Tree planting and ecosystem restoration: a crash course

Tree planting and ecosystem restoration: a crash course

Faced with the climate and biodiversity emergencies, the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The goal is to ramp up efforts to reverse centuries of damage to forests, wetlands and other ecosystems. Getting it right will be key to putting the planet back on a sustainable course.

Tree planting as a way to restore local ecosystems has already captured the imagination of many people. Trees are astonishing. They capture carbon from the atmosphere, protect and fertilize soils, supply firewood and timber, and harbour many of the planet’s animals, birds and insects. The cultural, spiritual and recreational role of forests make them even essential for human well-being.

The new enthusiasm for trees is welcome. Individuals and organizations can make an impact through tree planting on various scales. However, tree planting for social good is not as simple as it sounds.

Here are five basic rules for getting it right.

1. Consider the roots

Planting trees is likely to benefit people and nature in most situations. But it might not halt the degradation that has prompted you to act. Deforestation can result from many factors, including ignorance, poverty, market forces, political interests, weak regulations or a lack of capacity to enforce them. As well as planting trees, consider if you can tackle the root causes and protect existing forests and woodlands.

2. Work with nature

Trees are most likely to thrive in places where they are used to growing naturally. For this reason, it is usually best to plant trees on former forest land. The worst option is to convert other natural ecosystems such as grasslands, peatlands or wetlands to forest. These are also threatened habitats that need protection. Secondly, use native tree species. These are adapted to the local climate and soil, and likely support far more biodiversity than exotic species. Once established, native trees will spread naturally if there is space. A mix of species brings more benefits.

3. Work with people

Gaining access to good locations for tree planting and ensuring those trees can grow undisturbed may require the support and agreement of others, from officials and community leaders to farmers and other land users. Stakeholder forums are a key feature of successful restoration projects. In larger-scale efforts, a landscape approach can help maximize the benefits and avoid trade-offs between different interests.

4. Ask an expert

There are thousands of experts around the world who have dedicated their professional lives to the protection and restoration of ecosystems, and who can provide advice on where and how tree planting can be helpful—ask them! See a list of expert networks below—there might be one near you. Also, use the further guidance below to read up on the topic and join the growing network of people working to find the best way forward.

5. Plan ahead and be patient

Restoring degraded ecosystems can yield steady improvements over long timeframes. It is a process, rather than an end goal. You can measure your success by identifying a few key indicators that are important to local communities. Taking time to plan will avoid costly mistakes. Economists estimate that investments in ecosystem restoration can generate multiple benefits for societies worth US$10 for every US$1 invested.

Sounds complicated? Don’t be discouraged—it is doable, and it is worth it! Start small, and work from there, joining forces with others. You are not alone! Join your efforts with many others under the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, and let us and others know what you are doing and what you are learning.

Expert networks:

The Society for Ecological Restoration as well as its regional chapters, thematic sections and student associations

Members of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration

Guidance on restoration and tree planting:

Overall principles are available from the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (p. 18-19) and the Society for Ecological Restoration

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has published a toolbox on sustainable forest management and guidance on planted forests

Chicago Wildnerness is an example of a regional organization providing practical restoration advice that can be relevant also in other places. There is perhaps a similar group in your region.

Nature Education provides an introduction to the science of restoration ecology.

Groasis has prepared a checklist for the careful preparation of restoration projects.