Translating Ecological Risk to Ecosystem Service Loss


  • Published on the Web 6/22/2009.


Hazardous site management in the United States includes remediation of contaminated environmental media and restoration of injured natural resources. Site remediation decisions are informed by ecological risk assessment (ERA), whereas restoration and compensation decisions are informed by the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) process. Despite similarities in many of their data needs and the advantages of more closely linking their analyses, ERA and NRDA have been conducted largely independently of one another. This is the 4th in a series of papers reporting the results of a recent workshop that explored how ERA and NRDA data needs and assessment processes could be more closely linked. Our objective is to evaluate the technical underpinnings of recent methods used to translate natural resource injuries into ecological service losses and to propose ways to enhance the usefulness of data obtained in ERAs to the NRDA process. Three aspects are addressed: 1) improving the linkage among ERA assessment endpoints and ecological services evaluated in the NRDA process, 2) enhancing ERA data collection and interpretation approaches to improve translation of ERA measurements in damage assessments, and 3) highlighting methods that can be used to aggregate service losses across contaminants and across natural resources. We propose that ERA and NRDA both would benefit by focusing ecological assessment endpoints on the ecosystem services that correspond most directly to restoration and damage compensation decisions, and we encourage development of generic ecosystem service assessment endpoints for application in hazardous site investigations. To facilitate their use in NRDA, ERA measurements should focus on natural resource species that affect the flow of ecosystem services most directly, should encompass levels of biological organization above organisms, and should be made with the use of experimental designs that support description of responses to contaminants as continuous (as opposed to discrete) variables. Application of a data quality objective process, involving input from ERA and NRDA practitioners and site decision makers alike, can facilitate identification of data collection and analysis approaches that will benefit both assessment processes. Because of their demonstrated relationships to a number of important ecosystem services, we recommend that measures of biodiversity be targeted as key measurement endpoints in ERA to support the translation between risk and service losses. Building from case studies of recent successes, suggestions are offered for aggregating service losses at sites involving combinations of chemicals and multiple natural resource groups. Recognizing that ERA and NRDA are conducted for different purposes, we conclude that their values to environmental decision making can be enhanced by more closely linking their data collection and analysis activities.