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December 04, 2007

Indicator Species

My family hiked around Roosevelt Island last Saturday. Roosevelt Island lies across the Potomac River from Georgetown near downtown Washington DC. Over time we've noticed something about the rocks on the island compared to rocks we see up in the Shenandoah Mountains: fewer lichen. Lichen (pronounced LIE-kin) is that weird often crusty green, yellow, or brown fungus that commonly grows on rocks or trees (see picture). In the mountains we saw lots of lichen. In town we see less. How come?

Roosevelt Island sign and hand pointing to lichen on a large rock

It turns out lichen are highly sensitive to pollution. Most species can't tolerate much sulfur dioxide, for instance. This makes them a great ‘indicator species' for air quality. In lieu of monitoring for air pollution, you can look around at the amount and type of lichen and get an indication of what's in the air. Got lichen? Then the air is probably clean. Haven't got it, then it's probably dirty.

Of course, there are other indicator species for measuring air quality, water quality, soil contamination and so on. But is there an indicator species for good management in the federal government?

Yes, there is. It's the eagle. Every year since 1988 a few federal agencies receive the President's Quality Award, the “highest award given to Executive Branch agencies for management excellence.” Each winner gets a trophy, an eagle made of crystal. That makes these eagles a pretty good indicator. If there is an eagle hanging around an agency, chances are it's well-managed.

Crystal eagles are good, but one crystal eagle soars above the others. It is awarded for overall excellence. To get this eagle, an agency must demonstrate exceptional management across the agency, not just in a particular area. It is darn rare. Since 1988 it has only been awarded once . . . until an award ceremony last night, that is.

President's Quality Award

I'm happy to announce that at sunrise this morning a new crystal eagle is roosting at EPA and she is no ordinary eagle. She represents the competence and hard work of managers across all of EPA. She indicates we are doing lots of things right.

Crystal eagles are important. More eagles at EPA means, in the long run, more lichen on rocks, more fish in the water, and less waste in our landfills.

Congratulations to all our managers on a great year, you have set a new standard of excellence!


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It's weird. I still get all kinds of questions/comments from people about blog entries but people are hesitant to post comments on the site. At any rate a number of folks wanted to know more about how we won this great award. The EPA application that went to the panel of judges is at http://www.epa.gov/ocfo/presidents_application.pdf

When I look around I cant see any lichen, Its very sad.

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