The term 'ecological services' refers to ecosystem processes that are beneficial to human society. The older term 'ecosystem functions' refers to the same processes, but does not emphasize their benefits to humans. These benefits can be direct, for example, food production or water quality improvement by wetlands, or they can be indirect, such as degradation of leaf litter and subsequent mineralization and recycling of plant nutrients for continued growth of vegetation. The advantage of referring to such processes as ecological services is that a monetary value can be determined and compared with human-made technologies that are supposed to do the same. This puts the benefits of intact ecosystems into a perspective that can be quantified, and easily understood by the general public. For example, what would it cost to turn solar energy into food through human-made technologies rather than the natural process of growing crops? What would it cost to industrially clean all the water being naturally 'treated' by wetlands?
If the requirement of restoration after closure of a mine is to return the land to all its original uses, then this means restoring all its ecological services. That is not an easy task. The quality and scale of services provided by an ecosystem are proportional to its biodiversity, including, and perhaps most importantly, microorganisms. That means that it is not simply a matter of covering the substrate with vegetation, but that the structure and composition of the substrate must be similar to the original soils, as well as the structure of the vegetation and fauna, including microorganisms. It also means that the composition and structure of the ecosystems must be known prior to mining activities. In reality, such knowledge is not available even for the most species-poor ecosystems. At best, what can be achieved is creation of a new landscape that may resemble that which existed before mining activities commenced, and which, over time, may be difficult to distinguish from landscapes not disturbed by mining. Again, one of the best such examples is found in the lignite mining region west of Cologne, Germany, where the landscapes and ecosystems (forest, grassland, etc.) are re-created to resemble as close as possible what was there before mining started. Another good example can be found southwest of Richmond, Virginia, USA, where Iluka Resources Inc. has been mining the Old Hickory mineral sands deposits since 1997. This land consists mostly of prime farmlands for production of important row crops such as peanuts, cotton, tobacco, and soybean. The area also includes natural habitats such as woodlands and a so-called Carolina Bay (a type of wetland associated with depressions in the landscape across Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia). Postmining reclamation has been very successful in returning the agricultural lands to their original uses and levels of production. The Carolina Bay and other natural habitats are also to be mined and returned to their original state in the near future. How successful that will be remains to be seen, but it will be the first ever attempt to rebuild a Carolina Bay.
Examples of successful re-creation of landscapes and the ecosystems similar to what existed prior to mining do exist, but what if re-creation of the preexisting situation is not feasible, or not desirable?
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