News of the WeekU.S. ENVIRONMENT

Report Takes Stock of Knowns and Unknowns

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Science  27 Sep 2002:
Vol. 297, Issue 5590, pp. 2191
DOI: 10.1126/science.297.5590.2191a

The United States spends more than $120 billion a year on protecting ecosystems, but the information used to evaluate such efforts is often inadequate or of questionable relevance, say ecologists and policy experts. According to one environmentalist, it's like monitoring a sick patient by measuring fingernail length. A new report—The State of the Nation's Ecosystems, published 24 September by the nonpartisan Heinz Center in Washington, D.C.—tries to provide the missing data and point out where better measures are needed.

The Heinz report (www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems) aspires to be the Dow Jones Industrial Average of the environment. But don't expect to see it published next to the latest stock prices; half of its “ecosystem indicators” can't be measured yet. And for those that can be measured, the center is not saying whether the results represent good or bad news, because it wants to steer away from opinion.

Some environmentalists say such rigid neutrality masks the dire straits of certain ecosystems. But the report's authors insist that their approach is an essential starting point for protecting the environment. The authors also worked to build consensus among people with a range of viewpoints. As with economic indicators, they say, the goal is to start with widely accepted data, which can lead to a debate on policies to change the status quo.

The $3.7 million report was conceived in 1995 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which asked the Heinz Center to complete it. Its funders run the ideological gamut from International Paper to Defenders of Wildlife, and its 150 authors come from universities, environmental groups, industry, and government. About 100 reviewers of a prototype report in 1999 (Science, 10 December 1999, p. 2071) helped the team's seven committees compile government data into 10 national indicators plus 93 other indicators tailored to fit six broad ecosystem types.

Sea to shining sea.

A new report identifies environmental health indicators for six broad ecosystem types.

CREDIT: THE H. JOHN HEINZ III CENTER FOR SCIENCE, ECONOMICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Despite all the number crunching, the 270-page report is most striking for what it lacks. “Half the report is empty,” admits William Clark, chair of the report's design committee and a professor of international science policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Missing data are marked by bleak gray boxes that say, “Data Not Adequate,” meant to prod monitoring programs to fill the gaps. For example, participants agreed that the degree of human alteration is an important ecosystem indicator but say there is no widely accepted way to measure it.

The available indicators organize and add precision to a welter of existing data. For example, the report points out that the four major U.S. rivers carry three times as much nitrate per year as in 1955. A fifth of native animal species are faced with serious decline. Three-fifths of estuaries are contaminated. On the other hand, 85% of streams meet human health standards. Moreover, agricultural production has doubled since the 1950s, and land threatened by erosion has declined by a third since 1985.

“Anyone could do a list that would make everything look good or everything look bad,” Clark says. The report's authors sought to avoid the criticism, often heaped on past assessments, that their measures are biased. The Heinz report's indicators are accepted by all participants.

But some environmentalists say the focus on consensus is the report's greatest weakness. “Because the emphasis was on producing a report that was consensus-driven, they had to focus on the margins of what most scientists would have looked at,” says Dominick DellaSala of the World Wildlife Fund. He quit one of the report committees, claiming that its indicator of forest fragmentation downplays the extent to which forests are broken up by roads, power lines, and development.

Observers' initial reactions were mixed. The report “is the first to employ a comprehensive set of indicators integrating biophysical and sociocultural measures,” says ecologist Bruce Wilcox of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, who edits the journal Ecosystem Health. David Rapport of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, however, is disappointed. “No attempt is made … to relate human activities to the changes in American ecosystems, and no attempt is made to evaluate the health of U.S. ecosystems,” he says. But Chet Boruff of Farmers National Marketing Group in Moline, Illinois, defends the report's neutrality: “That's the best way to build understanding … and to come up with a report that is unbiased.”

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