Commentary

“Federal Protection of Ecosystems - Train Wrecks In The Making”

By Allan K. Fitzsimmons
October 21, 1996

Federal management and protection of ecosystems is the cornerstone of the Administration’s environmental policy. It has adopted this approach in part to avoid what it calls “economic and environmental train wrecks.” Ecosystem-based policies hold the potential for increased erosion of private property rights and creation of new layers of environment regulations far beyond anything we have seen thus far from the federal government. This occurs because all land is within some ecosystem so the Administration’s new policy could allow federal officials to regulate land use throughout the country in the name of the vague notion of ecosystem protection regardless of the land’s ownership, condition, or environmental attributes.

The ecosystem concept was never intended to be used as a guide for land management or federal regulatory, compliance, and permitting actions. The concept emerged in 1935 as a tool to aid researchers interested in furthering our understanding of the workings of the world around us. It was intended to get around debates that had arisen among ecologists concerning whether or not plant assemblages were themselves living things and where their boundaries might be located. From inception, ecosystems were not deemed to be some sort of living superorganism. On the landscape ecosystems were understood to be mental constructs as opposed to being real entities so that they could be defined operationally using whatever variables best suited the research at hand.

Present-day advocates of federal ecosystem management often ascribe to ecosystems characteristics they do not possess. 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.” At the same time supporters of federal ecosystem management frequently ignore inherent features of the ecosystem concept. Disregarded are the facts that even among scientists there is no agreed upon set of core ecosystem attributes or widely accepted ways to measure them.

Supporters brush aside the truths 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. The policy and land management significance of the fact that a given piece of land can be thought of as simultaneously being in a countless number of ecosystems and intersected by innumerable ecosystem boundaries is routinely overlooked. The fact that there are a limitless number of ecosystem patterns possible for the nation and that no protocols exist to select a “best” pattern to guide federal ecosystem protection actions goes unmentioned.

Ecosystem-based strategies provide unbridled opportunities for regulators to overlay a heavy new layer of open-ended federal controls on existing regulations based on supposition, speculation, and arbitrariness. Federal agencies are already moving to provide for “ecosystem needs” and to protect “ecosystem health” and 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 are economic activity and private property rights. More land will be placed off-limits to development and additional restrictions will be applied to developable land. As the General Accounting Office noted in an August 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.” Meanwhile the Environmental Protection Agency has made ecosystem protection its number one guiding principle and is seeking to integrate it into the agency’s enforcement and compliance activities.

Proponents of ecosystem-based policies posit in the federal government capabilities and levels of wisdom not yet demonstrated. They assume that the government has the ability 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. Ignoring the lessons of the wetlands delineation controversy, they believe the government can precisely locate at least hundreds of thousands of miles of ecosystem boundaries throughout the nation. They take for granted that the government has the sagacity and depth of understanding needed to prescribe desired future conditions of each of hundreds or thousands of ecosystems throughout the nation in all their complexity as well as to manage all the human actions that transpire on the landscape in such a fashion as to achieve those conditions. What in the history of this or any other nation supports the idea that government has ability to accomplish all these things?

What a policy of federal management and protection of ecosystems comes down to is the federal government trying to control land use in order to provide benefits that are unclear to things that are unreal for purposes that are uncertain. 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. Fitzsimmons is President of Balanced Resource Solutions in Woodbridge, Virginia. He just completed a study of the use of the ecosystem concept in public policy for the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.