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  • On-the-Job Training for National Park StaffWhat They Need to Know about Ecological Restoration (Colombia)
  • Carolina Murcia (bio)

Last year, I led a 3.5-hour on-the-job course on ecological restoration as part of a two-week biological module of a post-baccalaureate program on protected area management in Colombia. The biological module included organismic, population, and landscape ecology and basic principles of conservation biology such as fragmentation, connectivity, rarity, and ecological integrity.

The 60 participants were administrative staff at National Park headquarters and field-based park directors and senior staff, who could not be absent from their positions for too long; thus the training had to be short but effective. While the average area manager is not responsible for designing or conducting restoration projects, each decides the need to restore and oversees project implementation within the local jurisdiction. Moreover, the participants included lawyers, engineers, social scientists, and biologists, with the last making up about one-third of the group. The challenge I faced was to select the most appropriate take-home messages for their level of responsibility, while dealing with the disparity in basic ecological knowledge among this multidisciplinary group. Based on an analysis of what [End Page 139] worked, I propose four key issues that need to be addressed and discussed within this context.

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Figure 1.

Model of ecosystem degradation and restoration (Parks Canada Agency 2008, as adapted from Hobbs and Harris 2001), used to illustrate several concepts during the on-the-job course for park staff in Colombia. Reproduced with permission of Parks Canada Agency.

  • Disturbance and when it requires restoration. The challenge of managing a protected area is that its ecosystems and landscapes are dynamic, often changed by natural disturbance—that is, discrete events in time and space, occurring without human intervention, that disrupt ecosystem, community, or population structure and change resources or the physical environment (White and Pickett 1985). Ecosystems are also subject to human-mediated disturbances that cause temporary or permanent change. The challenge for managers is to distinguish which changes require an intervention to restore the ecosystems and landscapes. This requires some basic understanding of the ecosystems at hand, the surrounding landscape, the spectrum of natural variation in time and space, and the fundamental processes involved in ecological succession in the management areas. Participants appreciated the conceptual model of ecosystem degradation and restoration presented in the Principles and Guidelines for Ecological Restoration (Parks Canada Agency 2008) (Figure 1). Engineers, in particular, related to the concept of energy associated with each successional stage and the amount required to move among stages. For people from other disciplines, energy could be equated to effort, time, or funding.

  • Appropriate reference ecosystem. Restoration projects are defined by the reference ecosystem, which is often an ideal, modeled after one or more mature ecosystems or their descriptions, and based upon a series of hoped-for attributes at the end of the restoration process (Clewell and Aronson 2007, 75). In regions where the natural ecosystems have effectively disappeared, it is critical to carefully define the reference, and the criteria must be well grounded and explicit. In National Parks where, by definition, conserving natural ("pristine") areas is the raison d'être, the discussion may appear to be less critical or controversial. However, global change is redrawing the geographical boundaries of communities, ecosystems, and landscapes, as species move to adjust to new climates (e.g., Harris et al. 2006). At the current rate of climate change, and given that tropical forest ecosystems take almost a century to reach maturity, by the time the first hardwood canopy trees start reproducing, conditions may have changed drastically in the park, preventing the offspring's survival. In this context, any restoration inside a national park must include careful consideration of what reference ecosystem to use.

  • Ecological succession, drivers and arrestors, and the role of individual species. It cannot be assumed that all biologists fully understand the concept of succession in spite of the simplicity of its definition—the changes in an ecological community after a disturbance has opened up a large space (Connell and Slatyer 1977, 1119). In addition, the concept has evolved, along with our...


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