Ecosystem-Based Management: What Really Happens?


Natural Experiments: Ecosystem-Based Management and the Environment. Layzer, J. A. 2008 . The MIT Press , Cambridge , Massachusetts . 365 pp. $28.00 (paperback) . ISBN 978-0-262-62214-1 .

We have heard it many times: Collaboration brings together different groups to define and reach environmental goals and ought to take the place of the top–down regulation-plus-enforcement that dominated environmental protection in the late 20th century. By decentralizing policy making, the logic goes, environmental disputes can be resolved more effectively. In addition, natural resource crises—collapsed fisheries, depleted forests, and lengthening lists of threatened and endangered species—prompt calls for a holistic approach to natural resource management.

Advocates of ecosystem or ecosystem-based management (EBM) consider it the best solution to environmental challenges. Layzer, the author of Natural Experiments, prefers the term EBM because it better reflects the need to manage human activities within ecosystems, as opposed to managing the ecosystems themselves. From her review of the field, Layzer finds agreement that, at a minimum, EBM entails addressing problems at a landscape scale, stakeholder collaboration, and implementation that is flexible and adaptive.

Many scientists, managers, politicians, developers, and citizens see EBM as a creative new solution to environmental and natural resource disputes. But is it? Do we have evidence that it works? Which aspects of EBM programs foster success and which do not? For that matter, how is success measured?

Natural Experiments provides a systematic, comparative assessment of four nationally recognized EBM projects and asks, “To what extent, how, and under what conditions does EBM yield durable, environmentally protective policies and practices that (1) constitute improvements relative to the status quo and (2) are likely to conserve and restore ecological health?” (p. 3). The author goes on to examine three additional non-EBM cases. Layzer's thought-provoking analysis of seven projects leads her to conclude that EBM projects yield, among other things, a deeper and more holistic understanding of the science of damaged and healthy ecosystems, as well as rationales for raising large sums of money to acquire or restore natural areas. They often empower agency personnel to institutionalize environmentally beneficial processes. Unfortunately, she finds that none of the four explicitly EBM projects yielded policies or practices that restored or conserved biological diversity or ecological health.

Before analyzing the seven projects, Layzer summarizes the oft- quoted reasons for choosing EBM: the drawbacks of regulatory approaches, limits of local land-use and water management, futility of local land-use planning, and perceived limits of federal regulation. Is EBM the remedy for these ills? Wisely, she sets the stage for her analysis (chapter 2) by describing the hypothetical benefits (called the optimistic model) and the potential pitfalls (the pessimistic model) of EBM. Optimists, for example, contend that environmental improvements will result from multistakeholder and multiagency efforts because they will inspire innovative plans that are durable and grounded in the best available science. Pessimists respond that these projects waste time and money because they provide a means by which development interests can dominate policy making. EBM, they believe, undermines environmental protection by diluting or disabling the tools—administrative appeals, lawsuits, and public relations campaigns—that have been environmentalists’ most effective weapons.

Layzer's choice of projects ranges across the United States and includes aquatic and terrestrial systems. The EBM projects involve two terrestrial systems in the rapidly urbanizing Southwest (Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Program, Austin, Texas; Multiple Species Program, San Diego, California) and two aquatic systems (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Florida; Bay-Delta Program, California). Among the other three projects, one was triggered by a proposed endangered species listing (Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, Pima County, Arizona), and two pursued ecological restoration (Kissimmee River, Florida; Mono Lake Basin, California).

Chapters 3 through 9 examine each of the seven projects in detail. These analyses have several important strengths. First, Layzer emphasizes the detection of causal relationships. Second, she dedicates 30–40 pages of text to each project, which allowed her to fully introduce the key people and institutions and detail the roles they played in advancing or derailing each project. Third, she examines the political, economic, policy, and power relations that helped or hindered attainment of project conservation goals. Fourth, she searches for, but only sometimes finds, clear statements of project goals. Fifth, she identifies where and how project goals were compromised because of power imbalances among stakeholders. Finally, she systematically explores a standard set of issues across the projects to identify and understand project effectiveness at three stages: EBM attributes, intermediate outputs, and overall (environmental) outputs or outcomes.

All four EBM projects adopted a landscape-scale perspective, involved stakeholder collaboration, and took a flexible, adaptive approach to implementation. Among the non-EBM projects, all adopted a landscape-scale perspective and a flexible, adaptive approach, but none involved stakeholder participation.

Seven intermediate outputs (integrative science and comprehensive planning; interagency and jurisdiction coordination and consistency; trust, transformation, and innovation; agreement on and grounding in best-available information; durable implementation; stewardship and going beyond legal minimums; learning and adjustment) are evaluated for each project. The EBM and non-EBM projects differ in substantial ways across these intermediate outputs. Generally, EBM projects show no discernible change or a minimal increase in these characteristics as a result of the project. In contrast, the non-EBM cases produced moderate or substantial increases in these factors in all projects.

