Simultaneous environmental changes challenge biodiversity persistence and human wellbeing. The science and practice of restoration ecology, in collaboration with other disciplines, can contribute to overcoming these challenges. This endeavor requires a solid conceptual foundation based in empirical research which confronts, tests and influences theoretical developments. We review conceptual developments in restoration ecology over the last 30 years. We frame our review in the context of changing restoration goals which reflect increased societal awareness of the scale of environmental degradation and the recognition that inter-disciplinary approaches are needed to tackle environmental problems. Restoration ecology now encompasses facilitative interactions and network dynamics, trophic cascades, and above- and below ground linkages. It operates in a non-equilibrium, alternative states framework, at the landscape scale, and in response to changing environmental, economic and social conditions. Progress has been marked by conceptual advances in the fields of trait-environment relationships, community assembly, and understanding the links between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Conceptual and practical advances have been enhanced by applying evolving technologies, including treatments to increase seed germination and overcome recruitment bottlenecks, high through put DNA sequencing to elucidate soil community structure and function, and advances in satellite technology and GPS tracking to monitor habitat use. The synthesis of these technologies with systematic reviews of context dependencies in restoration success, model based analyses and consideration of complex socio-ecological systems will allow generalizations to inform evidence based interventions. Ongoing challenges include setting realistic, socially acceptable goals for restoration under changing environmental conditions, and prioritizing actions in an increasingly space-competitive world. Ethical questions also surround the use of genetically modified material, translocations, taxon substitutions, and de-extinction, in restoration ecology. Addressing these issues, as the Ecological Society of America looks to its next century, will require current and future generations of researchers and practitioners, including economists, engineers, philosophers, landscape architects, social scientists and restoration ecologists, to work together with communities and governments to rise to the environmental challenges of the coming decades.