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date: 19 June 2021

Economics of Ecological Restorationfree

Economics of Ecological Restorationfree

  • Md Sayed IftekharMd Sayed IftekharGriffith University
  •  and Maksym PolyakovMaksym PolyakovManaaki Whenua – Landcare Research


Ecological restoration is a complex activity that requires integrating biophysical, social, and economic factors. It requires the engagement of various stakeholders with potentially competing interests and goals. Economists have developed methods to elicit peoples’ values and preferences related to restoration. These economic tools provide information that allows decision makers to better understand how to best allocate scarce resources among alternative restoration projects and activities. The field of restoration economics can be traced back to the 1970s, but it did not gain popularity until the late 2000s. A review of the literature indicates that only about 6% of academic papers on ecological restoration have used economic tools and instruments.

Economic tools and instruments can be applied at five stages of a restoration project: (a) understanding the causes and processes of degradation, (b) setting restoration targets and policies, (c) project planning and prioritization, (d) project implementation, and (e) ex-post assessment and evaluation of restoration outcomes. Generally speaking, economic tools and analysis are not extensively applied in all five stages of a restoration project, which potentially limits the effectiveness of investment. Several strategies can be applied to strengthen restoration science and practices, which include the incorporation of economic analysis into the planning of ecological restoration projects, reducing the cost of economic data collection and analysis, addressing social values, establishing links between the causes of degradation and restoration outcomes, understanding of the alignment of incentives and motives, and assessment of large-scale and long-term impacts of restoration projects.


  • Environmental Economics


Anthropogenic impacts are contributing to the rapid degradation of global biodiversity and natural ecosystems. To return these degraded ecosystems to their historic ecological path (trajectories), many governments have adopted restoration policies (Clewell & Aronson, 2006). Restoration projects are generally implemented with the primary aim of achieving ecological objectives. However, the importance of considering the broader benefits of restoration is gradually becoming prominent as factors such as population growth, urban expansion, and increased food demand necessitate the need for restoration solutions that integrate socioeconomic considerations (Miller & Hobbs, 2007). There is a growing apprehension that restoration practitioners are failing to demonstrate the overall societal benefits of restoration projects (Aronson et al., 2010).

Recognizing these deficiencies, international and national policies are being developed to highlight the socioeconomic aspects of restoration projects (Pistorius & Freiberg, 2014). For example, the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030 declaration highlighted the potential return on investment from restoration activities (United Nations, 2019). In addition, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has developed a separate policy brief on the economics of forestland restoration (IUCN, 2020), and the World Resource Institute (WRI) has a current project targeting the “Restoration Economy” (WRI, 2016). In Australia, the National Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration identifies social aspects as being of critical importance and one of their Six Key Principles for successful restoration (Standards Reference Group SERA, 2017). These initiatives highlight the need to incorporate social science, particularly, economics, into restoration science.

The economics of restoration is emerging as a new field of inquiry with the objective of integrating economics with restoration science and practices (Blignaut, 2017). A number of papers have examined how the application of economic tools and principles could enhance restoration science and practices (e.g., Blignaut et al., 2014; Blignaut & Moolman, 2006; Bullock et al., 2011; Holl & Howarth, 2000; Iftekhar et al., 2016, 2017). This article makes three contributions that build on past investigations. First, the literature on the economics of ecological restoration is analyzed to understand the trends and primary economic themes. Previously, Blignaut et al. (2014) conducted a similar trend analysis. However, they did not particularly focus on economic themes. The second contribution is the development of a succinct understanding of how the application of economic principles and tools at various stages of a restoration project could enhance the effectiveness of these programs. Finally, some future research directions are identified.

Trends in the Restoration Economics Literature

Modern ecological restoration is associated with ideas of Aldo Leopold, who began promoting ideas of restoring land in the early 1900s. The practice and science were formalized by the establishment of the Society for Ecological Restoration in 1988, and two dedicated journals: Ecological Restoration (formerly Restoration & Management Notes) in 1981 and Restoration Ecology in 1993 (Vaughn et al., 2010). Ecological restoration is a complex enterprise that depends on the interaction of biophysical, social, political, and economic factors. However, in the early years, academic literature primarily examined the biophysical and ecological aspects. The earliest studies to incorporate economics in ecological restoration estimated the benefits and quantified the costs of this work (Anderson, 1989; King, 1991).

