Lackey, Robert T. 1998. Ecosystem management: paradigms and prattle, people and prizes. Renewable Resources Journal 16(1):8-13.
Anyone with even a minimal awareness of natural resource issues has heard about ecosystem management. Some tout ecosystem management as a revolutionary paradigm that will fundamentally change public policy. Others contend that it is simply another stage in the evolution of our basic management paradigm -- a paradigm that society and natural resource professionals have followed for a hundred years. Historically, at least, the basic idea behind all "management" paradigms has been anthropocentric, to maximize benefits by applying a mix of decisions within defined constraints. Ecosystem management is ambiguous. It is not possible to define many of its elements, precluding achieving a consensus on its meaning or implications. For example, there is no accepted rule for delimiting a ecosystem for use in public decision-making. Arbitrary, place-based definitions are used as they always have been. Other key elements such as ecological health and ecological integrity are widely used in descriptions of ecosystem management, but are of limited value operationally unless the "desired" state of the ecosystem is defined. Because there is no intrinsic definition of health without a benchmark of desired condition, managers are forced to adopt "reference" conditions or "baseline" conditions. However, selecting baseline or reference conditions is also a value based decision. A key role of technical information in ecosystem management is to identify the limits or constraints that bound the options to achieve various societal benefits such as biological diversity. Human values and preferences clash over the importance of biological diversity. Conversely, the ecological role and function of biological diversity is purely a technical question. Ecosystem management may or may not result in emphasis on biological diversity as a desired social benefit. Another issue in ecosystem management, sustainability, is also mired in policy ambiguity. The term sustainability, if used at all in ecosystem management, should be clearly defined -- specifically, the time frame of concern, the benefits and costs of concern, and the relative priority of the benefits and costs. Scientific information is important for effective ecosystem management, but is only one element in the decision-making process that is fundamentally one of public, or private choice. The divisive issues in ecosystem management are not technical: they are moral and philosophical. At least in North America, the ideas behind ecosystem management represent a predictable response to evolving values, priorities, and preferences.