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.
"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.
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."
"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:
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."
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.
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