To trace the integration of economics into ecological restoration literature, a bibliographic analysis was carried out using academic articles on ecological restoration and economics of ecological restoration listed in the Scopus bibliographic database. Following Blignaut et al. (2014), two sets of keywords were used to select a set of papers on ecological restoration and a subset of papers on economics of ecological restoration. A review of the samples from the selected set and subset revealed that a substantial proportion of articles are not related to ecological restoration (or economics of ecological restoration). Furthermore, a number of articles on either topic known to the authors were not in the selected set and subset. To alleviate the first problem, two-word combinations were used, for example, “ecological restoration” instead of “ecology” and “restoration,” or “economic benefits” instead “economic.” To alleviate the second problem, additional pairs of words were included in the search to account for restoration in specific ecosystems or landscapes or particular economic methods and techniques used in ecological restoration. This process was repeated iteratively until the search produced satisfactory results.

The set of keywords and key phrases to identify publications related to ecological restoration was ). The search was done on August 15, 2020, and resulted in 16,774 journal articles, with the earliest publication dated 1974.

The set of keywords and key phrases to identify publications related to economics in a context of ecological restoration was . This search yielded 985 documents.

This process has its limitations because academic papers do not necessarily contain keywords describing a broader topic (such as ecological restoration or economics of ecological restoration) in the title, abstract, or list of keywords. Therefore, search results may have both false positives and false negatives. However, these results can be used to describe the trend and composition of the academic published literature on the topic.

Overall, only about 6% of papers on ecological restoration make use of economic approaches or methods. Figure 1 presents the trend of ecological restoration publications with and without economics. Most of the ecological restoration papers, which include economic analysis, were published after 2010. The proportion of papers using economic approaches and methods increased from 3% in the 1980s to 6.5% in the 2010s.

Figure 1. Number of papers published in each year with a breakdown of those that include economic approaches.

Four important themes were identified in the set of papers on the economics of ecological restoration. These themes include costs, benefits (including nonmarket valuation), project planning or prioritization (including payment for or financing of restoration), and project assessment and evaluation. The subsets representing each of the themes were identified by including the following additional constraints, respectively, costs: ; benefits and valuation: ; planning and prioritization: ; and assessment: .

Figure 2 presents the dynamics of themes. If a paper was assigned to several themes, fractions to themes are used, so the sum of weights is equal to the number of papers. The proportion of themes remains approximately similar over time, although planning and prioritization increased at a greater rate than the other three themes. However, Figure 3 shows that three-quarters of papers on restoration economics cover multiple themes, and approximately 17% of papers include all four major themes. Nearly half of all papers include Costs and Benefits (Themes 1 and 2), 41% include Prioritization and Assessment (Themes 3 and 4), and one-third of articles include Benefits and Assessment (Themes 2 and 4).

Figure 2. The number of papers on the economics of ecological restoration by year and theme.

Figure 3. Venn diagram of major themes in papers on economics of ecological restoration. The numbers in each circle indicate the number of papers; the numbers in parentheses are theme numbers.

The remainder of this section categorizes the seminal papers according to the four themes. These papers were identified as either the most highly cited papers or as the first to comprehensively cover important concepts.

Costs of Ecological Restoration

One of the first authors to comprehensively discuss the place of economics in ecological restoration was King (1991), who highlighted the importance of estimating and publishing costs of ecological restoration to facilitate project selection and development of the ecological restoration industry. Zavaleta (2000) conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the ecological restoration of ecosystems invaded by invasive shrubs. Bernhardt et al. (2005) developed a method for the unbiased collection and cataloging of river restoration projects in the United States. They constructed a national database that included actual or estimated restoration costs and other information about the projects. The paper concluded that documentation of the implementation and outcome of projects is lacking and that low-cost projects usually do not report monitoring results.

