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The Report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the Scientific Basis for Ecosystem Management

Norman L. Christensen, Ann M. Bartuska, James H. Brown, Stephen Carpenter, Carla D'Antonio, Rober Francis, Jerry F. Franklin, James A. MacMahon, Reed F. Noss, David J. Parsons, Charles H. Peterson, Monica G. Turner and Robert G. Woodmansee
Ecological Applications
Vol. 6, No. 3 (Aug., 1996), pp. 665-691
Published by: Wiley
DOI: 10.2307/2269460
Stable URL:
Page Count: 27
Subjects: Biological Sciences Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
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Ecosystem management is management driven by explicit goals, executed by policies, protocols, and practices, and made adaptable by monitoring and research based on our best understanding of the ecological interactions and processes necessary to sustain ecosystem composition, structure, and function. In recent years, sustainability has become an explicitly stated, even legislatively mandated, goal of natural resource management agencies. In practice, however, management approaches have often focused on maximizing short-term yield and economic gain rather than long-term sustainability. Several obstacles contribute to this disparity, including: (1) inadequate information on the biological diversity of environments; (2) widespread ignorance of the function and dynamics of ecosystems; (3) the openness and interconnectedness of ecosystems on scales that transcend management boundaries; (4) a prevailing public perception that the immediate economic and social value of supposedly renewable resources outweighs the risk of future ecosystem damage or the benefits of alternative management approaches. The goal of ecosystem management is to overcome these obstacles. Ecosystem management includes the following elements: (1) Sustainability. Ecosystem management does not focus primarily on "deliverables" but rather regards intergenerational sustainability as a precondition. (2) Goals. Ecosystem management establishes measurable goals that specify future processes and outcomes necessary for sustainability. (3) Sound ecological models and understanding. Ecosystem management relies on research performed at all levels of ecological organization. (4) Complexity and connectedness. Ecosystem management recognizes that biological diversity and structural complexity strengthen ecosystems against disturbance and supply the genetic resources necessary to adapt to long-term change. (5) The dynamic character of ecosystems. Recognizing that change and evolution are inherent in ecosystem sustainability, ecosystem management avoids attempts to "freeze" ecosystems in a particular state or configuration. (6) Context and scale. Ecosystem processes operate over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, and their behavior at any given location is greatly affected by surrounding systems. Thus, there is no single appropriate scale or time frame for management. (7) Humans as ecosystem components. Ecosystem management values the active role of humans in achieving sustainable management goals. (8) Adaptability and accountability. Ecosystem management acknowledges that current knowledge and paradigms of ecosystem function are provisional, incomplete, and subject to change. Management approaches must be viewed as hypotheses to be tested by research and monitoring programs. The following are fundamental scientific precepts for ecosystem management. (1) Spatial and temporal scale are critical. Ecosystem function includes inputs, outputs, cycling of materials and energy, and the interactions of organisms. Boundaries defined for the study or management of one process are often inappropriate for the study of others; thus, ecosystem management requires a broad view. (2) Ecosystem function depends on its structure, diversity, and integrity. Ecosystem management seeks to maintain biological diversity as a critical component in strengthening ecosystems against disturbance. Thus, management of biological diversity requires a broad perspective and recognition that the complexity and function of any particular location is influenced heavily by the surrounding system. (3) Ecosystems are dynamic in space and time. Ecosystem management is challenging in part because ecosystems are constantly changing. Over time scales of decades or centuries, many landscapes are altered by natural disturbances that lead to mosaics of successional patches of different ages. Such patch dynamics are critical to ecosystem structure and function. (4) Uncertainty, surprise, and limits to knowledge. Ecosystem management acknowledges that, given sufficient time and space, unlikely events are certain to occur. Adaptive management addresses this uncertainty by combining democratic principles, scientific analysis, education, and institutional learning to increase our understanding of ecosystem processes and the consequences of management interventions, and to improve the quality of data upon which decisions must be made. Ecosystem management requires application of ecological science to natural resource actions. Moving from concepts to practice is a daunting challenge and will require the following steps and actions. (1) Defining sustainable goals and objectives. Sustainable strategies for the provision of ecosystem goods and services cannot take as their starting points statements of need or want such as mandated timber supply, water demand, or arbitrarily set harvests of shrimp or fish. Rather, sustainability must be the primary objective, and levels of commodity and amenity provision must be adjusted to meet that goal. (2) Reconciling spatial scales. Implementation of ecosystem management would be greatly simplified if management jurisdictions were spatially congruent with the behavior of ecosystem processes. Given the variation in spatial domain among processes, one perfect fit for all processes is virtually impossible; rather, ecosystem management must seek consensus among the various stakeholders within each ecosystem. (3) Reconciling temporal scales. Whereas management agencies are often forced to make decisions on a fiscal-year basis, ecosystem management must deal with time scales that transcend human lifetimes. Ecosystem management requires long-term planning and commitment. (4) Making the system adaptable and accountable. Successful ecosystem management requires institutions that are adaptable to changes in ecosystem characteristics and in our knowledge base. Adaptive management by definition requires the scientist's ongoing interaction with managers and the public. Communication must flow in both directions, and scientists must be willing to prioritize their research with regard to critical management needs. Scientists have much to offer in the development of monitoring programs, particularly in creating sampling approaches, statistical analyses, and scientific models. As our knowledge base evolves, scientists must develop new mechanisms to communicate research and management results. More professionals with an understanding of scientific, management, and social issues, and the ability to communicate with scientists, managers, and the public are needed. Ecosystem management is not a rejection of an anthropocentric for a totally biocentric worldview. Rather it is management that acknowledges the importance of human needs while at the same time confronting the reality that the capacity of our world to meet those needs in perpetuity has limits and depends on the functioning of ecosystems.