Restoration projects can have varying goals, depending on the specific focus, rationale, and aims for restoration. When restoration projects use project-specific goals to define activities and gauge success without considering broader ecological context, determination of project implications and success can be confounding. We used case studies from the Middle Rio Grande (MRG), southwest USA, to demonstrate how restoration outcomes can rank inconsistently when narrowly-based goals are used. Resource managers have chosen MRG for restoration due to impacts to the natural flood regime, reduced native tree recruitment, and establishment of non-native plants. We show restoration “success” ranks differently based upon three goals: increasing biodiversity, increasing specific ecosystem functions, or restoring native communities. We monitored 12 restored and control sites for seven years. Treatments ranked higher in reducing exotic woody populations, and increasing proportions of native plants and groundwater salvage, but generally worse at removing fuels, and increasing species and habitat structural diversity. Managers cannot rely on the term “restoration” to sufficiently describe a project’s aim. Specific desired outcomes must be defined and monitored. Long-term planning should include flexibility to incorporate provisions for adaptive management to refine treatments to avoid unintended ecological consequences.