Benefits of Ecological Restoration

Loomis et al. (2000) conducted one of the first studies to evaluate the benefits of ecological restoration for a section of a river. They were also among the first to use the concept of ecosystem services in the context of ecological restoration. Jenkins et al. (2010) assessed the value of restoring forested wetlands via the U.S. government’s Wetlands Reserve Program in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley by quantifying and monetizing ecosystem services. Birch et al. (2010) examined the potential impact of forest restoration on the value of multiple ecosystem services across four dryland areas in Latin America. They estimated the net value of ecosystem service benefits under different reforestation scenarios and found that passive restoration is cost-effective for all study areas. In contrast, the benefits from the active restoration are generally outweighed by the relatively high costs involved. Aronson et al. (2010) analyzed ecological restoration literature and concluded that socioeconomic benefits are not adequately quantified. Elmqvist et al. (2015) used meta-analysis to estimate the monetary value of the benefits of ecosystem services in urban areas. This analysis showed that investing in ecological restoration and rehabilitation in urban areas may not only be ecologically and socially desirable but also, quite often, economically advantageous, even based on the most traditional economic approaches.

Planning and Prioritization of Ecological Restoration

One of the first studies to incorporate economic components into the spatial planning of ecological restoration was Crossman and Bryan (2009). They developed a method to identify geographic hotspots for ecological restoration to achieve more cost-effective restoration of natural capital and to stimulate landscape multifunctionality. Bullock et al. (2011) explored whether funding for ecological restoration could be provided by markets for ecosystem services. Holl and Howarth (2000) contemplated how ecological and economic considerations should be balanced in determining expenditures on restoration projects and how society will afford to pay for the substantial costs involved in ecological restoration projects. Blignaut et al. (2014) broadened the definition of ecological restoration, describing it as a set of activities that integrate investment in natural capital stocks to improve the flows of ecosystem services and the preservation of biodiversity, while enhancing all aspects of human well-being. They also suggested that planning of ecological restoration should go beyond benefit-cost analysis and incorporate system dynamics approaches and other structured tools and techniques.

Assessment and Evaluation of Ecological Restoration Projects

Rey Benayas et al. (2009) systematically evaluated the effectiveness of restoration actions in the increasing provision of both biodiversity and ecosystem services. They found that ecological restoration projects reported in academic literature increased the provision of biodiversity and ecosystem services by 44% and 25%, respectively. However, values of both biodiversity and ecosystem services remained lower in restored versus intact reference ecosystems. They recommended that restoration actions focused on enhancing biodiversity should support the increased provision of ecosystem services. Lü et al. (2012) used changes in four key ecosystem services from 2000 to 2008 to determine the effects of the Chinese government’s ecological restoration initiatives, which were implemented in 1999. They found that positive policy results had been achieved, but they also identified the need for an adaptive management approach to regional ecological rehabilitation policy with a focus on the dynamic interactions between people and their environments in a changing world. Wortley et al. (2013) analyzed trends in the evaluations of ecological restoration projects. There are only a very small number of studies that included any measure of socioeconomic attributes as criteria of success.

A Framework of the Economics of Ecological Restoration

As shown in the section “Trends in the Restoration Economics Literature,” economics of ecological restoration covers many important aspects of ecological restoration literature. This section reviews how economic tools, principles, and techniques have been applied to ecological restoration and identifies how the application of these tools could further strengthen restoration science and practices. The ecological restoration planning and implementation cycle proposed by Hobbs and Norton (1996) was modified for this analysis. Figure 4 presents the modified cycle with its focus on economic questions, methods, and techniques applicable at each step. The discussion section is organized in terms of five distinct stages of restoration planning: (a) understanding the causes and processes of degradation; (b) setting restoration goals; (c) project prioritization; (d) project implementation, and (e) ex-post assessment and evaluation.

Figure 4. Restoration planning cycle and the key application areas for economic tools and instruments.

Understanding the Causes and Processes of Degradation

For the restoration effort to be successful, it is essential to understand the factors that led to the degradation in the first place. Economic analysis can aid in understanding the underlying and proximate causes of degradation as anthropogenic economic activities are the major drivers of the degradation of natural systems. At a global level, financial growth, changing consumption patterns, structural transformation, and inequity in wealth distribution have been identified as the main economic drivers of ecosystem degradation (Nelson et al., 2006). On a national scale, these factors can manifest in various forms. For example, Hosonuma et al. (2012) have identified agriculture (commercial and subsistence), mining, infrastructure, and urban expansion as the main drivers of deforestation, and timber logging, uncontrolled fire, livestock grazing, fuelwood, and charcoal collection as the main causes of forest degradation in developing countries. However, these studies are often not directly linked with restoration literature.

