Make Use of Current Knowledge in
Managing Biodiversity and Ecosystems of the US
"These are our national treasures. When we maintain our national parks, nourish our wildlife refuges, protect our water, and preserve places like the Everglades, we are standing up for our values and our future, and that is something all Americans can be proud of. God created these places but it is up to us to care for them. Now we are and we're doing it the right way, by working together."
William J. Clinton, 12 October 1996
In order to manage the living resources of the United States and the world sustainably, it is necessary to use the scientific information that is currently available to inform conservation strategies at the local, regional, and national levels. It is also necessary to generate new knowledge to fill in gaps in our understanding—which is the topic of succeeding sections of this Report. Our first recommendations, however, concern using knowledge that we do have, organizing it electronically, and providing it to all parties that need it. To accomplish this, we will need to form partnerships among governmental organizations at Federal, state, and local levels, and between them and the private sector. These partnerships, using up-to-date information, can begin the process of developing coordinated local, regional and national strategies by designing best management practices and further sharing information.
Public-Private Partnerships Should Manage, Use, and Conserve Biodiversity and Ecosystems
Develop coordinated strategies for conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems of the United States.
This Panel was charged with recommending actions to improve the Nation's conservation of biological resources in the 21st Century. At present, governmental agencies and other entities that are responsible for managing the Nation's natural capital sometimes do so in an uncoordinated—indeed conflicting—manner, largely because they are operating from differing (and sometimes outmoded) knowledge bases. Also, many confrontations between advocates for the environment and defenders of commercial activities could be avoided or resolved by applying objective, scientific information—ready accessibility would enhance such use. Conservation and management should also be coordinated across all Federal, state, and local agencies and among governments and other managing entities. In fact, the United States should develop a comprehensive national conservation strategy, building from the elements which currently exist.
To formulate such a strategy, we need to develop, through public-private partnerships, an objective, accessible knowledge base. The expansion of the capability of the NBII to deliver, rapidly and accessibly, comprehensive and comprehensible information for devising strategies, making responsible management decisions, and resolving conflicts is an essential part of bringing scientific knowledge into the service of society. The Ecosystem Management Initiative, which attempted to codify information needs in different regions, was a beginning. An agreed-upon knowledge base can then be used to foster local, regional, and national conservation strategies that are biologically and ecologically acceptable and economically sustainable. The goal of these strategies should be net enhancement of natural capital, so that future generations may enjoy the bounties of nature as well as economic prosperity. These strategies should include mechanisms for managing and protecting ecosystems sustainably in the face of global change and guarding our natural capital in all its forms; they should also employ the best, most up-to-date scientific information available, and should evolve to incorporate new information as it is generated. There are already some excellent examples of such strategies that have been developed around the country under the leadership of non-governmental organizations, elements of the private sector, or representatives from local, state, and Federal agencies.
The Science Board of the Department of the Interior recently took a good step toward assuring the use of the best information available in policy decisions. The Science Board is chaired by the Secretary and includes the assistant secretaries and bureau directors. Each bureau has selected a significant management issue that should be informed by science but which may offer room for improvement in this respect. For example, the Bureau of Land Management has chosen to review fire management. A team, including representatives from other agencies in the Department, has been formed to review the inclusion of up-to-date science in the fire management decision-making processes of the Bureau. Following review, a presentation that includes analysis, steps planned for improvement, and recommendations on actions requiring authorization outside of the Bureau will be made to the Board. The review will be designed to answer several questions: Is the scientific information being used actually relevant to the policies and decisions that must be made? Has information been provided in a way that facilitates its use? Is the information timely? Is it credible? Is it understood by decision makers? Is it understood by stakeholders?
The process instituted by the Department of Interior Science Board is commendable, and should be considered for adoption throughout the government.
Any plan for conservation and management should:
• incorporate mechanisms for managing ecosystems sustainably in the face of global change,
• protect critical ecosystems and rare and endangered species,
• minimize the introduction of non-native species and mitigate damages caused by invasives already present,
• account for the needs of society and the economy while guarding natural capital in all its forms, and
• provide for ongoing research to continually better our ability to live prosperously and sustainably on the benefits that we derive from natural capital.
