Analysis of the Implementation Status and Characteristics of Ecological Restoration Projects in Korea: Ecosystem Conservation Charge Return Projects

Analysis of the Implementation Status and Characteristics of Ecological Restoration Projects in Korea: Ecosystem Conservation Charge Return Projects

1. Introduction

Development projects and continuous city expansion lead to environmental pollution, ecosystem fragmentation, ecosystem degradation, and biological habitat destruction. These issues are becoming critical environmental concerns as they lead to a decline in biodiversity [1,2,3,4,5]. The international community has developed the polluter-pays principle [6,7,8,9,10], according to which the costs of damage caused by environmental pollution and its amelioration should be borne by those responsible for it. Several countries have implemented biodiversity offsets [11,12] and wetland mitigation banking systems to ensure sustainable use of the natural environment and restore areas damaged by developmental projects. Alternatively, as an economic incentive [13], funds collected from environmental taxes, subsidies, and levies are used to support conservation and restoration projects. Policies for offsetting biodiversity losses are used in at least 33 countries worldwide, cumulatively restoring and protecting 8.3 million hectares of land [14]. These policies are related to Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, Goal 15: Life On Land, and Goal 17: Partnerships to achieve Sustainable Development Goals [15]. In South Korea, an initiative known as the “Ecosystem Conservation Charge Return Project” (ECCRP) has been implemented to collect ecosystem conservation charges from businesses that substantially affect the natural environment and ecosystems and decrease biodiversity. Indeed, the ECCRP is one of the most prominent ecological restoration programs in South Korea. The charges are calculated based on the damaged area, with a unit charge of 300 KRW per square meter multiplied by regional coefficients. These coefficients are based on ecological landscape zones, regions, and land use categories, permitting a maximum surcharge of four times the base rate. In the case of a similar system, the “German Impact Mitigation Regulation” charges can be levied up to 175 times the value per square meter, with a rate of 1600 KRW per square meter. Compared with similar international systems, the charged amount is relatively low, prompting numerous policy research efforts focused on improving the system, including levy imposition and collection [16,17,18]. However, compared with the level of research focusing on policy, there is a substantial lack of comprehensive research on the status, performance, and process of preparing and implementing these projects.
Previous research has focused on post-construction monitoring, design indicator selection, project types, target species, and related aspects of design and construction [19,20,21,22]. Studies on the locations and types of ECCRP projects have generally categorized them into seven types: wetlands, rivers, coastal, forests, grasslands, rural, and urban [23]. Furthermore, as of 2013, the ECCRPs can be categorized into three sub-ecosystems: urban, forestry, and wetland [20]. These studies have analyzed the classification of ecological restoration direction, sub-ecosystem type, project scale, and regional distribution. However, there is a lack of research on the current status of project site location. Therefore, in this study, we subdivided the project sites into wetlands (protected lowland) and rivers (riverside land) to analyze sites at risk that are closely related to the effects of flooding when selecting project sites and separately classified waste facility utilization projects that are frequently used as restoration project sites as facility sites that are not in use and are being neglected.
Similarly, Cho and Kim [19] analyzed 35 ECCRPs that began in 2003 after the introduction of the system and focused on the business type, location type, project size, and regional distribution. However, their analysis was conducted at the initial stage of the ECCRP and was thus limited by a small sample. Moreover, as several projects have been undertaken since 2003, further analyses are required. The ECCRPs consist of a business plan preparation, submission, and selection process via a demand survey in the first year; project approval, authorization, construction, and completion in the second year; and maintenance and monitoring in the third year [24].

While preparing the business plan during the demand survey, research on the target site and in-depth analysis of the location characteristics are limited. Consequently, even if a project is approved, the target site of the ECCRP will still require approval and permit administrative procedures depending on the land category, zoning district, and area in the land use plan. Therefore, the conditions of the target site locations have become a critical factor owing to the nature of the project, which must be completed in the given year. Among the 35 ECCRPs selected in 2022, five were not completed because of the approval process and were carried over to 2023. Therefore, the Ministry of Environment is pursuing measures to administratively accelerate the timing of demand surveys for projects in 2024.