At a local level, lack of institutional structure, secured tenure, and financial motivations contribute to ecosystem degradation. Without proper institutional setup, management of common-pool resources could fail. Even in areas with secure property rights, private landholders are predominantly motivated by financial reasons to clear natural vegetation on their property. Further, perverse outcomes of government policies could lead to degradation. For example, Simmons et al. (2018) found that preemptive panic clearing of natural vegetation on the eve of the declaration of a native vegetation act has been observed in both New South Wales and Queensland, Australia, and highlighted the need to understand how national or state-level policy drivers can influence degradation at the local level. In such situations, even if restoration projects are undertaken, they may not be sustainable in the long term.

Setting Restoration Targets and Policies

Restoration projects are undertaken for various reasons (Davies, 2011; Ostergren et al., 2008), and Clewell and Aronson (2006) offered a typology of five motivations: technocratic, biotic, heuristic, idealistic, and pragmatic. Technocratic restoration projects are undertaken by government agencies or large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to meet an institutional commitment. Biotic restoration projects aim to restore lost biodiversity, genetic resources, and local rare and endangered species. Heuristic reasons include the desire to derive and test ecological principles. Idealistic motivations are related to attachment or place-making value to a site, system, or biota. Pragmatic reasons are likely to be linked to economics and could entail retrieving lost natural capital or working toward climate change amelioration. A single restoration project could be planned and implemented for multiple reasons and to achieve multiple socioeconomic and environmental goals (Ager et al., 2017; Vogler et al., 2015).

Whatever may be the purpose of restoration, both scientific knowledge and public perception may influence the public agenda for setting restoration goals and targets. Public preferences are often directly incorporated in restoration planning. Some studies have investigated people’s preferences for different restoration options (Garcia et al., 2020, Wortley et al., 2013). For example, De Valck et al. (2014) found that in Flanders, Belgium, people were supportive of converting plantations into naturalized forests if they increased landscape diversity and species richness. Following this finding, the authors suggested adopting a small-scale cut. In another study, Shoyama et al. (2013) found that in Hokkaido, Japan, people were motivated by the protection of species over climate mitigation options if it involved the management of forests for carbon sequestration. Therefore, the authors recommended including species protection as one of the project goals even if the primary purpose of the venture is to sequester carbon.

In practice, it is common to seek public input through engagement with expert and/or ideologically dominated panels with a minority of public representation and inviting public comments after the plans are developed. Democratic scoping of public preferences obtained via surveys conducted in the early stages of planning is less common. In fact, none of the literature reviewed for this article included studies where agencies assessed the public’s preferences for restoration options before developing policies and projects. Potential misalignment between government priorities and public preferences could jeopardize the long-term success of restoration projects.

Project Planning and Prioritization

Currently, the decision to pursue restoration projects is driven primarily by restoration goals and policy targets (Bullock et al., 2011), although economic tools and instruments have been used, to some extent, for assessment and prioritization. There are three main areas where economics has contributed to project assessment and prioritization: (a) estimation of costs and cost-effectiveness; (b) benefit assessment; and (c) benefit-cost analysis.

Estimation of Costs and Cost-Effectiveness Analysis

Studies that rely on systematic decision-making frameworks to prioritize restoration and/or environmental protection sites often include cost (or a cost proxy) in the prioritization process. The objective of these analyses is to select a set of restoration sites at the least cost or maximize the number of sites restored or protected within a given budget (Adame et al., 2015; Bryan et al., 2011; Crossman & Bryan, 2006; Wilson et al., 2011). The common metric used in these papers is the amount of money spent to achieve a unit of environmental benefits. Environmental benefits are expressed in various ways, such as habitat area, number of species, reduction of risk, or environmental benefits score (Iftekhar et al., 2012a, 2012b). There are several reasons for incorporating cost information into the prioritization process. First, administrative organizations often have readily available detailed information about project expenditure and costs. Second, budgets for restoration programs are often set before undertaking the project, which makes it easier to incorporate costs in the decision-making process. Third, proxies for costs (such as area) are often used in the prioritization process. It is often easy to get information on such proxies. Finally, information to develop appropriate benefit metrics (e.g., nonmarket values of restorations) is often difficult to obtain as compared to cost details. This lack of benefit information often forces the agencies to apply cost-effectiveness analysis.

