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The channel of a stream meanders through central Oregon. (BLM)
The channel of a stream meandering through central Oregon.  (BLM)

Ecosystem Thinking Comes to the Public Lands

By Mike Dombeck

The adage that “ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think” is as true today as when it was first stated.  Yet in spite of its technical and scientific complexity, ecosystem thinking is founded on a basic concept:  that natural processes and systems are intricately linked over broad expanses of space and time.  In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold described ecosystem thinking as a land ethic that “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land” and added that a human is a “plain member and citizen” of the land community.

The passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), along with a litany of environmental legislation, came on a wave of public concern for the nation’s environmental well-being.  Both FLPMA and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 set the stage for the integration of ecosystem thinking into multiple-use management, which has transcended the administrations of several presidents and continues to evolve. 

Implementing ecosystem management, like most major public policy changes, was gradual, with momentum increasing over time.  The spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest was the event that made all the difference by triggering many “groundbreaking” initiatives.  The findings and recommendations of an interagency committee of scientists, and later the Federal Ecosystem Management Analysis Team (FEMAT), provided the foundation for the Northwest Forest Plan.  The fact that the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (FS) developed a single integrated plan based on science for a 24-million-acre land base was both phenomenal and unprecedented.  While hindsight tells us that not every facet of the plan worked, a number of policy initiatives and administrative thrusts resulted that have stood the test of time.  In addition, the country’s two largest land management agencies worked more closely together than ever applying ecosystem principles over larger landscapes and across jurisdictions.  Jack Ward Thomas, FS chief, and I (as BLM director) convened a joint national leadership team of the FS and BLM to push closer working relationships and colocation of offices.

The recommendations of FEMAT called for the integration of terrestrial and aquatic habitat management.  PACFish and InFish, joint BLM-FS guidelines, were developed to protect salmon and inland fish habitats throughout the West.  The National Riparian Service Team was established, led by Wayne Elmore (BLM) and Susan Holtzman (FS).  Still full of enthusiasm over the completion of the Northwest Forest Plan, Thomas and I agreed to move forward in the development of the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project (ICBEMP).  If successful, the entire Columbia River Basin would be under ecosystem-based management plans similar to the Northwest Forest Plan.  However, ICBEMP quickly became very controversial, with many politically charged issues.  The lesson learned was that social and political landscapes are not always ready for what makes the most sense from an ecosystem-based view.

Immediately after the 1994 elections, one of my tasks was to brief members of the Appropriations and Natural Resources Committees about ecosystem management.  Some members did not like all the talk of ecosystems, ecosystem management, or biodiversity.  So I began talking about healthy watersheds, native grasses, stable streambanks, and less soil erosion and could see their concerns subside.  People are often skeptical of conceptual terms like ecosystems and biodiversity while they are comfortable with place-based terms they clearly understand, like watersheds and descriptions of healthy land.  That prompted me to start talking about watersheds and the “health of the land.”

Secretary Bruce Babbitt was a major force in promoting science-based ecosystem management on the public lands.  After I left the BLM to become chief of the FS in 1997, Secretary Babbitt and I began having monthly breakfasts, in part to encourage Interior agencies and the FS to work together even more closely in the spirit of ecosystem management. 

The daunting challenges we face with climate change validate the basic concept of ecosystem thinking.  They also prompt us to appreciate that not just public land but all land is connected, from mountaintop to valley floor, just as streams are connected from the headwaters to their deltas. 

What greater evidence do we need for the importance of landscape conservation?  As time marches on, the public lands—belonging to all citizens—will become an increasingly important component of the American landscape.  The public lands may provide the last places of what the country was like when our forefathers first saw it, the last remaining wild places and open spaces that support healthy native plant and animal communities for the benefit of future generations.  Perhaps the most important question we should ask ourselves today is what we want the land to look like in 50 years and 500 years, and the most important challenge we face is maintaining the health of the land.


During his federal career, Michael “Mike” P. Dombeck worked as a research and field biologist and held many leadership positions.  He was the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1994 to 1997 and the 14th chief of the Forest Service from 1997 to 2001.