As the return projects were prepared and submitted in a short period, sufficient ecological surveys were not performed, which limited the establishment of specific goals and target species and the planning, design, and verification of the effectiveness of post-monitoring. Moreover, certain project areas are deficient in habitat and diversity promotion owing to the lack of location analysis for the target area [17]. Therefore, here, we aimed to analyze the current status of land use in the target area, and this is an essential factor in business plan preparation. We classified and analyzed the location and type of 277 return project sites from 2003 to 2022, as well as the “land category” according to the Act on the Establishment and Management of Spatial Data and the “use area” according to the National Land Planning and Utilization Act. This study will provide insights regarding the tendencies related to the target site selection of ECCRPs, and the associated data can serve as a reference for future restoration projects.
To achieve effective ecological restoration, the use of native plant species is recommended, with a focus on habitat restoration for target species [25]. Cho [26] analyzed the current status of plant species selection for 58 ECCRPs and reported that indigenous plants accounted for 76% and cultivated plants accounted for 24%. Hence, although indigenous plants are most commonly selected, cultivated plants are also widely used.

To prioritize native plant-centered species selection, minimizing the use of cultivated plants is necessary. The target species are selected from biological species that are either historically or currently present in the target area, with consideration given to keystone, umbrella, and flagship species.

In the present study, we sought to identify key target species for ecological restoration projects. To this end, data on the current status of target species selection in implemented projects were collected and analyzed based on various criteria, such as the Korean Red List and the list of endangered species. This research can guide the selection of target species in ecological restoration projects. However, additional studies might be necessary to develop representative habitat models for restoration projects based on the results of this study.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Research Scope

The temporal scope of this study was from 2003 to 2022. The spatial scope covered 277 return projects completed by 16 metropolitan cities, 131 basic local governments, and 7 basin and regional environmental offices nationwide. In the case of the ECCRP, because of the nature of the public offering, the business plan, design documents, and monitoring reports are not publicly available; therefore, there are limitations in accessing detailed information regarding a project unless the project is performed directly or the completed project site is visited. Therefore, in this study, we referred to the “Status of ECCRP” of the Korea Ecological Restoration Association and the ECCRP Casebook of the Ministry of Environment [27,28]. Furthermore, we referred to data obtained by directly participating in the project or visiting the site.

2.2. Analyzing the Location and Type of Project Sites

The ECCRP Guidelines presented by the Ministry of Environment [29] divide the project types into eight categories: vegetation and animal ecosystems, grassland, urban, rural, forest, wetland, river, and coastal. For the location and type analysis in this study, the project sites were reclarified into seven categories (Table 1): urban, rural, wetland, river, forest, abandoned facility site, and others, based on the classification of previous studies. The purpose was to investigate the location characteristics of the target area where the project was performed. For the classification by ecosystem type, we summarized the predominant ecosystem type in the vicinity based on the project boundary.
The wetland or forest type was classified as “urban” if the surrounding environment was predominantly urban. If the environment inside the project site was a wetland ecosystem and the surrounding environment was not urban, it was classified as a “wetland” [22]. Rivers broadly classified as wetlands were reclassified because rivers (riverside land) are reviewed in the project site selection process based on their difficulty of maintenance after restoration; therefore, the selection status can be analyzed by classifying them separately. The classification of urban and rural areas is based on the boundaries of the urban fringe, which has excellent environmental conditions in terms of biodiversity. Projects in urban forests, urban parks, green spaces, and neighborhood parks were classified as urban. In addition, village forests, village sub-ecosystems, and open lands located in counties and below were classified as rural. In the suburban areas, ecological corridors, species restoration project sites, and Baekdudaegan restoration projects were targeted for project content. However, urban neighborhood parks, which are frequently selected as return project sites, were classified as urban despite being forests. In addition, various water ecological spaces, such as reservoirs, lakes, retention ponds, and ponds, were classified as wetlands. Among wetlands, areas in the riverside land, such as reservoirs, floodplains, fishways, and high-water areas, were classified separately as rivers. The separate classification of rivers, which can also be classified as wetlands, was analyzed independently when selecting project sites because of their specificity as areas affected by maintenance and flooding. Abandoned railways, roads, sports facilities, schools, fish farms, and stone mountains, among others, were classified as abandoned facility sites, with the intention of reusing and restoring abandoned facilities. Other projects classified as abandoned facilities included projects that are difficult to identify, such as sites with induction fences, which are linear spaces, creating urban ecological status maps, and projects within the civilian-access control line, which is a unique area.