There are several limitations to relying purely on cost-effectiveness analysis for prioritization of restoration projects (Eiswerth et al., 2018). First, the cost data included in these analyses are often not comprehensive and do not consider all types of costs. For example, Iftekhar et al. (2019) identified that five types of costs could be associated with a biodiversity offset project: acquisition cost, opportunity cost, management cost, transaction costs, and indirect costs to other areas or sectors. However, based on a review of Australian biodiversity offset literature, the authors found that (a) cost information is not often reported in the literature and (b) where it is reported, it is not properly justified. Therefore, it is typical for the money allocated to restoration projects to only encompass the minimum amount required to reclaim the ecosystem. The other types of costs, and therefore the full cost of recovery, are often not considered (Holl & Howarth, 2000). Second, cost-based analysis and project assessment often fail to consider appropriate counterfactual scenarios. For example, the true costs of restoration should be the difference between costs with the project and current costs without the project. However, often the cost with the project is included and the latter part is ignored. Finally, by focusing only on cost and not including the monetized value of benefits, it is not possible to understand whether the restoration project is or is not improving social welfare. Even when information on benefits is included, it may not include the counterfactual of costs. For example, one of the longest-running ecological restoration programs in the United States, established under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, evaluates and ranks the cost-efficacy of ecological restoration based on the net comparison of a “future with project” and a “future without project” approach. However, their counterfactuals are limited to the benefits (habitat units) and do not consider the counterfactual of costs (environmental, opportunity, etc.; Merino et al., 2011).

Estimation of Benefits

Most of the benefits generated by restoration projects are intangible. Therefore, there is no reliable market price that could be directly used for assessing the benefits of such projects. However, environmental economists have developed a range of nonmarket valuation techniques that could be used to estimate the value of a restoration project. These techniques can be divided into four broad groups: revealed preference, stated preference, benefit transfer, and other methods.

Revealed preference techniques involve the analysis of observed behavior to understand people’s preferences or values of a good or service. For example, using hedonic analysis for house purchasing decisions, researchers use data on the prices paid for the houses, as well as the house characteristics and proximity to environmental amenities, to estimate the premium people pay to live close to an amenity (Ma, 2018). The estimated premium is the nonmarket value of the amenity and could be translated as the benefit of restoring that amenity. Using the hedonic pricing analysis technique, Polyakov et al. (2017) found that there had been an average 4.7% uplift in property prices within 200 meters of an urban drainage restoration project in Perth, Western Australia. Another revealed preference method that can be used is travel cost analysis. This uses travel expenditure data, such as the money or time someone will pay to visit a place (e.g., a national park), to understand the value of that amenity. Revealed preference methods are considered to be reliable because they utilize observation behavior. However, they can only capture the use-value part of a project’s total value and cannot be used to estimate people’s preference or values for hypothetical scenarios. The review of the literature has indicated that not many studies have used revealed preference techniques to estimate the value of a restoration project.

Stated preference techniques can assess nonmarket values of hypothetical scenarios, including both use and nonuse values. These techniques rely on surveying people to understand their preferences in theoretical situations (Arrow et al., 1993). Contingent valuation and choice experiments are the two main methods for developing these values. In a contingent valuation study, people are asked directly about their willingness to pay for achieving a positive change or improvement to a site or policy (Haab et al., 2020). For example, using the contingent valuation method, Gregg and Wheeler (2018) found that people were willing to pay $19.64 to protect and restore the Parrakie wetlands in South Australia. In choice experiments, the improvement scenario is split into individual attributes and features. Different combinations of these attributes are presented, and people are asked to identify their preferred options from a given set. Researchers use their responses to estimate people’s willingness to pay for specific attributes, as well as for the overall restoration option. Van Bueren and Bennett (2004) used choice experiments to determine values of river restoration and found that people were willing to pay $0.13 per household per year per 10 kilometers of waterways restored for fishing or swimming in the Great Southern Region of Western Australia and the Fitzroy Basin Region of Central Queensland. They also determined that household willingness to pay for land restoration in the regions was $0.11 per household per annum per 10,000 hectares of farmland repaired and bushland protected. Other examples of using stated preference techniques to assess the nonmarket values of improving or restoring natural systems include Blamey et al. (1999), Herath (1999), Rolfe and Windle (2012), Brent et al. (2017), and Matzek et al. (2019). Compared to the revealed preference approach, stated preference methods are more flexible. However, due to their hypothetical nature, they are considered less reliable (Hausman, 2012).

