Environmental conservation and restoration: what's the difference?

The terms ‘conservation’ and ‘restoration’ are sometimes used interchangeably when it comes to helping the environment. But did you know that environmental conservation and environmental restoration actually mean different things?

Read on to get the inside scoop.

Aerial image of a buggy parked on a hillside among young native trees. Older, established trees can be seen covering a hill in the background.

Young native trees in the foreground, older established trees in the background at this NSW Southern Highlands property. Credit Toby Peet.

What is environmental conservation?

Environmental conservation focuses on protecting, maintaining and enhancing the condition of an existing species, ecological community, ecosystem or landscape. Conservation areas are often chosen strategically, to protect threatened species or ecosystems from extinction, with land protected as a national park, nature reserve, covenant or similar.

Ideally, land managers undertake ongoing management and research of conservation areas to ensure they remain healthy and functioning and to prevent further loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function, e.g. feral species control, weed management and mitigation of fire and flood impacts.

A South-eastern Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo sits in a tree, eating.

Situated in the agricultural landscape of Victoria’s Wimmera region, the Bank Australia conservation reserve provides vital habitat for a variety of species, with a particular focus on supporting the threatened South-eastern Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo. Credit Jennifer Goldsworthy.

In Australia, about 22 percent of our land mass is protected for conservation, for example as an Indigenous Protected Area, national park or reserve, or privately protected area. The Australian Government has committed to a target of protecting and conserving 30 percent of land by 2030 (30×30) as a signatory to the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework.

Australians tend to understand environmental conservation. Protecting something beautiful and unique before it’s degraded or lost has been the focus of strong activism and action – such as around the proposed damming of the Franklin River, uranium mining of Jabiluka, and marina resort development in the Ningaloo Marine Park.

But then how is environmental restoration different?

What is environmental restoration?

In the environment sector, ‘restoration’ means the act of recovering species, ecosystems or landscapes that have been degraded or damaged, to re-establish habitat structure and function for species and communities to thrive.

So, while environmental conservation generally protects intact ecosystems, restoration seeks to return cleared land or degraded ecosystems to a condition or function comparable to that which would have been there prior to disturbance.

Through signing the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework, the Australian Government is also working towards adopting the target of restoring 30 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2030.

Badgebup Rangers plant seedlings into rows that have been directly seeded with native seeds for environmental restoration integrated into a farming property in Nyabing, Western Australia. Credit: Badgebup Aboriginal Corporation.

But, you might ask, if we just leave landscapes alone, won’t they repair themselves? That depends on the duration and intensity of disturbance. An ecosystem may be able to self-regenerate if pressures are removed (e.g. preventing animals from grazing and controlling weeds can allow native seed stored in the soil to germinate and grow).

Generally, though, cleared and degraded landscapes have been changed so much that they won’t regenerate without active help, and restoration activities need to be more hands-on (i.e. ecosystem reconstruction and facilitated regeneration).

Environmental restoration activities can include replanting of native species, invasive species management, fencing or tree guarding, and even earthworks to reinstate historic hydrology (e.g. wetlands). Ongoing monitoring and maintenance, particularly in the first few years, helps ensure that plantings establish and thrive.

A before and after photo of a hillside planting, showing growth between 2017 and 2019.

This project in Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges shows the impact restoration plantings can make within just a few years.

Restoration activities can deliver positive returns in a very short time frame in terms of soil condition, water quality and habitat provision, but developing ‘pre-disturbance’ ecosystem condition and function takes decades and may need further interventions – rewilding, for example, or reintroducing important ‘ecosystem engineer’ wildlife species.

As you can see, restoration is quite different to conservation.

Which is more important?

You might be wondering, ‘If ecosystems are far more quickly destroyed than recreated, why even bother to do restoration? Isn’t it more important to focus on conservation?’ But it’s not an either/or question – we must do both.

Since colonisation, many of Australia’s native vegetation communities have been completely cleared or heavily modified. Much of what remains is significantly fragmented or isolated – compromising the biodiversity capacity of these small patches and the resilience of any species found there.

Change in vegetation cover of south-west Western Australia. Source: Defining and Creating New Protected Areas in the South West Forests Beyond 2024

Plants and animals don’t see human-constructed boundaries. They don’t know what’s a protected area or not.

