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Science and Children >  > Understanding Ecosystem Management 

By Shelley Smith, Richard Brook, and Mary Tisdale

For the Classroom
Over one-third of the United States is public land, managed by several federal agencies on behalf of the American people. With the expansion of our population, America's open spaces, once valued primarily for their commodities, such as minerals, timber, and livestock forage, are becoming more and more attractive for these traditional uses as well as for new ones, such as recreation.
This renewed interest in the nation's public lands has focused attention on the importance of maintaining its long-term health and productivity. The challenge is how to accommodate competing interests while sustaining the health of the land.
Too often, interest groups adopt polarized views on resource issues. When this happens, both human interests and the resources themselves are threatened. Consider the spotted owl-timber industry controversy in the Pacific Northwest forests, and the agricultural interests-Everglades debate in Florida, two well-known cases in point. For some time, resource managers have recognized the need for a new approach, one that promotes collaborative problem solving, and long-term care of our resources.
This has led to the focus on a management strategy commonly dubbed "ecosystem management." The practical applications of this strategy are not yet completely defined, but the philosophical shift has already been made, and it is fundamental and far-reaching.
Ecosystem management means looking at the big picture, beyond federal agency boundaries, and working closely with other land managers, both public and private. It means addressing the long-term consequences of today's decisions, and it means thinking of various resources as interrelating parts of systems rather than as individual components to be managed separately. It means awareness of many scales of effect, from local and national to international and even global.
The tough choices won't go away. However, a fundamental principle of ecosystem management holds that decisions must be based on the best information science can provide, with sustainability as the goal. This framework provides a means to evaluate objectively the trade-offs of different management choices.
More than just federal lands are at stake. We all live in ecosystems with multiple ownerships, and the issues addressed on federal lands exist elsewhere. Everyone has a stake in working for diverse, healthy, sustainable ecosystems, and it's going to take everyone's support and participation to make it all work.

Last updated: 11-13-2009