Benefit transfer techniques rely on the nonmarket values collected from other primary studies and appropriately adjusted to apply to a new context. They are useful when time and resource constraints impede the collection of primary nonmarket valuation data. Many NGOs and volunteer groups involved with restoration have limited budget and capacity to conduct valuation studies. Therefore, nonmarket benefits are often only mentioned in the reports and are not taken fully into account when making planning and priority decisions. Benefit transfer techniques can be a low-cost option to estimate the monetized value of ecosystem benefits (Iftekhar et al., 2020).

However, due to the apparent simplicity, there is a risk of abuse of “benefit transfer” techniques. Agencies or researchers might extrapolate existing values to a new context without appropriate adjustment (Iftekhar et al., 2020). Like any nonmarket valuation techniques, benefit transfer techniques should be applied properly. Issues like sample selection criteria, primary data heterogeneity, heteroskedasticity, and nonindependence of multiple observations from primary studies should be considered (Johnston & Rosenberger, 2010; Nelson & Kennedy, 2009).

There are other valuation techniques that rely on different types of data to estimate benefits. Many of these methods turn avoided costs of degradation into benefits. For example, the avoidance cost method estimates benefits as the cost of mitigating the adverse impact of a loss of resources. Another technique, the coping cost method, estimates the costs of managing the loss of a resource (Amit & Sasidharan, 2019). The dose-response method examines environmental impacts and estimates the loss from degradation (Gunawardena et al., 2020).

Existing nonmarket valuation techniques are not without challenges. Revealed preference methods rely on existing data, and therefore have limited application in estimating values of future restoration projects. The scenarios presented in stated preference surveys often have limited ecological realism, which makes the values derived from these studies difficult to apply when assessing a real-world restoration project. In a review of ecological indicators used in stated preference surveys, Schultz et al. (2012) found that only about one-third of the 20 indicators met all four desirable criteria: measurable, interpretable, applicable, and comprehensive. Another limitation is the challenge of valuing complex ecological processes and accounting for the interdependencies among different ecosystem services. Therefore, the values estimated using these techniques are often partial and do not provide comprehensive total economic value (Turner et al., 2016). However, this is an active field of research, and much progress is being made toward improving the reliability of nonmarket valuation techniques (Johnston et al., 2017). Despite these limitations, nonmarket values do provide a broader understanding of restoration benefits and should be included in the benefits assessment if possible.

Benefit-Cost Analysis of Restoration Projects

Policymakers and agencies are required to select the most appropriate restoration projects. Often a benefit-cost analysis framework is used to assess the potential effectiveness of a restoration project, even though comprehensive benefit-cost analyses of restoration projects are rare (De Groot et al., 2013). Some studies have conducted benefit-cost analyses of land degradation prevention in terms of cost of action versus cost of inaction (Nkonya et al., 2016). However, these types of studies often rely on a cost-based approach and do not include monetized value of benefits.

Restoration projects have several characteristics that make conducting a proper benefit-cost analysis necessary. For example, the costs of restoration projects are often incurred upfront, whereas most of the restoration benefits have a significant lag period. Some of the benefits could take a very long time. In such cases, the selection of an appropriate discount rate to calculate the present value of restoration benefits is important. Further, various types of risks and uncertainties (mechanical, hydrologic, environmental) could make the restoration outcomes uncertain (Caffey et al., 2014). A benefit-cost analysis framework allows these factors to be considered simultaneously when assessing the economic value of a restoration project.

Meyer et al. (1995) was one of the earliest studies to conduct a benefit-cost analysis of a restoration project that incorporated nonmarket values of restoration options. Their benefit-cost analysis included several market and nonmarket benefits of removing dams from the Elwha River in the United States. The study concluded that total benefits did exceed the costs of restoration, with nonmarket benefits making up a large share of the total benefit. McDonald and Johns (1999) provided an example of another benefit-cost analysis focusing on watershed restoration projects. Birch et al. (2010) reported on the benefit-cost analysis of three restoration scenarios in four dryland areas in Latin America. They were able to identify areas where restoration projects would likely have a positive net benefit. Benefit-cost analyses have also been conducted for restoration projects focused on riparian ecosystems (Holmes et al., 2004), mangrove restoration (Stone et al., 2008), river restoration (Lee, 2012), urban stream restoration (Becker et al., 2019; Kenney et al., 2012), and pastureland (Goldstein et al., 2008).

