Myths of Environmental Assessment and Management

in New Brunswick, the Everglades, and the Columbia River Basin

Warren Coleman, John Craig, Marianne Donohue, Maynard Hiss, Barb Houren, Kate Moran, Linda Tyson, Jackie Wilson

Warren Coleman

MYTH #1: The central goal for design is to produce policies and developments that result in stable social, economic, and environmental behavior.

The key word in this myth is STABLE. It has been the human endeavor to create stability in our social, economic and environmental systems. Stability eliminates uncertainty, or tries to, and we humans hate uncertainty. Why do we try to create this stability in systems that are inherently dynamic and evolving? Well, I don't think that modern "man/woman" would feel as though they understand their place in the world without creating (or attempting to) create stability. WHAT??? you say...Consider Joe Shmo the average American (or Canadian) and how lost he would be if from one day to the next there wasn't some stability in his life (as he sees it). