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Ecosystem Management:

  • Allen Fitzsimmons
  • One of the Clinton administration’s first major environmental policy initiatives was to call for a shift to ecosystem management. In a nutshell, ecosystem management means that the federal government makes protection or restoration of the health, integrity, and sustainability of ecosystems the primary goal of its activities. The Forest Service, for example, now intends to make protection of ecological sustainability the “guiding star” of land management (USDA 1999b, 54095). Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, who supervises the Forest Service, calls the new approach a “fundamental change in philosophy” (USDA 1999a).

    Protection of nature comes first in ecosystem management. Enhancement of human well-being is subordinate to this goal. This represents a radical departure from over a century of natural resource policy in the United States. In this essay, I will explain some of the difficulties with the new paradigm, difficulties discussed more thoroughly in my book, Defending Illusions: Federal Protection of Ecosystems (Fitzsimmons 1999).

    Supporters of ecosystem management use scientific language to enhance the credibility of their proposals with policy makers and the public. But what is the state of the science on which such proposals rest?

    To answer this question, I reviewed what ecologists have been writing about their field and what scholars say about ideas like “ecosystem,” “ecosystem health,” “ecosystem integrity,” and “ecosystem sustainability.” My review revealed numerous problems.

    Prominent ecologists Stuart Pimm and Robert Peters note several shortcomings within their discipline. Pimm (1994, 188) writes that “ecosystem ecology for too long has operated in a dream world with few hypotheses and even fewer data.” Peters (1991, 1) points out that “to many contemporary ecologists, the weakness of ecology is patent and the problem needs little elaboration.” His list of difficulties includes: “lack of scientific rigor,” “weak predictive capability,” “lack of testable theory,” and “many constructs of dubious merit.”

    It turns out that the high-sounding notions that populate ecosystem ecology are long on style and short on substance. The problem starts with the idea of an ecosystem itself. The term was coined by Arthur Tansley in 1935, who described them as physical systems encompassing living and nonliving things and their interactions. Ask the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Sierra Club to show you their maps of the ecosystems of the United States. They differ greatly. The so-called Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem can cover anywhere from 5 to 19 million acres, depending on who is defining it.

    These discrepancies occur because the human mind fabricates ecosystems. Nature does not put ecosystems on the land for researchers to discover. Instead, as Bruce Hannon (1991, 238) observes, “the delimitation of the [eco]system is strictly up to the observer. . . .”

    Ecosystems are only mental constructs, not real, discrete, or living things on the landscape. They do not breathe, emerge from wombs, or spring from seeds. They are not real, organized entities consciously seeking to perpetuate themselves against internal or external threats to their existence. As Simon Levin observes (1992, 1960), “what we call an ecosystem . . . is really just an arbitrary subdivision of a continuous gradation of local species assemblages.”

    While the ecosystem concept may be helpful as a tool for researchers to better grasp the world around us, it is far too ambiguous to serve as an organizing principle for the application of federal law and policy. As spatial units, ecosystems represent a geographic free-for-all.

    Just as ecosystems are defined inconsistently, associated concepts are similarly vague. People use the term ecosystem health frequently, for example, but researchers disagree about its meaning, too. Guelph University professor David Rapport (1998, 25) is a strong advocate of centering policies on protection of ecosystem health, yet he writes that “the question of what constitutes ecosystem health remains somewhat perplexing and controversial.” He sees the literature as “replete with a plethora of definitions that reflect the views of researchers and environmental/resource interest groups.”

    Indeed, the editors of the book Ecosystem Health conclude that “there is no clear conception of the term” (Haskell, Norton, Costanza 1992, 1). Furthermore, they note, both ecosystem health and ecological integrity “have never been defined well enough to make them useful” in policy documents.

    The fundamental difficulty supporters of ecosystem health face is the lack of norms to judge the condition of ecosystems. Looking at one view of ecosystem health illustrates the woolliness of the idea. Ecologists Bryan Norton and Robert Ulanowicz (1996, 429) consider “the capacity for creativity” as the crux of ecosystem health.

    But what is “creativity?” It is the ability of an ecosystem to solve problems, which requires the ecosystem to possess “ordered complexity,” which means having enough “apparatus” to respond to events via “a channelized sequence of reactions.” At the same time, ecosystems must also have internal “incoherence,” or the presence of “dysfunctional repertoires” not normally used by the ecosystem but that serve as reservoirs of “stochastic, disconnected, inefficient features that constitute the raw building blocks of effective innovation.” This spiral of ill-defined concepts leads them to accept the vague idea that “an ecological system is healthy and free from �?distress syndrome’ if it is stable and sustainable; i.e., if it is active and maintains its organization and autonomy over time.”

    To test the usefulness of this definition, try applying it to a beached whale carcass, which ecologists assure us is an ecosystem. Does the carcass actually strategize using a “capacity for creativity” in order to sustain itself? Clearly not. Is it active or does it maintain its autonomy over time? No. Can the idea of “stability” have any reasonable meaning for this ecosystem?

