According to the SER, ecological restoration is “an intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability”. That is, ER is an empirical endeavor full of practical know-how.
Restoration ecology on the other hand is the theoretical or scientific corpus associated with the restoration practice. But they’re not the same “ting”. You may believe that the academic expert is likely to restore some land but give him the responsibility and he won’t have a clue what to do about it (most of the time).
Bradshaw has stated that “restoration is an acid test our ecological understanding”. I agree, but restoration practitioners don’t work applying abstract theories but instead they follow a simple heuristic that is usually forgotten: Observe nature.
We are relying on phenomenology, that is, the observation of empirical regularities to do our job. These regularities have now become part of the ecological corpus under names like the theory of succession which we use because we are educated.
I’m always amazed how rural people understand restoration very well. They tell you things like “Sir, I believe we should start using this plant it helps the soil after it’s gone and other plants to germinate” without any mentioning of succession or whatever. But they know what to do.
They know a lot more than the ecological restoration theorist with a PhD and dozens of articles who has never worked in a single project and has never planted a single tree. I try to stay away from people who never get their hands dirty.
My pledge is for a bottom-up approach were theories and articles come from the practice of restoration, not the other way around. I’m against the academics that are teaching-mother-nature-ecology and can’t do anything practical because they blow it up. Among research in restoration ecology, high practical relevance should be encouraged.
There is a logic to natural things that is much superior to our own, and nothing is more true that in the complex realm of ecology. We must fight against the notion of modernity and the believe that we have a large-scale understanding of the environment and we can control it. Because we don’t.
But we have enough knowledge to help overcome the barriers to succession and let nature do the rest of the job. That’s what real practitioners do.
Pd. For a more academic discussion on this topics read Clewell and Rieger (1997) ; Cabin (2007, 2011); Cabin et al. (2010)