These studies highlighted the reasons for conducting more benefit-cost analysis of restoration projects. First, comparing benefits and costs indicates whether or not a project will improve social welfare. This is important to establish the value of investing in restoration projects versus other sectors. Second, benefit-cost analysis allows a more direct comparison between multiple projects or restoration plans to select the most beneficial option. Finally, it provides a systematic assessment framework with proper consideration of counterfactual conditions, risk, uncertainty, and multifunctional benefits and costs.

Project Implementation

Many stakeholder groups may be involved with the implementation of a restoration project: public agencies, NGOs, private landholders, and businesses. These groups often have different or competing priorities and objectives. For example, public agencies, who are responsible for managing and implementing restoration projects on public lands are usually motivated to match restoration activities with the budget allocated for the projects (Zhang, 2017). Conversely, national and international NGOs often priorities restoration projects that align with their institutional goals and objectives. Community groups and organizations are often formed to restore ecosystems of local cultural and historical significance. Despite differing motivations, often, these agencies work together to achieve a common restoration goal. Iftekhar et al. (2017) identified several funding and financing strategies that could be applied for interagency collaboration: working with existing funding arrangements, developing synergy with preexisting programs, financing through taxation, public-private partnerships, offsetting, and volunteerism.

Private landholders play an important role in many land-based restoration projects. There have been many studies focused on the motivations or factors affecting private landholder engagement in restoration and environmental protection activities (Morris & Potter, 1995). These studies relied on two sources of information: revealed and stated preferences. Studies relying on revealed or observed data usually aim to describe the socioeconomic characteristics of participating and nonparticipating landholders (Knowler & Bradshaw, 2007; Rolfe et al., 2009).

Studies relying on stated data usually employ surveys or interviews to understand all the factors influencing participating behavior (Broch et al., 2013; Langpap, 2004; Layton & Siikamäki, 2009; Matta et al., 2009; Nagubadi et al., 1996; Vedel et al., 2015). These studies find considerable heterogeneity in landholders’ motivation to participate in environmental conservation programs. For example, Brown et al. (2020) found that landholders in Southern Queensland preferred the flexibility to choose which areas of land were included in bushland management programs. The flexibility to choose program length and the timing of regular updates on program outcomes were also identified as preferred features. However, for one group of landholders, the financial incentive was more important than any nonfinancial motivations. Therefore, for successful implementation of a restoration program, it is necessary to understand the underlying preferences of private landholders to gain their support for the project (Iftekhar et al., 2016).

Ex-Post Assessment and Evaluation

Assessing the effectiveness of ecological restoration projects is vital to improving restoration practices and to justifying the use of restoration in natural resource management (Wortley et al., 2013). While it is an expectation that the rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems will increase biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services to human society (Rey Benayas et al., 2008), the achievement of this aspiration requires improved monitoring of both the biodiversity and ecosystem service outcomes of these projects (Rey Benayas et al., 2009). Hobbs and Norton (1996) developed a conceptual framework for assessing ecological restoration. In this framework, they emphasized that easily observable measures of success need to be developed in the project planning stage and that these indicators then need to be monitored and recorded as the project progresses. Measures of success should include socioeconomic indicators, such as the change in the value of ecosystem services.

Yet, numerous studies suggest that despite this knowledge, in practice, robust project monitoring and evaluation could be improved (Rey Benayas et al., 2009; Jones & Schmitz, 2009; Wortley et al., 2013). Synthesizing stream and river restoration efforts in the United States, Bernhardt et al. (2005) found that documentation of project implementation and outcomes was inadequate. Only 10% of project records indicated that any form of assessment or monitoring had occurred, and lower-cost projects usually lacked monitoring altogether. Wortley et al. (2013) analyzed literature focused on the assessment of restoration projects postimplementation, and concluded that studies rarely include socioeconomic indicators in their assessments. Rey Benayas et al. (2009) found that cultural ecosystem services were not measured explicitly in any of the 89 studies that they reviewed. Gardener et al. (2010) determined that in 30 papers reporting on invasive species management programs, none considered any economic information beyond project costs.