    Nor can scientists pin down ecosystem integrity. Some ecologists link ecosystem health and ecosystem integrity, but differ on the nature of the relationship. Rapport (1992, 145) argues that healthy ecosystems are “characterized by systems integrity” while James Kay (1993, 205) considers ecosystem health as “the first requisite for ecosystem integrity.” He links integrity with the “wholeness and well being” of the ecosystem which means naturalness; e.g., the less impact people have on an area the greater its integrity.

    To make matters more complex, some ecologists reject naturalness as the measure of integrity. Henry Regier (1993, 16), for example, writes that “there is room for choice in the kinds of ecosystems with integrity that humans might prefer.” De Leo and Levin (1997) likewise reject nature-based definitions of integrity and acknowledge that multiple (and often quite different) definitions of the term abound.

    Finally, the idea of a sustainable ecosystem is self-contradictory. While some ecologists (Christensen et al., 1996, 666) urge us to make protection of ecosystem sustainability the centerpiece of ecosystem management, they say at the same time that “ecosystems are dynamic in space and time. . . [they] are constantly changing,” “there is no single appropriate scale or time frame for management,” and “boundaries defined for the study or management of one process are often inappropriate for the study of others.” How can sustainability have intelligent meaning when the entity to which ecologists would attach it is, in the view of those same ecologists, in constant flux in space and time and has no intrinsic attributes?

    Sixty years after the ecosystem idea surfaced in the scientific literature; after decades of dominance on university campuses; after thousands of books, articles, conferences, and monographs; scholars cannot agree on the most fundamental matters regarding ecosystems. They do not agree on what constitutes the core characteristics of ecosystems. They cannot say where ecosystems begin or end in space or time, or tell us when one ecosystem replaces another on the landscape. They cannot agree on how to locate ecosystems. They offer no generally accepted definitions or measures of health, integrity, or sustainability. The state of the science concerning the ecosystem notion and its attendant ideas provides little scientific justification for the radical change in public policy proposed by the Clinton administration.

    Christensen, Norman L., et al. 1996. Report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the Scientific Basis for Ecosystem Management. Ecological Applications 6(3): 665Ð91.
    De Leo, Guilio, and Simon Levin. 1997. The Multifaceted Aspects of Ecosystem Integrity. Conservation Ecology 1(1). Available: http:// www.consecol. org/vol1/iss1/art3.
    Fitzsimmons, Allan K. 1999. Defending Illusions: Federal Protection of Ecosystems. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
    Hannon, Bruce. 1991. Accounting in Ecological Systems. In Ecological Economics: The Science of Management of Sustainability, edited by Robert Costanza. New York: Columbia University Press, 234Ð52.
    Haskell, Benjamin D., Bryan D. Norton, and Robert Costanza. 1992. Introduction: What is Ecosystem Health and Why Should We Worry About It? In Ecosystem Health: New Goals for Environmental Management, edited by Robert Costanza, Bryan D. Norton, and Benjamin D. Haskell. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1Ð19.
    Kay, James J. 1993. On the Nature of Ecological Integrity: Some Closing Comments. In Ecological Integrity and the Management of Ecosystems, edited by Stephen Woodley, James Kay, and George Francis. Delray Beach, FL: St. Lucie Press, 201Ð12.
    Levin, Simon. 1992. The Problem of Pattern and Scale in Ecology. Ecology 73(6): 1943Ð67. Norton, Bryan G., and Robert E. Ulanowicz. 1996. Scale and Biodiversity Policy: A Hierarchical Approach. In Ecosystem Management, edited by Fred B. Samson and Fritz L. Knopf. New York: Springer, 424Ð34.
    Peters, Robert H. 1991. A Critique for Ecology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pimm, Stuart. 1994. An American Tale. Nature 379(21): 188Ð89.
    Rapport, David J. 1992. What is Clinical Ecology? In Ecosystem Health: New Goals for Environmental Management, edited by Robert Costanza, Bryan G. Norton, and Benjamin D. Haskell. Washington, DC: Island Press, 144Ð55.
    —. 1998. Defining Ecosystem Health. In Ecosystem Health, edited by David Rapport, Robert Costanza, Paul Epstein, Connie Gaudet, and Richard Levins. London: Blackwell Science, 18Ð33.
    Regier, Henry A. 1993. The Notion of Natural and Cultural Integrity. In Ecological Integrity and the Management of Ecosystems, edited by Stephen Woodley, James Kay and George Francis. Delray Beach, FL: St. Lucie Press, 3Ð18.
    U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service. 1999a. Glickman Proposes New Rules for Managing the National Forests. Press Release 0399.99, September 30. Washington, DC.
    —. 1999b. National Forest System Land and Resource Management Planning: Proposed Rule. Federal Register, 54073Ð112, October 5.

    Allan K. Fitzsimmons, Ph.D., is the author of Defending Illusions: Federal Protection of Ecosystems (Rowman & Littlefield), which can be purchased by calling 800-462-6420 or online at A geographer and environmental analyst, Fitzsimmons is president of Balanced Resource Solutions, a consulting firm in Woodbridge, Virginia.

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