The absence of coordinated strategies for conservation is one factor that allows the continued degradation of our natural capital. If coordination of management and research activities among Federal agencies, and between the Federal government and other public and private stakeholders, is not achieved, many of these agencies will continue to manage inefficiently or to work at cross purposes with each other. This in turn leads to unnecessary expenditures, interagency conflict, public dissatisfaction, and mismanaged natural resources. In the absence of coherent strategies, it will become more and more difficult to bring the results of up-to-date research into management and policy decisions.
Individuals, companies, local communities, state governments, and Federal agencies all have a stake in the development of these strategies. A special role of the Federal government should be to provide a framework for activities at all levels and to provide for the integration and availability of the highest-quality information for these purposes. In doing this, it should facilitate the organization of workshops that would bring together knowledgeable people from government, academia, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to establish agreed-upon best practices for management of ecosystems. Compilation of regional best practices that emerge from the workshops would then enlighten a national strategy for managing Federal lands. Because much research has shown that greater biodiversity improves the services that ecosystems provide, and because of the importance of preserving biodiversity as a capital asset for future generations, the federal government has a special obligation to manage its lands to maximize their biodiversity. Indeed, such management is socially necessary and socially sustainable because both its costs and its benefits are shared equitably by all current and future generations.
The development of nationally coordinated strategies for managing biodiversity and ecosystems would be a natural outgrowth of the concept of "ecosystem management" that has been employed in several agencies in recent years, partly in connection with understanding the effects of global climate change on agriculture, human health, and in other areas. The budgets of these agencies should include funds for cooperating in the development of coordinated strategies for the sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems. Trained biologists and other specialists should be recruited by the agencies and promoted to management positions within them to insure that current understanding of the underlying facts and concepts involved in these strategies is represented at policy-making levels. Job descriptions, especially those for management positions, should be rewritten when appropriate to facilitate such recruitment and promotion.
All agencies with responsibility for managing biodiversity and ecosystems should be directed to cooperate in developing coordinated management of the nation's biodiversity and ecosystems. Certain elements of appropriate management are already in place or being developed, such as the plan for dealing with invasive alien species (see Box 3). Other topics that should have priority among management actions involve endangered species (see Box 4) and harmful marine algae (see Box 5). Coordinated efforts have already been developed to deal with some local situations. For example, the diverse group of stakeholders that constructed the San Diego Multi-Species Conservation Plan (see Box 6) includes private landowners and other citizens, representatives of conservation groups, universities, industries, and agencies at all levels of government. Similar activities, such as the Northwest Forest Plan and the public-private partnership that is working to save and improve the Everglades ecosystem, are underway throughout the Nation, and should be fully encouraged within a coordinated, national context.
Increase the Information Content of the
National Biological Information Infrastructure
Promote and support rapid development of the National Biological Information Infrastructure to bring the most up-do-date scientific research available into local, regional, and national conservation strategies.
The National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) is that part of the National Information Infrastructure devoted to providing biodiversity and ecosystem information, and biological information in general. The NBII is not a single facility, but rather a distributed one that includes all institutions or agencies that provide online databases of biological information. However, the amount of information that the NBII can provide at the moment does not reflect even a small percentage of the body of ecological and other biological knowledge. There is much information available in the scientific literature and even in databases that is not part of the NBII and is not readily accessible, but which could be extremely useful in the generation of habitat conservation plans and other biodiversity and ecosystem management strategies. Steps should be taken to increase the online electronic information content of the NBII; these steps are outlined below.
Biological information about biodiversity and ecosystems is among the most complex scientific data to manage electronically, yet it is vitally important that we do so. There are intellectual challenges in the area of biodiversity information analysis, synthesis, presentation, validation and long term storage that require considerable information science and computer science research and infrastructure. In Section V of this report, we call for the research needed to enable the "next generation" NBII that will address these challenges.
