Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Synthesis Topic 1: Integrated Ecosystem Assessment

Mike Reiter, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Bethune-Cookman University

One of the realizations arising from our past efforts in resource management has been that many of our major environmental issues are necessarily multidimensional. Attempts to address them from only one or two disciplinary perspectives provide diminishing returns, a condition that is exacerbated as the impact of human activities on ecosystems continues to grow. This realization has driven efforts to develop new approaches to our environmental issues that build on the concepts of ecosystem based management (EBM) and integrated ecosystem assessment (IEA) in order to provide a broader, more inclusive view of the problem and its associated linkages and connections.

Dealing With Wicked Problems 
In a way, we are starting to see environmental issues, including many of our most pressing marine and coastal problems, as what Rittel and Webber (1973) referred to as “wicked problems”. Wicked problems have particular characteristics, among them:
  • A wicked problem continually changes, the information needed to understand it depends upon the idea chosen for solving it, and there is no one “fully correct” explanation of either the problem or the solution. Solutions depend on explanations, which are both stakeholder dependent and of the “better or worse” variety: we stop when we’ve “done what we can” or when it’s “good enough”, or possibly when we’ve run out of resources.
  • Wicked problems are situation- and location-dependent: the solution of one wicked problem can’t be counted on to fit all similar-appearing problems.
  • There are no criteria that will ensure that all potential solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered, and there is no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem that will ensure that no unintended consequences will arise.
  • There are linked scales of wicked problems: every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another, usually itself wicked, problem. This makes for many potential interconnected causal levels that need to be considered (and possibly managed) at the same time, in the sense of panarchy theory or the Dutch School of transition management.
  • The manager has no right to be wrong, as the goal is to improve some (in this case, environmental) aspect of the world and/or people’s lives, making managers liable for the consequences of their choices despite the complexity and uncertainty inherent in the task.

That last point can run head-first into the mentality of resource managers who were trained in one of the more traditional scientific disciplines where problems were more clearly defined and stable, had expected end points that could be objectively evaluated, and allowed for negative results as a means of reaching positive outcomes that could be applied to other similar problems. Unfortunately, given the numerous environmental issues we must deal with and the likely consequences of “doing nothing” (which any resource manager knows is itself a resource management decision to allow the current situation to continue), complexity and interconnectivity do not represent, in and of themselves, an excuse for not attempting to “do what we can”.

Different Approaches to IEA 
EBM has been developing over the years in response to the perceived need for management approaches that can handle multidimensional, interconnected environmental issues (particularly where human activities are involved), and IEA has been developing to address the need for methods that can provide the multidimensional information necessary for EBM. Given the characteristics of wicked problems, it is no surprise that there is no one thing called IEA (indeed, there isn’t one term for IEA, with many agencies and authors providing variations on terminology or approach that are functional for their purposes).

To give at least one workable example: overall, a good general description of an IEA is the NOAA description; a formal synthesis and quantitative analysis of information on relevant natural and socioeconomic factors in relation to specified ecosystem management goals (see Levin et al 2008). These approaches often involve conceptual modeling as a means of enabling the combination of scientific and social information in one process, communicating between disciplines, and/or conveying information to the public (see, for example, Reiter et al 2006, Cox et al 2004, Gentile et al 2001, Cloern 2001), or GIS and remote sensing as a means of assessing different types of data over large spatial scales or for linking to conceptual model use (see, for example, Mitra 2011, Reiter et al 2009, Burke and Maidens 2004).

Figure 1. A proposed framework for a fully integrated environmental assessment (from Cormier and Suter 2008).

Cormier and Suter (2008) argued that no existing framework explicitly included all types of environmental assessments, which could be a problem since practitioners of the various partial approaches may not recognize the linkages between the different types of assessment or the value of collaboration to achieve the common goal of providing scientific input for decision making. They also noted that none of the existing environmental risk assessment frameworks focused on the ultimate goal of making decisions concerning the problem to be addressed. To begin to address this gap, they laid out a logical pathway for a fully integrated assessment that moves from Condition Assessment (“Is there a problem?”) to Causal Pathway Assessment (“What caused the problem?”), Predictive Assessment (“What are the consequences of solving the problem?”), and Outcome Assessment (“Did the solution work?”: Fig. 1). They argued that this approach would allow for the recognition of the linkages between the different types of assessments and would provide a potential way for decision makers and stakeholders to integrate the different types of assessment required to address an environmental concern. While giving several examples of what they consider to be integrated assessments (or close), Cormier and Suter (2008) did not offer a standardized methodology for moving from issue to action based on their logic model. Efforts such as the development of the Integrated Assessment and Ecosystem Management Protocol (IAEMP; Fig. 2) are attempting to provide a means of completing IEA logic pathways such as the Cormier and Suter framework within a stakeholder-based, adaptive decision making process that can be applied to a wide range of locations and circumstances (Reiter et al in revision).

