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State of the Nation's Ecosystems: Data Missing

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 26, 2002 (ENS) - There are major gaps in what is known about the nation's lands, waters and living resources, a new environmental study concludes. The report, based on five years of intensive research, proposes periodic reporting on a list of key ecological indicators that could aid in future environmental and land management policy decision.

In 1995, the Clinton administration asked the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment - a think tank that is not affiliated with either environmental or industry groups - to compile existing data to help assess the health of the nation's environment. The 270 page report released this week concludes that almost 50 percent of the information needed to make environmental policy decisions is missing or inadequate.

wetland

The nation's wetland acres have declined by more than half since European settlement. Since 1950, freshwater wetlands have declined by 10 percent, and coastal wetlands by 8 percent. (Photo courtesy Florida International University College of Engineering)
"The report brings together in one place indicator data produced by a wide array of excellent but independent environmental monitoring efforts run by both government and private organizations," noted William Clark, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and chair of the Heinz Center project.

"These data reveal a rich, complex, and often surprising picture of the state of our nation's ecosystems," Clark continued. "Equally important, however, the report shows where that picture is incomplete: nearly half the indicators lack sufficient data."

Almost 150 experts from government, business, environmental organizations and academia collaborated to select indicators of the nation's environmental health, and report on the best available data on environmental conditions and trends.

The resulting report, "The State of the Nation's Ecosystems: Measuring the Lands, Waters, and Living Resources of the United States," presents a compelling argument for reporting environmental indicators, much as key data are reported to help gauge the state of the national economy.

stream

Almost all streams, groundwater, sediments (stream and estuarine), and freshwater fish sampled have at least one chemical contaminant at detectable levels, the report finds. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"Just as economic policies are informed through a set of key indicators such as gross domestic product, inflation, unemployment, and the balance of trade, we as a nation must have clear indicators of the condition of our ecosystems as a basis for shaping public policies and private sector initiatives," explained Clark.

The report provides indicators for the nation as a whole and for its coasts and oceans, forests, farmlands, fresh waters, grasslands and shrublands, and urban and suburban areas. For each of these systems, the study reports on 10 key characteristics of ecosystems that should be tracked over time, including their chemical and physical conditions, the status of their biological components, and the amounts of goods and services people receive from them.

Where the data are available, the report also describes current environmental conditions and trends for each of these indicators. But for 45 of the 103 indicators presented, the Heinz researchers found inadequate data to support nationwide conclusions about ecological health. And the researchers were able to discuss current trends for just 31 of the indicators.

"In seeking data, we found a classic case of a glass that is both half empty and half full," the report states. "Substantial gaps remain, and until and unless these gaps are filled, Americans will not have access to a complete picture of the 'state of the nation's ecosystems'."

The researchers cited a simple lack of data for 31 of the 45 indicators for which they were not able to report status or trends. But for 14 indicators, the researchers found a fundamental lack of agreement "on how the relevant ecosystem characteristic can be measured most meaningfully and effectively."

runoff

The report finds that the amount of cropland that is vulnerable to water erosion has dropped by a third since 1982, to about 89 million acres. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))
"Without agreement on what indicators we should use to measure our progress, it is extremely difficult for lawmakers, regulators, and the public to make informed choices about the direction our policies should be taking," said Tom Jorling, vice president for environmental affairs at International Paper and the chair of a group of senior advisors for the Heinz project.

"The 'State of the Nation's Ecosystems' is an important first step toward remedying this unsatisfactory situation," added Jorling, who is also a former environmental commissioner for New York State.

The report covers 10 categories of ecological information considered crucial to developing a comprehensive view of the nation's environmental health. These include:

  • Ecosystem extent - Gains or losses in the area covered by a particular ecosystem
  • Fragmentation and landscape pattern - Size, shape, proximity and other patterns of how ecosystems are arranged on the landscape
  • Building blocks of life - Amounts and concentrations of key chemicals (nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and oxygen) that play vital roles in ecosystems
  • Contaminants - The extent of chemical contamination, as well as the frequency with which contaminant levels exceed regulatory standards and advisory guidelines
  • Physical conditions - The condition of important physical characteristics of a particular ecosystem, such as coastal erosion or the depth to groundwater
  • Plants and animals - The presence and condition of native and non-native species of plants and animals
  • Biological communities - The condition of groups of plants and animals that form the "biological neighborhood" for other species
  • Plant growth and productivity - The amount of plant growth, which reflects the amount of energy entering an ecosystem and available to all organisms
  • Production of food and fiber and use of water - Quantities of goods produced by ecosystems, such as crops, livestock, timber, fish and water
  • Recreation and other services - Activities like swimming, hiking, biking and hunting, and other services, including plant pollination and flood reduction

Despite the gaps in data discovered by the Heinz researchers, they note that consistent future tracking of the indicators defined in the report "would produce a much more useful picture of the state of the nation 's ecosystems than has ever been available."

clearcut

The nation's timber harvest is now about 40 percent higher than it was during the 1950s, but lower than at its peak in the 1980s, the report shows. (Photo courtesy American Lands)
The report also points to specific areas of research where much more information needs to be collected. For example, while data was available for more than 80 percent of the indicators of indicators of ecosystem extent, chemical contamination, and the quantities of food, fiber, and water produced in ecosystems, data was lacking for more than two thirds of indicators related to landscape patterns and fragmentation, biological communities and the services provided by ecosystems.

Thomas Lovejoy, president of The Heinz Center and formerly an advisor to the World Bank and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the report is important because it involved so many experts from so many different groups, businesses and government agencies.

"Our participants - including many traditional adversaries - put aside their differences to agree on scientifically grounded and policy-relevant indicators for describing the state of our natural systems," Lovejoy noted.

net

Marine fish landings grew by about 10 percent from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, but have since declined back to late 1970 levels. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
"Policymaking about the environment will always be contentious in a democracy," Lovejoy added. "But debates on how best to manage our nation's natural resources should not be sidetracked through needless debates about the facts. As a nation, we must embrace these indicators, maintain the essential monitoring programs on which they are based, and launch additional efforts to ensure a comprehensive, sustained national reporting program."

The report was commissioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which also called for annual updates to the project and a revised report every five years. The nonprofit H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, named in honor of the late Senator John Heinz, was established in 1995 with a mandate of improving the scientific and economic foundation for environmental policy.

The "State of the Nation's Ecosystems" is available in full at: http://www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems



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