In the meantime, however, there are data collection and provision actions that should be taken now to increase the biological information content of the current NBII. These include:
• development and adherence to data and metadata standards and best use protocols,
• provision of new funding for digitizing the data associated with specimens in natural history collections, and conversion of "legacy" ecological datasets, and
• setting of priorities to guide information gathering. For example, data on endangered and invasive species should have a high priority (see Boxes 3, 4, 5).
There are a number of current Federal agency activities that can improve the performance of the NBII if they are recognized by, and budgetarily supported by, upper levels of participating agencies as an important contribution to the NBII. These include the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), the National Environmental Data Index (NEDI, [www.nedi.gov]), and CENDI, which was formed by an interagency (NASA, NIH and the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Interior) Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate information management. Other agencies, notably the Department of Agriculture and its subsidiaries, should be directed to participate in these efforts, which should be coordinated so that duplication of effort is prevented.
Federal government expenditure on research, development, and management that is related to environment is on the order of $5.3 billion per year (including NASA expenditures for the Earth Observing System, and Department of Energy expenditures on global change and energy issues that are inextricably linked with other environmental issues). Of that amount, approximately $600 million is spent on information generation through research, data collection through monitoring, and the storage and analysis of data. Many of these data are measurements of the physical parameters of the environment. The biological data that would be delivered by the NBII can be combined with these data, making both more useful to all public and private sectors, and providing a greater return on these expenditures than would otherwise be the case.
Existing high-quality information is not currently being incorporated into management decisions. There are a number of reasons for this, but two of the most important are: 1) lack of electronic availability of needed biological information, and 2) lack of skill on the part of many resource managers to analyze and interpret that information. The recommendations for the NBII as described here will address the first of these shortcomings. The "next generation" NBII described in Section V will in part address the second by increasing the ease of use of information through software developments, and by providing a system that is driven by user needs. Of course, entities that employ resource managers will need to insist that those persons have appropriate skills.
The NBII is truly national, in that it interlinks datasets held by individuals, museums, governments, industry, and so on. However, the Federal government is a major user and provider of information, and should play a leading role in the development of the NBII, and participate in public-private partnerships to enhance the NBII. All agencies of the Federal government that hold or generate data that are relevant to biodiversity and ecosystems should be directed to:
• Discover redundancies in data collection routines among agencies, and eliminate duplication of effort and expenditure wherever possible by combining efforts or utilizing data collected by another agency.
• Coordinate software and systems development with other agencies to eliminate duplication of effort and expenditure wherever possible.
• Cooperate with other government agencies, scientists, and the private sector to establish and adopt data and metadata standards, authority files and thesauruses for biodiversity and ecosystem information.
• Cooperative agreements among several agencies and between them and the private sector for development and technical support of software that serves several agencies.
• Direct grants for exploratory developments in standards and software from the Biological Resources Division of the USGS, and from the Division of Biological Infrastructure of the NSF. Current budgets for these activities should be at least doubled over the course of three years, and thereafter maintained against inflation.
Funding for this effort should come in part from a partnership among state and local government, institutional, and private sources, but substantial Federal funding must be provided to leverage support from other partners. Clearly, the priority of the information to be digitized and the scientific merit of data-capture projects must be used as a criterion for allocating funds within a system of merit review. An appropriate mechanism for grants for digitizing data already exists. There is a working relationship between the NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences and the USGS/BRD, first established by Memorandum of Understanding in 1995 and strengthened by several interagency agreements since. Therefore, USGS/BRD, in partnership with the appropriate NSF/BIO programs, could fund such projects based on the NSF merit review system.
Within NSF/BIO, approximately
$3 million is available annually to proposals for museum data digitization.
The relevant programs should, over the course of the next several years,
make data acquisition a priority for proposals and awards, and the NSF
should add significantly to the funds available to museums for information
provision projects. Because the USGS/BRD is central to the development
of the NBII, the agency's current budget for data acquisition should be
increased by an order of magnitude within three years, and maintained against