The ability of human societies to adapt to global changes will be linked in no small part to our success in ensuring that ecological systems adapt to change (NAS 1991). As predictions of changes in weather patterns become more refined, ecologists need to be in a position to model the responses of ecological systems. This will enable us to identify ecosystem services that might be threatened or species whose conservation will require which management interventions, and to evaluate potential economic costs or public health risks from ecological changes.
8. What environmental indicators can be developed that bear on the achievement of environmental management goals?
Indicators of the status of ecological systems in relation to some agreed goal or target, or of the value of various ecosystems or services, both provide an important means of communicating the status of ecological systems to decision-makers and the public, and present the opportunity for designing new conservation policies based on market incentives rather than regulatory approaches. With better indicators of the value of different types of resource management practices for the conservation of biodiversity, for example, it would be possible to create incentive (e.g., tradable permits, impact fees, tax breaks) that would encourage landowners to manage resources in a fashion that protects biodiversity.
Consider a classic case where ecological knowledge is called on to aid environmental decision-making: a proposal to build a housing development on natural habitat near an urban area. Should the development be allowed? What will its impact be on the environment? Are there alternative sites where the development could be placed with less impact? What information is needed to aid in the decision? What changes can be made to minimize the adverse impact?
Based on the analysis of this paper, the following insights on the role of scientific and technical information bear on the case. First, prior to assessing the impacts we need to clarify what the goals of environmental protection are for the region. The science is fairly clear on some aspects of those goals: the need to protect important services such as stream flow and flood control, the need to protect the diversity of species in the region. Some other goals, such as the need to protect representative samples of communities, may be less clear. Is the intent to actually protect the natural community that exists or simply to ensure that a representative sample of the bioregion is protected, recognizing that the species composition may change through time? More work is needed to clarify environmental goals based on recent scientific findings.
At the level of actual impact assessment, a qualitative assessment and evaluation of alternatives can be made with relatively little site-specific knowledge. Certain critical habitats, such as riparian communities, wetlands, steep slopes, and so forth, need to be protected to maintain ecological services in any region.