5 key things to know about forest restoration

Forests cover 31% of land on Earth. Healthy, biodiverse forests are key to human health and wellbeing, filtering our air and water, providing food and medicine, capturing carbon, and offering places for recreation. Protecting our planet’s remaining forests and restoring them when they have been degraded, have become a big part of efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss with nature-based solutions. But there are complexities and nuances to forest restoration. Here are 5 key things that according to Dr. Leland Werden are often underestimated or little known about how forest restoration works:

1. Restoring forests not just for nature’s sake

The first & most crucial thing for any restoration project to do is to talk to the people living in the landscape and integrate them into the planning process. This should happen before projects begin: projects that are carefully planned not only can benefit the communities directly, but also have the highest chance of long-term success.

Restoration needs to benefit both nature and the people whose livelihoods depend on it.

2. Methods matter in forest restoration

When we think of forest restoration, the image of tree planting may quickly arise. But in fact, there is a spectrum of more assisted (e.g. planting or seeding) and more natural (i.e. letting a forest recover on its own) methodsAnd there are ways to restore forests to generate income for local communities. Such as with agroforestry (mixing trees and agricultural crops) or silvopastoralism (letting cattle graze around trees in a restored are in a sustainable manner).

Which method is best? That depends on environmental factors, but also on local societal needs. Using a mix of restoration approaches is likely best in most situations, as the surrounding communities are often dependent on the land potentially available for restoration.

3. The role of succession and biodiversity

Like us humans, forests mature and recover in several stages. This succession reflects various strategies of plants to grow and use resources: some only grow in bright, open environments, others only come in later when the first plants already cast shade for them to grow under. Succession is important for biodiversity: it is in these stages that biodiversity, not just that of plants, but also animals and other organisms, can slowly reassemble.

4. Forest restoration requires time

At times we underestimate how much time forest recovery can take. Forest structure and biomass can be restored fairly quickly through either assisted or natural recovery. But forests are not just a bunch of trees. Biodiversity and many ecosystem functions and interactions recover at a much slower rate: it takes hundreds of years sometimes.

5. It’s not about restoring the exact state prior to degradation

It is tempting to assume that the goal of forest restoration is to recover the exact state of the land prior to its degradation. However, that is all but impossible. Why? It’s hard to know what the land looked like prior in its entire complexity. Restored forests will almost always be more simple and less diverse than a forest that has not been as disturbed by humans.

But while it may be hard to restore all species originally present in a very complex system, we can focus on restoring certain species with important functions first, and build towards a more complex system over time!

We also need to restore forests for the local communities that depend on them. Certain species thus may need to be restored faster and a ‘pristine’, wild forest is not always the most useful when considering societal needs.

What’s next?

We hope that these points offer more nuances about forest restoration. It is complex, yes, but not impossible and for sure worth pursuing. As scientists, we aim to offer more insight into how best to restore forests. For example, we need to better understand why recovery rates of different aspects of forest function can vary so highly. To that end, we compare the same restoration methods across a network of sites. Most importantly, we need to know: what are the most feasible approaches for varying socio-economic contexts that can be scaled up to restore the world’s forests?