most useful. But in time, as our theoretical understanding and representation of spatial and human-environment interactions advances, these aspects will be integrated more readily into practical applications of modelling for ecological restoration.

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