Book Review

Ecosystem Management in the United States

By: Steven L. Yaffee, Ali F. Philips, Irene C. Frentz, Paul W. Hardy, Sussanne M. Maleki, and Barbara E. Thorpe.

1996. Island Press, Washington, D.C. $30. 352 pp.

Reviewed by: Ed Grumbine

Ecosystem Management in the United States presents the first broad characterization of ecosystem management on-the-ground in the United States. As the subtitle, "an assessment of current experience," implies, there is little rhetoric and plenty of project-level description in the volume. In fact, less than 50 pages of the book are analytical; the balance of the text presents two-page descriptions of 105 ecosystem management projects from all regions of the country along with contact information for over 500 other projects.

The book's strengths are as a catalog and contact list for ecosystem management projects. There is no better source of information for the "what," "where" and "who" of U.S. ecosystem efforts. For answering "why" and "how" questions, however, the book is less useful. Critical assessment is limited for two reasons: (1) most projects are still in the early stages of implementation; and (2) the two-page project descriptions are too short to convey the level of detail needed to answer complex questions about ecosystem management practice. There is nothing the authors can do about the fact that most ecosystem management work hasn't been implemented long enough to allow for fine-grained assessment. On the other hand, the book would have benefited from a more limited selection of project reports with more in-depth descriptions of each. The chief weakness of the authors' approach is that the catalog attributes of the study overwhelm the assessment aspects.

There are several characteristics of ecosystem management that, nevertheless, emerge from the authors' broad-scale approach. Using bar graphs to present cumulative responses to several key questions, the authors portray concisely a large volume of information. The following seemed to me to be the most useful insights from the study.

Most ecosystem management efforts are indeed youthful-59% of the projects were started since 1991. The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (in that order) have initiated most federal efforts. State agencies are also very involved with ecosystem management, a fact that the authors highlight. The National Park Service has not been very involved, despite national parks being obvious places to experiment with an ecosystem approach.

Managers in this assessment suggest that the twin goals of ecosystem protection and restoration are what drive projects. Those who remain skeptical about the use of ecosystem management may be confusing ultimate goals with the strategies that agencies are using to attain protection and restoration of ecosystems. What stands out in the study is that 61% of managers are using increased stakeholder involvement as a main strategy for achieving their goals. This is where ecosystem management has a great chance of democratizing resource management decision-making.

It is little wonder that success in these young projects is described in terms of improved communication and cooperation. The process of doing ecosystem management is changing how people relate to each other over resource decision-making, and there is a profound relationship between what we want to do (goals) and how we choose to do it (process). Positive ecological outcomes from ecosystem management will not be realized until cooperative forms of decision-making are in place.

Managers describe collaboration as the most vital component of these projects, yet they also place political support at the bottom of the list of factors facilitating progress. It is no secret that the current Congress is not friendly toward ecosystem management, even as a greater number of citizens become involved and support the new approach. The question is‹which force will win out? Are conservative lawmakers capable of quashing this movement in spite of growing grassroots support? What about the negative effects, surely to persist in the short-term, of reduced funding levels?

It remains to be seen whether ecosystem management will become a successful model of resource conservation. The managers contacted for this assessment state that early stakeholder involvement and a flexible use of science in management are key elements to success. Yet, powerful stakeholders can usually thwart any process if they wish to do so, and both environmentalists and developers often attempt to use science to suit their own purposes. Ecosystem management will never be a textbook approach to resource management. This book provides a snapshot of how we have begun to move away from unsustainable methods of working with nature toward what is still uncharted territory.

Ed Grumbine directs the Sierra Institute at the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Ghose Bears and the editor of Environmental Policy and Biodiversity, both from Island Press. Tel: (408) 427-6618. Email:

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