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.