Research Summaries

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Compiled by Alan Carpenter

BenDor, t., J. Sholtes, M. W. Doyle.
2009. Landscape characteristics of a stream and wetland mitigation banking program. Ecological Applications 19:2078-2092.

In the United States, stream restoration is an increasing part of environmental and land management programs, particularly under the auspices of compensatory mitigation regulations. Markets and regulations surrounding stream mitigation are beginning to mirror those of the well-established wetland mitigation industry. Recent studies have shown that wetland mitigation programs commonly shift wetlands across space from urban to rural areas, thereby changing the functional characteristics and benefits of wetlands in the landscape. However, it is not yet known if stream mitigation mirrors this behavior, and if so, what effects this may have on landscape-scale ecological and hydrological processes. This project addresses three primary research questions. (1) What are the spatial relationships between stream and wetland impact and compensation sites as a result of regulations requiring stream and wetland mitigation in the State of North Carolina? (2) How do stream impacts come about due to the actions of different types of developers, and how do the characteristics of impacts sites compare with compensation sites? (3) To what extent does stream compensation relocate high-quality streams within the river network, and how does this affect localized (intrawatershed) loss or gain of aquatic resources? Using geospatial data collected from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District, we analyzed the behavior of the North Carolina Ecosystem Enhancement Program in providing stream and wetland mitigation for the State of North Carolina. Our results suggest that this program provides mitigation (1) in different ways for different types of permittees; (2) at great distances (both Euclidean and within the stream network) from original impacts; (3) in significantly different places than impacts within watersheds; and (4) in many cases, in different watersheds from original impacts. Our analysis also reveals problems with regulator data collection, storage, and quality control. These results have significant implications given new federal requirements for ecological consistency within mitigation programs. Our results also indicate some of the landscape-scale implications of using market-based approaches to ecological restoration in general.

J. W. Matthews, G. Spyreas, A. G. Endress.
2009. Trajectories of vegetation-based indicators used to assess wetland restoration progress. Ecological Applications 19:2093-2107.

Temporal trends in attributes of restored ecosystems have been described conceptually as restoration trajectories. Measures describing the maturity or ecological integrity of a restoration site are often assumed to follow monotonically increasing trajectories over time and to eventually reach an asymptote representative of a reference ecosystem. This assumption of simple, predictable restoration trajectories underpins federal and state policies in the United States that mandate wetland restoration as compensation for wetlands damaged during development. We evaluated the validity of this assumption by tracking changes in 11 indicators of floristic integrity, often used to determine legal compliance, in 29 mitigation wetlands. Each indicator was expressed as a percentile relative to the distribution of that indicator among >100 naturally occurring reference wetlands. Nonlinear regression was used to fit two alternative restoration trajectories to data from each site: an asymptotic (negative exponential) increase in the indicator over time and a peaked (double exponential) relationship. Depending on the particular indicator, between 48% and 76% of sites displayed trends that were at least moderately well described (R2 > 0.5) by one of the two models. Floristic indicators based on species richness, including native richness, number of native genera, and the floristic quality index, rapidly increased to asymptotes exceeding levels in a majority of reference wetlands. In contrast, indicators based on species composition, including mean coefficient of conservatism and relative importance of perennial species, increased very slowly. Thus, some indicators of restoration progress followed increasing trajectories and achieved or surpassed levels equivalent to high-quality reference sites within five years, whereas others appeared destined to either not reach equivalency or to take much longer than mitigation wetlands are typically monitored. Finally, some indicators of restoration progress, such as relative importance of native species, often increased over the first five to 10 years and then declined, which would result in a misleading assessment of progress if based on typical time scales of monitoring. Therefore, the assumption of simple, rapid, and predictable restoration trajectories that underlies wetland mitigation policy is unrealistic.

J. W. Matthews, A. L. Peralta, D. N. Flanagan, P. M. Baldwin, A. Soni, A. D. Kent, A. G. Endress.
2009. Relative influence of landscape vs. local factors on plant community assembly in restored wetlands. Ecological Applications 19:2108-2123.

Ecological restoration often involves only the manipulation of abiotic factors at the local scale. However, processes external to a restoration site determine the range of local conditions within the site, constraining the level of restoration progress that can be achieved by on-site manipulations. We examined the relationship of landscape and local explanatory variables to plant species composition in 28 restored wetlands in Illinois, USA. Using constrained ordination combined with variation partitioning, we determined the independent and joint effects of three spatially hierarchical sets of variables: (1) macroscale landscape features reflecting site setting within regional landscapes, (2) mesoscale landscape features reflecting nearby propagule sources and buffers from disturbances, and (3) local environmental factors. Because the relative influence of landscape- vs. local-scale factors on restoration success may depend on particular restoration goals, we repeated the analyses using three multivariate plant community responses that represented three frequently stated goals: (1) replicating species composition, (2) restoring a particular wetland community type, and (3) constructing sites with high value for plant conservation. Explanatory variables at landscape and local scales had independent and nearly equally strong relationships to plant species composition. In contrast, when species were aggregated based on plant traits, the independent contribution of local predictors was greater than the independent contributions of macroscale or mesoscale landscape predictors, reflecting convergence of plant trait composition in sites with similar local conditions. Local predictors explained a significant amount of variation in plant conservation value among sites, but much of the variation could be explained by large-scale landscape setting, indicating that landscape constraints on local environmental conditions limited the level of floristic conservation value achievable. The appropriate scale at which to focus restoration efforts will vary depending upon restoration objectives. Restoration of particular wetland community types might be successfully achieved through manipulation of local abiotic factors. In contrast, restoration of a particular species assemblage or reconstruction of wetlands with high value for conservation requires consideration of landscape processes and available species pools.