Finally, Layzer evaluated all the projects to determine whether they developed an environmentally sensitive plan and if environmental improvements accrued as a result of the project. Plans developed by the EBM projects yielded only minimal increases in environmental protections—and no environmental improvements. All non-EBM projects produced substantial increases in environmental protection; two led to environmental improvements likely to increase ecological health in the region.

Adherence to a landscape-scale focus rather than the piecemeal approaches of the past yielded concrete policies and practices in all projects. Acquisition of new lands for conservation purposes provided another important advance. But the presence of stakeholder collaboration produced policies and practices less likely to acquire the most important conservation lands, decisions that opened the way for future development of those natural areas, and had limited likelihood of conserving or restoring ecological health. On the plus side, all projects generally led to new forms of collaboration among disparate agencies and jurisdictions.

Stakeholder collaboration derailed environmental progress in several ways. When policy makers deferred to stakeholders to gain consensus, stakeholder groups skirted the trade-offs because they promised something for everyone. Stakeholder agreement on four main objectives for the California Bay Project, for example, ignored conflicts among the objectives. One cannot simultaneously provide good water quality for all existing and future beneficial uses and improve and increase aquatic and terrestrial habitats and ecological functions to support sustainable populations of all valuable plant and animal species. The California Bay Project slogan—“getting better together”—assumed a win–win solution that ultimately maintained the existing water export regime, rather than developing creative new management regimes. Yet the existing levels of water use were not sustainable, a fact that created the need for California Bay Project in the first place. Win–win promises that no stakeholder group will be harmed by a project make it impossible to use adaptive management, a key component of EBM, even when project failure becomes obvious.

In the Austin, Texas, EMP, policy makers relied on stakeholder-based planning and flexible, voluntary implementation, severely lessening the likelihood of a protective plan. Protected lands comprised fewer acres than the bare minimum prescribed by scientists, and set-asides were both fragmented and insufficiently buffered from urban encroachment. The lack of political leadership ceded power to development interests, which provided little opportunity for the project to achieve its biological goals.

In project after project, stakeholders invoked improved technology as a solution to satisfy everyone by expanding the natural resource pie (e.g., water supply for all users). A heavily engineered and intensively managed Florida Everglades, for example, continues to impose risks of failure on the natural system because technology rarely replaces or substitutes for crucial components of natural systems. As Layzer notes, engineering projects manipulated distribution, depth, and duration of flooding rather than restoring the Everglades’ north–south flow, despite scientific recognition of the uninterrupted movement of water as a key to restoration success. In fact, technology (storage reservoirs, water control structures, and others) were called upon in several projects to extract even more from natural systems already stressed by human activity. In short, by deferring to stakeholder groups, agencies and political leaders often set the stage for failure, even allowing further degradation of the natural resources they were expected to conserve or restore.

Successful projects, on the other hand, emerged from conventional politics, which involved expenditures of political capital to accomplish a clearly defined environmental goal. Such leadership was often forced to respond to lawsuits or educational campaigns that captured the attention of many citizens. Successful projects also were characterized by protective principles articulated by the region's scientific community. Positive feedbacks developed because accomplishments reinvigorated many individuals and institutions to redouble their efforts. This factor also countered the disparity in power between development and environmental groups.

My only complaint about Layzer's analysis is her failure to identify explicitly a crucial fourth element to successful EBM: the development of and adherence to a carefully formulated and clearly defined set of ecological, especially biological goals. Time after time, in my experience, the failure of EBM centers on the failure to define such goals with rigorous scientific analysis or, when goals are clearly defined, the tendency to permit stakeholder decisions to dilute or compromise those goals. Regrettably, the most consistent ingredient for such compromises is stakeholder participation. The only non-EBM project without positive environmental outcomes, according to Layzer, has been Pima County, Arizona's. On the plus side, political leaders developed several strategies to identify and advance conservation of Pima County's biological diversity in the face of considerable pressure from development interests. They engaged the public by means of the unusual strategy of downplaying the cost of the program by comparing it with what the county regularly spent on such amenities as roads, sewers, and other infrastructure. The public was encouraged to consider the costs of not undertaking the plan—losing pristine areas and providing services for sprawling private development. On the minus side, however, long-term success in Pima County depends on voluntary implementation, a factor that could change the policy in the next election cycle.

Across the seven projects, the greatest success was attained when proponents of ecological restoration combined ordinary politics—the support of political leaders—with expert planning designed to achieve a defined environmentally protective goal. Averting stakeholder compromises to ensure that the goal was not derailed was also a key.

Although definitive answers may be the impossible dream, Layzer provides a rigorous study that challenges both the simple optimistic and pessimistic models with insightful analyses that, if carefully considered, will improve the results of future EBM programs. This volume is required reading for any individual, organization, or agency participating in EBM.