Commentary

Federal Protection of Ecosystems?

By Allan K. Fitzsimmons
December 23, 1997

The Clinton Administration has made federal management and protection of ecosystems the centerpiece of its environment and natural resource policy. It is doing so to avoid what it calls economic and environmental “train wrecks.” To achieve its goal the Administration has requested hundreds of millions of dollars for ecosystem management and protection, established the National Biological Survey within the Department of the Interior, created an Ecosystem Management Task Force at the White House level, and held several agency “ecosystem summits” to drive the program into the federal bureaucracy.

Ecosystem-based federal policy impacts economic activity, private property rights, and the ability of local governments to use land for public purposes. Since all land is within an ecosystem, the Administration’s policy allows federal officials to regulate land use throughout the country in the name of ecosystem protection regardless of the land’s ownership, condition, or environmental attributes. The reach and potential consequences of ecosystem-based policies far exceeds those of the Endangered Species Act or the wetlands provisions of section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

Advocates of federal ecosystem management often ascribe characteristics to ecosystems that they do not possess in order to enhance the appeal of their position while ignoring inherent features that cripple its use as the basis for sound public policy. For example, proponents pretend that ecosystems are some sort of material superorganisms, this allows them to proclaim high sounding policy goals like providing for an ecosystem’s “needs,” protecting its “integrity,” or restoring its “health.” Ecosystems, however, are neither real nor living; instead they are mental constructs so that on the landscape they exist only in the eye of the beholder. Supporters disregard the unalterable facts that determination of ecosystem size, shape, and location is ultimately arbitrary; that the location of ecosystem boundaries is routinely imprecise; and that ecosystem boundaries normally change through time. They fail to note that ecosystems have no agreed upon core attributes. Nor do they mention that given piece of land can be thought of as simultaneously being in a countless number of ecosystems and intersected by innumerable ecosystem boundaries.

Ecosystem maps of the contiguous states done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency illustrate the vagaries of applying the ecosystem concept to the land. Each agency used a different set of variables to identify and delimit ecosystems. The resultant maps show ecosystems that clearly differ in dimension, form, and locale and the maps depict different numbers of ecosystems—42, 57, and 103 respectively. There are no protocols to decide which of these maps (or any other possible national ecosystem map) would be the “best” one to serve as a basis for the application of ecosystem-based policies.


The real cause of “train wrecks” are inflexible federal statutes that create an uneven playing field whereon the legitimate pursuit of human aspirations is subordinated to environmental protection.


In most other contexts developing and applying federal policies based on geographic units possessing the inherent attributes of ecosystems would be rejected out of hand. For example, an informed citizenry would hardly submit to federal land use regulations to protect and manage individual counties wherein there was no agreed upon number of counties; there was no consensus on the size, shape, or location of counties; counties overlapped geographically; the location of country boundaries was poorly known and constantly open to debate; and there was no agreement upon what federal regulation was supposed to accomplish. Yet acceptance of such conditions is inherent in a policy of nationwide federal ecosystem management.

Ecosystem-based strategies provide unbridled opportunities for regulators to impose a heavy new layer of open-ended federal controls on land use based on supposition, speculation, and arbitrariness. Unfettered by objective standards and publicly agreed upon goals and principles, federal agencies are already moving to provide for “ecosystem needs” and to protect “ecosystem health” as though ecosystems were both discrete entities and living things. Ecosystem “integrity” is to be maintained and so-called “degraded ecosystems” are to be “restored.” Notions such as “ecosystem needs” and “ecosystem health” are fundamentally matters of opinion not science. Similarly, what makes an ecosystem “degraded” or subsequently “restored” is conjecture.

The losers in these efforts are economic activity and private property rights. More land will be placed off-limits to development. Additional restrictions will be applied to developable land. Extensive new opportunities will be created for the government and third parties to use the judicial system to bully concessions from land users or to block usage entirely. As the General Accounting Office noted in a September 1994 report, federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service are now favoring ecosystem protection over so-called “unsustainable” human enterprise when needed to maintain or restore ecosystem integrity.

Proponents of ecosystem-based policies posit in the federal government a level of wisdom not yet demonstrated. They assume that the government has the capability to select from the myriad of potential candidates a single “best” pattern of ecosystems for the nation to be the on-the-ground guide for the application of federal ecosystem policies. They believe the government can gather the necessary data, assure its accuracy, then amalgamate multiple data sets so as to precisely locate hundreds of thousands of miles of ecosystem boundaries throughout the nation. The government’s ability to establish publicly agreed upon measurable goals for the performance and desired condition of each of potentially hundreds or thousands of ecosystems in all their complexity is taken as a given. Finally, advocates of ecosystem-based policies presume that central authority can manage all the human actions that transpire on the landscape in such a fashion as to achieve these goals. What in the history of this or any other nation supports the idea that government has ability to accomplish all these things?

Avoidance of economic and environmental “train wrecks” is an admirable goal. The ecosystem-based approach to federal environment and natural resource policy would attain the goal by putting the economic and property rights trains on sidings and allowing the “Environmental Express” to highball down the track. The real cause of “train wrecks” are inflexible federal statutes that create an uneven playing field whereon the legitimate pursuit of human aspirations is subordinated to environmental protection. “Train wrecks” will be effectively avoided only when concerns about economic activity, property rights, and environmental goals are dealt with on a level playing field that maximizes the use of noncoercive market processes.

Allan K. Fitzimmons is president of Balanced Resource Solutions in Woodbridge, Virginia. He is author of a study of the use of the ecosystem concept in public policy for the Cato Institute.