Figure 2. Mapping the sections of the IAEMP onto the framework for a fully integrated environmental assessment (Reiter et al in revision). Assessment sections are based on Cormier and Suter (2008).
Involving the Public 
One of the often difficult, even problematic, aspects of EBM and IEA is the incorporation of the public into management decisions. Aldo Leopold arguably started the movement toward this position decades ago when he stressed in his writings that human intervention in the surrounding environment was a necessary consequence of our existence (as it was for all organisms), and as such everyone had a stake in both the health of ecosystems and the need to develop an appreciation for them if we were to retain supportive habitats.

In addition, we’ve also come to notice the difficulty in implementing a management plan, however well-designed or well-intentioned, when the public is not in favor of it. Scientists sometimes have difficulty with this reality as well, since they are trained to regard management decisions as scientific outcomes of a specific academic analysis. Ironically, regulators can have similar difficulties when they view management decisions as the result of political and economic forces that interact to determine the outcome of a regulatory “bargaining session”.

As a result, there is a need for using sound science to inform the public as well as appropriate management entities, particularly since most decisions affecting land use in coastal ecosystems are made at the local or regional level (Scott et al 2006). This adds even further importance to the development of new tools and technologies that can help us understand an issue by combining information from numerous perspectives, while at the same time allowing for more effective stakeholder and public involvement. Sound science should be rooted in established principles of EBM which promote environmental sustainability, conservation, and protection identified as priorities by society.

Basis for Wise Decisions
If ultimate decision making on environmental issues conforms to these fundamental principles of sustainability, then wise decisions can be made concerning present and future environmental issues with minimal reliance on unsustainable subsidies (and their associated costs). For example, beach renourishment is a subsidy generally justified through cost-benefit analysis of economic, cultural, and/or ecological returns. However, considering predictions of future sea level rise using global climate models, the need for an increasing frequency of renourishment may require a shift in resource priorities to a different policy based on more sustainable principles. This is just one example of a “wicked problem”, one that is best addressed through an Integrated Ecosystem Assessment process that uses “sound science” in a holistic, consensus-based decision making process.

For more information on IEA applied to coastal ecosystems check out the following sessions at CERF 2011:
Tuesday, November 8, 2011:
1:30-3PM, SCI-039, Integrated Assessments of Valued Components and Services in Estuarine Ecosystems
3:30-5PM, Tuesday Synthesis Session, Integrated Ecosystem Assessment: the Present State-of-the-Art

Burke, L., and J. Maidens. 2004. Reefs at Risk in the Caribbean. World Resources Institute, Washington DC.
Cormier, S., and G. W. Suter II. 2008. A framework for fully integrating environmental assessment. Environmental Management 42:543-556
Cox, M. E., R. Johnstone, and J. Robinson. 2004. Assessing the social and economic impacts of changes in coastal systems. In: Mowlaei, M. J., A. Rose, J. Lamborn. Environmental Sustainability through Multidisciplinary Integration. Proc. 7th Annual Environmental Research Conference, Marysville, Victoria, pp 68-77. 1-4 December, 2003.
Gentile, J. H., M. A. Harwell, W. Cropper, Jr., C. C. Harwell, D. DeAngelis, S. Davis, J. C. Ogden, and D. Lirman. 2001. Ecological Conceptual Models: A Framework and Case Study on Ecosystem Management for South Florida Sustainability. Science of the Total Environment. 274(1-3):231-253, 2001.
Levin, P. S., M. J. Fogarty, G. C. Matlock, and M. Ernst. 2008. Integrated ecosystem assessments. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memo NMFS-NWFSC-92, 20 pp.
Mitra, D. 2011. Remotes sensing and GIS for coastal zone management: Indian experience. In: Anbazhagan, S., S. Subramanian, and X. Yang eds. Geoinformatics in Applied Geomorphology. CRC Press, Boca Raton FL.
Reiter, M. A., J. H. Gentile, M. A. Harwell, J. Barko, and G. Scott. In revision. An Integrated Assessment and Ecosystem Management Framework for Informing Environmental Decisions. Environmental Management.
Reiter, M. A., M. Saintil, Z. Yang, and D. Pokrajac. 2009. Derivation of a GIS-based watershed-scale conceptual model for the St. Jones River Delaware from habitat-scale conceptual models. J. Environ. Manag. 90:3253-3265.
Reiter, M. A., G. R. Parsons, R. W. Scarborough, C. Fan, and S. M. Thur. 2006. An interdisciplinary conceptual metamodel for the St. Jones River watershed, Delaware: Development, results, and implications. J. Environ. Monit. Restor. 2:38-50.
Rittel, H., and M. Webber. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4:155-169. Scott, G. I., A. F. Holland, and P. A. Sandifer. 2006. Managing Coastal Urbanization and Development in the 21st Century: The Need for a New Paradigm. In: G. Kleppel et al, eds. “Changing Land Use Patterns in the Coastal Zone: Managing Environmental Quality in Rapidly Developing Regions”. Van Norstam press, NYC, NY: pp. 285 –299. 

A bibliography of additional readings on IEA can be downloaded from here:

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