So for Australia’s landscapes to be healthy and self-sustaining, we need to both protect and conserve remnant vegetation and use restoration plantings to expand and connect those remnants, creating healthy networks of bushland refuges for our plants and animals and allowing for critical ecosystem functions (e.g. nutrient cycling, water retention, migration).

There are some great landscape-scale examples of this ‘yes, and’ approach in Australia, like the Gondwana Link and Great Eastern Ranges initiatives.

This is where Greening Australia’s Great Southern Landscapes, Reef Aid and Tasmania Island Ark programs sit too, where we work in partnership with First Nations Peoples, landholders, other environmental organisations and land managers like governments to restore degraded landscapes, integrate plantings into production systems, and link up and create habitat at the same time.

Three people stand outdoors in an environmental restoration planting, that is clearly creating a bushland corridor across an agricultural landscape with open fields in the distance.

Environmental conservation protects what remains. Restoration grows links between what remains to create landscapes where both people and nature thrive, as for this Greening Australia planting with a landholder in Tasmania’s Midlands. Credit Hayden Dib.

Beyond restoration to ecological renovation

The scale and pace of climate change means how we conserve and restore needs to evolve. In many cases ecosystems won’t be able to adapt to the speed or intensity of change, with flow-on impacts to communities and economies (more about this).

Helping nature prepare for and respond to climate change requires new interventions, new technologies, and new ways of thinking about restoration. We need to move past the aim of solely recovering ecosystems to their pre-disturbance state and focus on practical adaptation solutions with a view to establishing climate change resilience for the long-term.

In the sector, we call this ecological renovation.

A group of people outdoors watch a large drone in the distance.

Drones are among the innovative technological solutions being trialled to fast-track restoration and improve the climate resilience of Australian landscapes. Credit Toby Peet

Our collective approach to climate adaptation and ecological renovation must be science-led with a focus on conserving biodiversity, and it must draw on First Nations knowledge of Australia’s unique landscapes.

With the support of research providers, we can combine knowledge of climate-future models with plant characteristics to better predict and prepare for change. We can then use this knowledge to deliver on-ground action (e.g. using climate-ready seed and plants) and undertake replicated experiments across the country (e.g. climate future plots) to understand the appropriateness and effectiveness of our climate actions and ‘learn by doing’.

A stake beside a seedling holds up a tag with a QR code.

Several innovative climate-ready restoration approaches have been employed at Haining Farm in Victoria, including a climate future plot with QR-coded plants so visitors can feed into monitoring data.

Why the differences matter – and also don’t

Australia has a lot of environmental organisations and we know people sometimes find their different roles in the sector confusing. Viewing them on a ‘restorative continuum’ is one useful way of distinguishing between them, and understanding how and why they might work together.

Some organisations (and government departments) specialise in environmental conservation, holding and actively adding to portfolios of protected land that they monitor and conserve. They may engage in restoration activities in parts of their portfolios as well.

Other organisations specialise in restoration – like Greening Australia – planting native vegetation at scale to repair previously cleared or unproductive land and support biodiversity, capture carbon and create wildlife habitat. They may engage in conservation activities as well, as part of a holistic ecosystem approach, and may also incorporate ‘ecological renovation’ considerations as they consider future climates.

A WWF representative, a landholder, and a Greening Australia representative are walking through a hilly paddock that is dotted all over with tree guards.

Environmental organisations can combine strengths to make greater impact, as in this project between WWF-Australia and Greening Australia working with landholders on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. Credit WWF-Australia \ Think Mammoth.

It should also be noted that some environmental organisations focus on advocacy, rather than on-ground work. They work to raise awareness of environmental issues and promote solutions, putting pressure on those sectors linked to environmental degradation and lobbying government to implement sound environmental policies.

Environmental organisations also form networks and alliances around common positions and values to further their goals and amplify their voices. Two examples are the Australian Land Conservation Alliance and the Restoration Decade Alliance, of which Greening Australia is a member.

Long and short, whether their focus be environmental conservation, restoration, or advocacy, our environment needs all of these organisations and more. Only a multi-faceted approach can bring about the change we need to see on the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, and set Australia (and the world) on a path to a nature-positive future.

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