Studies that have conducted ex-post benefit-cost analyses have focused on discrete projects. For example, Polyakov et al. (2017) conducted a postcompletion benefit-cost analysis of restoring an urban drain in Perth, Western Australia. Bellas and Kosnik (2019) considered both market and nonmarket benefits in an ex-post benefit-cost analysis of a river restoration project in the United States. Nielsen?Pincus and Moseley (2013) took a more macroeconomic view and assessed the regional economic impacts of forest and watershed restoration programs in Oregon. However, these types of studies are rare.

Discussion and Conclusion

This article has provided a thematic analysis of the restoration economics literature, which indicates that economic analysis and tools are most commonly applied in the assessment of costs, benefits, and project options. There are several areas where economics could be useful in enhancing restoration practices and sciences.

Incorporation of economic analysis into the planning of ecological restoration projects: Hobbs and Norton (1996) identified a sequence of key processes that need to be followed for ecological restoration to be successful. Nearly all of the steps require accounting for socioeconomic factors. Figure 4 highlights the importance of economic considerations at key steps of the ecological restoration process. Effective projects require integration of these considerations into the early stages of project planning and development.

Reducing the cost of economic data collection and analysis: While costs are one of the most important inputs into cost-benefit analyses, ecological restoration studies rarely report restoration costs. Published cost data are often incomplete (De Groot et al., 2013) and are collected using different approaches, which makes it challenging to compare sites and programs (Bullock et al., 2011). A call among practitioners for a standardized system of collecting and reporting the costs and values of ecological restoration (Iftekhar et al., 2016; Konya et al., 2016) has resulted in the development of international databases on nonmarket values of environmental goods and services (e.g., USGS Benefit Transfer toolkit, BlueValue, Environmental Valuation Reference Inventory). Iftekhar et al. (2020) curated a database of nonmarket values related to water sensitive systems and practices in Australia. However, these databases require regular updating to incorporate recent information.

Addressing social values: Ecological restoration often aims to achieve a variety of conflicting goals (Halme et al., 2013). The success and sustainability of restoration may be undermined if social considerations, such as community values, landholder interests, or local livelihoods, are ignored. Planning for ecological restoration should include community participation, support of local livelihoods, environmental education, and application of a systematic approach that facilitates an understanding of local social-ecological systems when public input needs to be considered, preferably during the formative stages of planning for restoration and project identification (Fox & Cundill, 2018).

Establishing links between the causes of degradation and restoration outcomes: Papers exploring restoration economics often do not establish a direct link between the underlying causes of degradation and the long-term success of restoration projects. However, it is necessary to understand the links to better control future degradation (or redegradation) of a restored area.

Understanding of the alignment of incentives and motives: Stakeholders are motivated by many different factors. For example, while many private landholders are motivated by the financial aspects of a restoration project, many others may be influenced by other, nonfinancial incentives. Restoration practitioners need to understand these factors to properly align incentives and gain support from different parties.

Assessment of both large-scale and long-term impacts of restoration projects: Past benefit-cost analysis studies have focused primarily on discrete restoration projects. While these studies provide meaningful information on the potential localized impacts of the project, they do not provide an understanding of the projects’ broader scale of impact. To understand the true impacts of restoration activities, it is necessary to undertake analysis at a macro level with a longer time frame.

In conclusion, restoration ecology and economics should be integrated to tackle the real-world challenges of meeting national and international restoration goals and targets. However, economic tools and instruments have not yet been utilized to improve the performance of restoration projects and achieve their full benefits. Lack of understanding of economic analysis may be a barrier to the integration of economics and restoration. Environmental economists could play a major role in developing educational materials and training courses on restoration economics in collaboration with restoration ecologists. This will contribute to developing a new generation of restoration practitioners who would have an understanding of how to most effectively use economic tools and instruments to help achieve restoration goals.


The authors would like to acknowledge the constructive comments from the reviewer. M. S. Iftekhar acknowledges funding support from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards grant (ARC DECRA grant number DE180101503).

Further Reading

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