No Going Back to Tradition


Ecosystem Management: Adaptive, Community-Based Conservation. G. K. Meffe, L. A. Nielson, R. L. Knight, and D. A. Shenborn. 2003. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 328 pp. $40.00. ISBN 1–55963–824–9.

One way to measure the maturation (if not acceptance) of a new idea is to count the number and note the type of publications on the topic. Ecosystem management (EM) has been around since the late 1980s; with the arrival of this volume, the field now has a textbook treatment.

The appearance of Ecosystem Management is a welcome event. Developed out of a training course for federal natural resource professionals and written by the people who designed and presented the workshops, the text is pitched as a teaching tool to solve real-world problems. The book is “built around hypothetical but realistic and complex landscape scenarios that [readers]…will work with to make decisions and recommendations in an ecosystem management framework” (p. 5).

The three scenarios that begin the book, set in the Midwest, Intermountain West, and Southeast of the United States, are true-to-life examples of the kinds of interwoven ecological, economic, and institutional conundrums that comprise the contemporary landscape of management. Scenarios are realistic, which is to say they are full of uncertainty, conflict, and cross-purposes. Any engaged scientist will recognize the cast of characters: endangered species, interest groups with agendas, and politicians of various persuasions, all clambering for solutions while imminent development ratchets up the pressure. The scenarios are not overdrawn. They are well constructed and, as advertised, they are used throughout the text as examples of how to “do” ecosystem management. This is accomplished through the liberal use of exercises that refer to the scenarios and are set off in the text in highlighted boxes with titles like “Talk About It!,”“Think About It!,” and “Collaborate on It!” The links between the scenarios, exercises, and main text are strong, and as a result I would expect Ecosystem Management to be an effective teaching tool.

With this design innovation, a strength of Ecosystem Management, the editors have created something more than a standard academic text. Scenarios aside, the rest of the book reads like a typical textbook. Although the four authors' writing styles are integrated, the book's prose rarely excites.

Chapter 2 compares different resource-management approaches, defines EM, and offers several helpful models with which to understand Ecosystem Management. Meffe et al. are explicit about EM not just being about applying ecology and conservation biology to management. They bring socioeconomics and humans and their imperfect institutions into the mix as well. There is a helpful table on page 71 that provides perspective on how the approach has evolved. And the authors point out that, ultimately, EM is as much about managing human behavior as it is about science.

The first part of the book ends with a chapter discussing adaptive management and the need to create management strategies that acknowledge the complexities inherent in nature and cultural institutions. Adaptive management is defined as “treating management as an experiment” (p. 77). I have always wondered how we could describe our work with nature as anything but experimental, yet being ready to learn is a trait not often found in resource professionals, politicians, or citizens. One roadblock to adaptive management (and EM as a whole) is that being open to new learning is costly in time, money, and power relationships. The authors acknowledge this, yet I would have liked a more thorough discussion of the real-world limits of adaptive management.

Part 2 of Ecosystem Management provides a cursory overview of key tenets of conservation science from genetic to landscape-scale diversity. The editors felt the need to provide this primer to “get everyone on the same playing field” (p. 5). Although this material is presented well and linked to the three scenarios through specific exercises, I might have chosen to use this valuable space to describe EM in more detail, using case studies to augment theories and scenarios.

The final section of the book addresses the human dimensions of EM. Though most practitioners, including the authors, would agree that conservation science will not carry the day without the prerequisites of trust building and community collaboration, this last section is the weakest in the book. It does, however, have value. Stakeholders are defined and discussed, partnerships are dissected, and key principles of successful collaboration are highlighted. But half the text here is devoted to strategic management principles, followed by an analysis of different evaluation methods. Given that strategic management and evaluation of results have a role in EM, the presentation here feels too much like a detour into organizational management techniques. This is a weak ending to an otherwise strong book.

In addition to the text and scenarios, eight brief essays by EM practitioners add spice to the volume. Many of them are compelling, rich with experiential learning that validates EM. Steven Yaffee compares EM efforts in the United States from 1995 to 1999 and concludes that EM is creating better ecological outcomes and improved social dynamics among participants. He notes that “it is hard to improve the ecological situation on the ground without improving the ways people and agencies interact” (p. 92). This is a key lesson in EM. Yaffee's data also show that, increasingly, ecological stresses and development pressures are the two biggest barriers to successful EM.

Other contributions of note describe a 141,640-ha (350,000-acre) EM project on the South Carolina coast, a 2-year effort at collaborative conflict resolution in northern Utah, a wonderful roadmap to participating in local government land-use decisions (which should be required reading for all conservation practitioners), and a 40,468-ha (100,000-acre) community-based project in Colorado in which The Nature Conservancy plays a major role.

All of these essays make fascinating reading, yet I came away wanting more. We already know, for example, some of the potential weaknesses of EM, and if the guest contributors had been given more space to describe their experiences, Ecosystem Management would have been even stronger. I would also have liked to see Meffe et al. summarize, analyze, and respond to their contributors' new learning. We need as many success (and failure) stories as possible, given the demands that EM places on those who wish to practice this new approach.

Early on in Ecosystem Management, the authors describe EM as “sweeping through natural resource management agencies” and state that “there is no going back” (p. 4) to traditional resource management. I am not so sure. Yaffee states that by 1999 EM was “largely abandoned in federal agency policy statements” (p. 89) and replaced by a “stealth approach to EM” (p. 90). After all, in Florida and Missouri, state EM programs were eliminated upon the arrival of Republican governors. And all this occurred before George W. Bush came into office in 2000. President Bush has since attempted (among other things) to gut the Northwest Forest Plan, the most famous EM effort in existence. Barring court decisions against the administration, Bush will likely succeed because most federal EM is policy-based and thus lacks legislative authority.

What does this say about the future of EM? I am not as sanguine about the answer to this question as the authors of Ecosystem Management appear to be, but I am cautiously optimistic. Like Meffe et al., I believe that whatever name it goes by, there is simply no alternative to a management that is informed by conservation science, place-based, adaptive, and collaborative. If politicians will not accept this, then citizens and managers will find ways to become involved as they are doing right now all over the country. And it is texts like Ecosystem Management that will sustain this groundswell by engaging a new generation of practitioners to gain the skills to do right by species, ecosystems, landscapes, and the human communities that depend on them.