Restoration ecology emerged as a separate field in ecology in the 1980s. It is the scientific study supporting the practice of ecological restoration, which is the practice of renewing and restoring degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystemsand habitats in the environment by active human intervention and action. Restoration ecology is the academic study of the process, whereas ecological restoration is the actual project or process by restoration practitioners.

Though restoration ecologists and other conservation biologists generally agree that habitat is the most important locus of biodiversity protection, the disciplines themselves have different focuses. Conservation biology as an academic discipline is rooted in population biology. Because of that, it is generally organized at the genetic level, looking at specific species populations (i.e. endangered species). Restoration ecology is organized at the community level, looking at specific ecosystems.

Because it is organized by species, conservation biology often emphasizes vertebrate animals because of their salience and popularity, whereas restoration ecology emphasizes plants because restorations begin by establishing plant communities. Ecosystem restoration is botanically based but does have "poster species" for individual ecosystems to get the public involved. Since soils define the foundation of any functional terrestrial system, restoration ecology's ecosystem-level focus also results in greater emphasis on the role of soil's physical and microbial processes.