2.3. Analysis Type According to Land Use Plan

For the ECCRP, the administrative procedures of licensing and permitting, as well as the functional aspects of the biological habitats of the target species, are considered essential in the project site selection process. In this respect, we analyzed the items related to the restrictions of the project site on the land use plan. Owing to the nature of the ECCRP, which must be completed in the corresponding year, the approval and administrative procedures are crucial to the project implementation process. For each project site selected by the Ministry of Environment, the first step is to identify land use-related information, and the second step is to determine the laws and regulations on which the project is authorized. The third step is to review and implement the administrative procedures for project approval and permit. The use area and land category are closely associated with the approval process of the return project.

The use areas were identified according to the Enforcement Decree of the National Land Planning and Utilization Act and other laws and regulations. The classification by use area was categorized as urban, management, rural, and natural environment conservation areas. Thus, 247 projects with verifiable addresses and land use information were analyzed.

Regarding the classification of land category, the land status of the project site was divided into 28 land category types according to the regulations under the Act on the Establishment and Management of Spatial Data. Regarding the classification by land category, we analyzed 259 projects where the land category was identified.

We also analyzed the land ownership status of the project site into state-owned, military-owned, city-owned, or province-owned, and privately owned lands for the 258 projects in which the owner can be identified. As the current and future land use status of the project site is closely related to the project implementation process, in this study, we analyzed comprehensive information on the project site land.

Information on the location, land number, land category, owner status, and region/district of the project site was analyzed using the comprehensive real estate information site operated by the Korea Land and Housing Corporation. In addition, the type of project site was analyzed via frequency analysis using Excel (Microsoft 365, Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA, USA).

2.4. Analysis of Target Species

Species such as endangered wildlife, endemic species, those on the Red List, natural monuments, and climate change indicator species were selected as important species within the target area. The ECCRP, initiated in 2003, identified target species from 2009. In this analysis, 217 projects were conducted between 2009 and 2022 in which target species were identified and examined. The target species were categorized as mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects, plants, and others (benthic invertebrates). The target species were analyzed using the Korean Red List and the list of endangered species. The National Institute of Biological Resources [30] established the Korean Red List by excluding commonly observed species in Korea from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and including unique Korean species not listed in the IUCN Red List. It is periodically revised and currently includes 1 extinct species, 0 extinct in the wild, 12 regionally extinct, 58 critically endangered, 169 endangered, 306 vulnerable, 268 near-threatened, 1760 least concern, and 1484 data-deficient species. Endangered wildlife refers to wild species that face imminent extinction because of natural and anthropogenic threats; these are designated by law for protection and management as nationally protected species; 68 species are classified as level 1 and 214 as level 2 among endangered wildlife in Korea. Level 1 endangered species are facing extinction because of a marked decline in population caused by natural or artificial factors. Level 2 species are those at risk of extinction if current threats, whether natural or artificial, are not alleviated, leading to a substantial reduction in population. The analysis of target species involved data collection, categorization, and frequency analysis using Excel.

4. Discussion

The ECCRP, based on the polluter-pays principle, has been a representative restoration project in Korea since 2003, and it initially implemented approximately three projects per year. However, it has since expanded, partially because of continued budget expansion, and currently undertakes approximately 30 projects per year, with a total of 277 projects implemented by 2022. Despite its continuous financial growth, there is a substantial lack of academic research assessing the outcomes and the extent of ecosystem restoration for projects related to the ECCRP. Therefore, in this study, we collected and organized data on the performance of projects completed from 2003 to 2022. A common question faced by practitioners with limited budgets is where and how to prioritize the restoration efforts [31]. Analyzing past project outcomes and trends can contribute to the implementation and advancement of future restoration projects.
Since the revision of the Natural Environment Conservation Act in 2007, which introduced the natural environment conservation project agent system, and the creation of the ECCRP Guidelines [29] in 2010, the level of expertise in restoration projects has increased. This includes the establishment of target species and a higher rate of site selection focused on areas with high biodiversity. After the distribution of ECCRP Guidelines, the target species were set in 79.8% of cases, and the restoration project sites were selected by focusing on state-owned lands that pose minimal challenges for post-restoration maintenance. The successful establishment of target species can serve as a key indicator of ecosystem health [32]. An increasing number of projects have defined the direction of restoration by proposing specific target species, which are frequently birds, amphibians, and invertebrates. Because the successful settlement of target species is a crucial issue [32,33], continuous monitoring is essential to determine whether they establish successfully.

