Managing ecosystems: The importance of integration

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The ecosystem approach is at the core of much recent environmental policy and legislation. This may succeed in reducing ecosystem degradation and enhancing the contributions of ecosystems to human well-being, but knowing when and how to intervene requires substantial understanding of both the ecological and the social systems involved. This is particularly critical along already extensively altered and exploited river basins, coasts, and estuaries that must adapt not only to natural variability and stress but also to increasing levels of global, regional, and local-scale anthropogenic stresses and changes, including global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, eutrophication, pollution, invasive species, and habitat loss.

Developing and linking the underlying scientific understanding and effective management strategies is a significant challenge. The current global food crisis that has arisen, in part, as an unintended consequence of biofuel policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions reveals the interconnectedness and complexity of current decision processes.

Expressing ecological processes and resources in terms of the goods and services they provide links our scientific understanding of the environment to socioeconomic factors. Yet understanding how various human activities affect ecosystem functions remains somewhat elusive. While some methods have been proposed in which the values of less tangible ecosystem services are translated into purely economic terms that can be balanced against the value of (sometimes less sustainable) goods, such approaches have at times been met with hostility and suspicion. Other tools, such as multicriteria decision analysis and regional risk models, in which ecosystem services, river basin objectives, or a diverse set of ecological and socioeconomic assessment endpoints are compared, may, if well designed, allow for a more explicit or less controversial balance of these issues. How one ranks potential risks and benefits to various receptors, goods, and services is a policy decision, but it is important that sound science is developed and clearly communicated to inform such decision frameworks.

Successful ecosystem-based management will require integration to an unprecedented degree: Integration of environmental, political, and socioeconomic objectives from the catchment basin to the coast and, ultimately, to the sea; of the various water and land uses, including their functions and values; of different skills and disciplines; of previous and emerging legislation and policy into common and coherent frameworks; of technical, socioeconomic and legislative instruments; of stakeholders in decision making; and of the different decision-making levels affecting ecosystem status and management among many nations. This integration will require extensive collaboration and research to adapt current systems of environmental assessment and management to the basin and ecosystem level. Such integration in support of complex problems is a not a trivial challenge. It will push the boundaries traditionally addressed by many research fields, agencies, and policies.

There is a proliferation of “integrated” environmental programs and projects, but the task of true integration remains an often underfunded afterthought. An increasing number of papers, workshops, Web pages, and so on use terms such as “ecosystem based,” “sustainable management,” “resistance,” “resilience,” “ecosystem services,” and “ecosystem health.” While all these concepts have value, clear definitions are rare. It is critical as we cross disciplines and adapt tools designed for different purposes that we are explicit about how these terms are defined and how we link what we measure with what we are trying to achieve.

There is a need for the development of better frameworks to link the complex science that should underlie decision processes to clear and usable communication and decision tools for the public and policymakers in a way that is both compelling and understandable. Traditionally, many research scientists have scorned the perceived oversimplification necessary to communicate across disciplines and with the public, preferring the communication and company of their own peer group. Similarly, the public and policymakers cannot generally, in terms of time, resources, or background, be expected to understand every detail and layer of science that underlies informed decision making.

What is needed are clearly understood conceptual approaches and frameworks that build bridges between stakeholders, with a clear, logical and unbroken chain linking and translating the fundamental science and its underlying assumptions to the applied issues and decisions they inform. As evidenced by the special series in this issue of IEAM reporting on the results of a US Environmental Protection Agency workshop on the current and future practice of ecological risk assessment, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management provides an ideal platform for specialists and practitioners from various fields to come together and develop a common language to address these issues.

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