Some notes from an excellent event: the Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration 2016

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Text and photo by Klára Čámská, the Institute of Agricultural Economics and Information (ÚZEI), Prague.

The 10th European conference on ecological restoration was held in Freising in Germany, Bavaria, on August 22 – 26, 2016. The host was the Department of Ecology and ecosystem management, School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan, Technische Universität München. The quiet atmosphere of this old bishop town, the hospitality of the conference team and the excellent quality of the Bavarian beer were highly appreciated by approximately 300 participants, some of them coming from outside Europe. The PEGASUS project was also represented at the event by Klára Čámská and Jaroslav Parzan from the Institute of Agricultural Economics and Information in Czech Republic.

The conference titled “SER 2016 Best Practice in Restoration Ecology” covered a wide range of habitats: forests, agricultural land (cropland and grassland), peatland and fens, wetlands, rivers and floodplains, urban areas, sandy habitats and abandoned mines. From all the cases presented, the conference helped the Czech PEGASUS team to draw lessons as to what makes a restoration project successful. First there should be detailed information and knowledge about the state of degradation and ecosystem functions provided/underprovided. Second, there should be a clear understanding and agreement from stakeholders on which habitat/species/ecosystem function the project should target. The same goes for the methods to be used to carry out restoration works. A fourth important point (and central to the PEGASUS project) is to seek a good level of involvement of stakeholders in decision processes so that their ideas and preferences are heard. A cost benefit analysis of options is also useful. Finally, the realisation of the project should include a monitoring plan to assess the improvement in the state of the habitat, the species and/or the ecosystem functions provision targeted.  

 The conference of restoration ecology was a fascinating mix of theoretical and practical knowledge across a range of disciplines from natural sciences to social sciences or economics. The common aim was to find a way to meet the target to restore 15% of biodiversity degraded habitats in the EU by 2020 (Target 2 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy). It is an ambitious plan. For instance, the working group for ecological restoration in Finland evaluated the level of degradation of all its habitats and estimated the costs of meeting the 15% restoration target under three scenarios (2016-2050). In the first scenario, where all ecosystems are restored evenly, the costs would amount to €38.5 billion, i.e. €1.1 billion annually. In the prioritized scenario where restoration is carried out “at any cost”, this would amount to €22.8 billon, i.e. €0.7 billion annually. Finally, in the prioritized scenario where cost-efficiency is applied, this would be €18.0 billion, i.e. €0.5 billion annually (S. Kuusela, J. S. Kotiaho, A. Moilanen: Balancing costs and natural values in prioritization schemes – examples from the Finland prioritization plan; Session 17-03). What was interesting from an agri-environmental policy viewpoint is that agricultural land habitats in Finland are deemed 100% degraded and the costs for their restoration are the highest under the first scenario in the study. However, the priority of its restoration is considered low because those habitats tend to have a comparatively lower biodiversity than the others examined in the study while high management costs usually arise from their restoration. The study also presents a good example of how to meet the restoration target on forest land (A. Tolvanen: New approaches to reconsolidate restoration within the multiple land use scheme; Keynote).

In terms of agricultural habitats a close attention was paid on semi-natural grasslands, especially those with high natural value as defined by the EU Habitats Directive and the Natura 2000 network. The restoration projects presented at the conference were often funded under the European LIFE programme. Many projects focused on degraded grasslands. Grassland habitats degradation is caused by multiple factors: the intensification of agriculture (including ploughing during the socialist era, e.g. in White Carpathians species rich grasslands in the Czech Republic), the abandonment of land mostly due to political changes in the late 80s in Eastern Europe and/or economic drivers, as occurred notably in the steppe vegetation in the Hungarian Puszta or extensive grasslands in Estonia and Lithuania, and in the former East Germany military districts. The common positive element of the restoration projects is the great level of financial investments (buying or collecting the seed, landscaping, removal of shrubs, purchase fences and other equipment, etc.) and human/social capital (building project administration skills, learning complex approach and solution skills, building confidence among partners and stakeholders, dissemination activities etc.). A common weakness – according to me – is the uncertainty of the sustainability of the project results. The agri-environment and climate schemes funded under the Common Agricultural Policy can provide some guarantee as regards sustainability, but these schemes often lack adequate coordination and complementarity at the national and European levels. Another reason for increasing communication and coordination between the agri-environment and climate schemes and LIFE is that grassland restoration projects offer a rich reservoir for scientific research and practical experience in a variety of natural, environmental and social conditions and variations in the management.

The need of including both ecological and socio-economic incentives into any restoration project planning and to assess the economic value of the enhanced provision of ecosystem services were other topics presented and discussed in some of the presentations at the conference. For example, N. Hanley from Scotland, University of Stirling, showed in the keynote presentation Economic benefits and aims to restore habitat the principles and the possibilities of payments for ecosystem services. S. Swart and J. Zevenberg also presented Utilitarian and non-utilitarian valuation of nature and natural resources: A game-theoretical approach of valuation (Session 27-O1). Such topics provide an excellent background introduction to our poster presenting the PEGASUS project “Applying of Socio-ecological System for better understanding and delivery of public goods/ecosystem services: PEGASUS case studies in the Czech Republic” (K. Čámská and J. Pražan; Session 27-P3). It can be concluded that a further research of success factors and barriers of stakeholders’ involvement in activities beneficial to the environment improvement and multilateral dissemination and political discussion of the research results are still necessary. 

There were a lot of inspiring studies and projects presented in the conference, which also covered the identification and dynamics of the main factors causing habitat degradation, e.g. climate change, social and political changes. The PEGASUS team attending the conference would like to thank the organisers, especially Dr. J. Kollmann and Dr. J.-M. Hermann.