Study: More ecosystem data needed

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tank Correspondent  |  Oct. 9, 2002 at 5:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- There are major gaps in analyst and policymaker understanding of America's ecosystems that must be addressed through better data collection as well as by placing greater emphasis on key indicators of environmental performance, according to a major new environmental study.

"I think that we have had a consensus for a long time among people who look at information for public policy that the role for sound strategic data on how we are doing business has been an absolutely fundamental foundation for doing policy building," said William Clark, professor of international science, public policy and human development at Harvard University.

But according to, "The State of the Nation's Ecosystems: Measuring the Lands, Waters, and Living Resources of the United States," there is a fundamental lack of available data from which sound environmental policy can be derived.

The report was released late last month and proposes that indicators of environmental status and performance be incorporated into how American policymakers measure the state of the nation's ecosystems and make relevant policy decisions.

The Clinton administration commissioned the study from the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in 1997. The center is a relatively new think tank -- started only in 1995 -- that conducts non-partisan research on environmental issues likely to confront policymakers within two to five years.

According to Clark, who chaired the commission that developed the report, much in the way that economic indicators provide a sense of how the economy is performing, environmental indicators could not only demonstrate the current status of the ecosystems but also help better gauge long-term trends.

Specifically, the report recommends the use of 103 separate indicators that fall into 10 categories for the nation overall as well as for its different types of ecosystems including coasts and oceans, forests, farmlands, fresh waters, grasslands and shrublands, as well as urban and suburban areas.

Among the 10 categories are two measures of system dimension including ecosystem extent -- the gains or losses in a particular ecosystem -- as well as fragmentation and landscape pattern -- the size, shape, proximity and other patterns of how ecosystems are arranged.

The report also recommended that physical and chemical conditions be measured including the concentration of key chemicals needed for life like nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and oxygen, as well as the level of contaminants in an area and the overall physical state of the system.

Under biological measures, the report recommended that ecosystem plant and animal inhabitation levels be tracked; that biological communities -- the condition of plants and animals that make up food chains -- be explored; and that data on plant growth and productivity be collected.

In the human use category, the report recommended that food production and use of water as well as the potential recreational uses of a system be used as indicators of environmental performance. In addition, it is recommended that other "ecological services" like plant pollination and flood reduction within a system should be taken in account.

A panel of 150 experts from academia, business, environmental organizations and government developed the recommendations and findings which are reportedly based upon the best available data culled from government, academic and private sector sources.

But another key finding of the report is the fact that not enough data is available for a multitude of the indicator categories or is simply not currently tracked by any entity.

This is despite the government spending more than $600 million a year on the collection of environmental data.

Although data was found lacking for all but 33 of the 103 indicators, the report makes other important findings, including that there may be no streams in the United States free from some form of chemical contamination.

In addition, the Heinz study reports that approximately one-fifth of the animal species and one-sixth of plant types are at risk of extinction.

James Boyd, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, said that although he may disagree with the choice of some indicators, he applauds the overall effort in the report.

He also agreed that we simply don't have the data required to properly track all of the environmental indicators chosen such as the conditions of plant and animal communities nationwide.

"I think those who don't have a personal interest in this issue would be surprised about what data doesn't get collected," said Boyd, whose prominent think tank is focused on environmental policy issues and analysis.

"Identifying data and monitoring gaps is one of the major (environmental research) issues and I think those findings are valuable," he said.

He said, however, that there are dangers posed by the environmental indicator concept because such a list can result in the placing of equal emphasis on all findings despite their unequal environmental impact.

"Indicators can be deceptive because there is a tendency to look at a set of indicators and give them all the same weight," he said.

More generally, Boyd believes that the report is a good first "baby step" towards addressing the important policy issues that should dominate the debate over ecological problems because much of what is known from the available data is now collected in one source.

But Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that the findings and recommendations run counter to the reality that the environment in the United States is improving. He added that the report reflects a move on the part of environmentalists to redefine the use of existing data for their own agenda.

"They are (making) general assessments that run flat in the face of what has been shown which is that by any (measure of) environmental indicators things are getting better," said Horner, whose free-market advocacy think tank is generally opposed to governmental regulation of industry.

"But those that have decided to convince people that things are getting worse have had a hard time accepting that," he said. "They just want to develop data to prove an existing model."

For instance, he said that along with human longevity, disease prevention, and lifestyle, air and water quality as well as the availability of clean drinking water are all at high levels in the United States.

"I think they want to redefine the debate and the reason is that the (existing) data indicators are clearly getting better," he said. "If you continue to use indications that things are getting better then these folks will never win, so they have to redesign the model, redesign the assessment."

According to Boyd, Horner is correct in his environmental analysis if his thesis is applied to state of waterways in the United States. When one takes into account the improvements brought about through enforcement of the Clean Water Act and other regulatory efforts, he said, rivers and streams in the United States are getting cleaner.

But Boyd said this does not mean that policymakers should abandon efforts to have a better understanding of the impact of policy or of the state of the environment because some improvement have come through existing regulation.

He added that although there have been some improvements, there clearly are still problems to address.

Horner also criticized the Heinz report for drawing negative conclusions about the overall state of the environment despite also finding that there is not enough adequate data for some of the indicators.

"I don't think they can have it both ways," said Horner.

But Clark explained that that although there is a dire need for more information in many key indicator areas, the problem is a layered one.

According the report, for 12 of the indicators, the information is available but its proper collection has been limited by time and money constraints or the needed information is being collected but not ready for publication.

For 41 of the indicators the information is also collected but not yet aggregated.

Ultimately, there are only 17 of the recommended indicators for which data is not widely collected or for which research methods have not been sufficiently defined scientifically.

Clark added that the situation is most accurately described, depending upon one's view, as being one where the glass is either half empty or half full.

He said, however, that this does not mean there is not a data collection problem, especially when it comes to the environmental status of urban and suburban areas.

"It is where 75 percent of Americans live and a decent fraction of where our bugs, plants and animals persist," said Clark. "It is an important portion of our ecosystem but it is a great gaping whole and major public policy challenge."

Ultimately, Horner said the data findings function primarily as a supporting mechanism for the environmental and other non-governmental organizations that would profit from increased environmental data collection.

"This report would seek to increase dramatically the federal funding for the agencies and NGOs involved," he said.

And although Clark praised the overall effort for resulting in acceptable compromise between corporate, government and other private sector interests on environmental issues, Horner said the corporations involved clearly participated due to the potential benefits they could gain from the tougher environmental regulations that the report does not actually advocate but clearly supports.

He said firms associated with the report, like the Monsanto Company, have a huge reason for supporting efforts that could lead to more government environmental regulation because such restrictions could help them in overpowering competing companies.

For a participant like International Paper that is viewed as an evildoer by green activists, he said that the company could be simply seeking to burnish their image.

"For the most part they are rent seekers or looking to disable competition with government regulation," he said of the reports environmental group and corporate participants.

Clark views the report as only the first step in a overall process, noting that the working group hopes to address some of the data concerns and other issues when the report findings are updated in several years.

He added that although the report received active interests from congressmen during a recent House of Representatives Science committee hearing on the study findings, he believes it might be best if it remains just off the radar screen of politicians. Instead of a being used to support potential legislation that would become subject to partisan bickering, he hopes it can feed a wider debate on how best to handle environmental policy.

"What is needed now is a broad ranging public policy debate on what ought to be our priorities in terms of how much dough we may be willing to invest as a society in filling which of these gaps," said Clark.

"This is a long term issue and I would think that this is something that needs not only government leadership but also ongoing participation from the private sector and non-governmental organizations."

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