By examining the characteristics of the project sites, the ecosystem type and zoning district, selection status by local governments and basin and regional environmental offices, and owners and land categories of the target lands were analyzed. The ecosystem types of the sites were classified as urban, rural, wetland, river, forest, abandoned facility site, or others. The ecosystem types were in accordance with the National Land Planning and Utilization Act, as most of the project sites were urban.

Regarding land category, the proportion of forests, parks, and marshes was high, which can be interpreted as a trend toward selecting areas that are proximal to the species source [31] in terms of ecological connectivity [34]. This trend indicates that the ECCRPs have shifted toward the fundamental purpose of the program, which is to promote biodiversity via ecological restoration of degraded land. Furthermore, the proportion of neighborhood parks was also high as this enhanced biodiversity in urban areas or promoted ecosystem health. Therefore, these projects may also contribute to the role of species sources [31] in urban areas, as the restoration of ecosystems in these projects is based on urban-damaged or unused areas, and the restoration direction is determined based on the target species.
When collectively analyzed, wetland areas were the most commonly selected ecosystem location and project site type, urban areas were the most commonly selected use area, and forests were the most commonly selected land category. This observation reflects the goal of the restoration project site, which is to create sub-ecosystems that offer an alternative to natural habitats and restore damaged ecosystems. The effectiveness of restoring key ecological functions depends on the capacity of restored habitats to complement existing ones [35]. Thus, the areas predicted to have high biodiversity when restored, such as damaged wetlands in urban areas, were reviewed first. The findings of this study can be used to select and guide future restoration projects on a functional and efficient basis. However, this study was limited by the restricted access to detailed information, such as project plans and design documents, because the ECCRPs are conducted as a public competition. Moreover, although the ECCRPs are prominent restoration projects, analyzing the trends of ecological restoration projects in South Korea solely utilizing the ECCRP framework limits the application of the study results. Hence, subsequent research endeavors should aim for a more comprehensive analysis by including a diverse range of restoration projects.

5. Conclusions

In this study, we analyzed the performance data of ECCRPs by examining the types, characteristics, restoration directions, and restoration goals of projects. The results suggest the preferred types and outline the direction of conservation policies when selecting restoration target sites. When compared with similar cases abroad, such as Gerseveral’s “Impact Mitigation Regulation”, the ECCRP tends to lack qualitative restorations because limited money has been collected, and the fee is calculated based on the area. Hence, offset activities should be carried out with the same scale and quality, aiming for no net loss and net gain to prevent net damage. Indeed, it is necessary to operate the system with a focus on ecological value rather than area, emphasizing the importance of carefully selecting restoration target sites and setting goals for restoration projects. The direction of the restoration project can be clarified by selecting target species in the ECCRP. However, owing to the project’s characteristics, which typically have a short duration (1 year) and small-scale operation, incomplete alternative-habitat creation can occur. Hence, longer project periods are encouraged to achieve comprehensive restoration. Additionally, the lack of knowledge regarding target species, including those at risk of extinction, may lead to a discrepancy between the planned and actual habitats for target species. Therefore, a panel of experts should be consulted regarding the target species, ensuring a more in-depth habitat creation plan. Currently, ecosystem restoration projects in Korea involve maintenance, management, and post-monitoring for 4 years after project completion. However, to assess the long-term effects of restoration projects, long-term monitoring should be conducted at 10-year intervals after completion. Furthermore, several restoration plans lack quantitative goals when formulated. The evaluation of the restoration effectiveness is pivotal to delineating the succession of degraded ecosystems and implementation of the subsequent recovery measures [36]. Using target species as indicators, establishing an evaluation system is essential for measuring the success of restoration projects. The results of the study can contribute to improving ecological restoration approaches to achieve sustainable development goals and may have value for not only domestic projects but also similar international restoration projects. A concentrated approach to specific species can guide the overall direction of restoration projects, serving as a valuable indicator of success and facilitating the use of performance metrics to gauge the success of restoration initiatives. Additionally, the results of this study, combined with monitoring outcomes, can contribute to the development of effective restoration projects, including research on habitat models for each target species.

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