Ecosystem Management – a Philosophical Paradigm

“Today, ecosystem management remains primarily a philosophical concept for dealing with large spatial scales; longer time frames; and the requirement that management decisions must be socially acceptable, economically feasible, and ecologically sustainable.”

“..the ecosystem management problem is not as much about science as it is about politics.”

Rauscher H.M. 1999. Ecosystem management decision support for federal forests in the United States: A review. Forest Ecology and Management 114:173-197.

Broadly, the term ‘ecosystem management’ can be defined as a management philosophy that considers conservation objectives.  The goal is to ensure environmental protection despite the demands for natural resources by an increasing human population.1-4  The philosophy of ecosystem management parallels a shift away from the dominant management paradigm in which ‘experts’ focus on maintaining a sustained yield, toward a new one in which the environment is protected at the expense of resource extraction, and stakeholders are actively involved in management decisions.1-5  Ecosystem management inherently involves multi-species management, in contrast to previous decades of management targeted to just a few species, such as those hunted for food or recreation.6

Politics is probably the largest barrier to the successful implementation of an ecosystem management approach.  Many political agencies still operate within the dominant management paradigm, placing highest value on resource extraction, while also attempting to adhere to an ecosystem management approach.  For example, limits are set in British Columbia on the amount that biodiversity and Identified Wildlife Management Strategy objectives can decrease the timber supply (4% and 1% respectively).  The result is that management agencies must work under contradictory legal mandates, rapidly changing and confusing policy, and public mistrust.  Other barriers derive from social issues.  The values and goals of stakeholders are often many, ambiguous, and in conflict.  As a result polarized groups often find themselves at a standstill in the decision-making process.4-8

Given its wide interpretation, the seemingly paradoxical nature of its goal, and the many barriers to its implementation, ecosystem management is best defined as a ‘wicked problem’.4,5,9 

Step-wise frameworks for an ecosystem-based approach to forest management have been developed for use in British Columbia.6,10,11

1Yaffe, S.L. 1999. Three factors of ecosystem management. Conservation Biology 13:713-725.
2Grumbine, R.E.  1994. What is ecosystem management? Conservation Biology 8:27-38.
3Grumbine, R.E. 1997. Reflections on “what is ecosystem management?” Conservation Biology 11:41-47.
4Rausher, H.M. 1999. Ecosystem management decision support for federal forests in the United States: A review. Forest Ecology and Management 114:173-197.
5Shindler, B. and L.A. Cramer. 1999. Shifting public values for forest management: making sense of wicked problems.
6Galindo-leal, C., and F.L. Bunnell. 1995. Ecosystem management: implications and opportunities of a new paradigm. Forestry Chronicle 71: 601-606.
7Utzig, G.F. 2001. A planning approach for meeting the FSC BC certification standards based on ecosystem management and conservation design. Appendix P6b of the FSC BC standards.
8Rigg, C.M. 2001. Orchestrating ecosystem management: challenges and lessons from Sequoia National Forest. Conservation Biology 15:78-90.
9Redford, K.H. and B.D. Richter. 1999. Conservation of biodiversity in a world of use. Conservation Biology 13:1246-1256.
10Clayoquot Sound Scientific Panel. 1995. Sustainable ecosystem management in Clayoquot Sound: planning and practices.
11Holt, R.F. 2001. An ecosystem-based management planning framework for the North Coast Land Resource Management Plan.