Now that conservationists are around, things are returning to what they once were.
If synonymous with:
Now that conservationists are around, things are returning to what they were before.
Are the sentences above the same as for their meaning?
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Yes. The sentences are the same in meaning.
The meaning of "once was/were" is "as before", "like before," "as in the past":
in the past, but not now:
This house once belonged to my grandfather.
Computers are much cheaper nowadays than they once were.
Once-thriving villages stand deserted and in ruins.
From sense B1, once https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/once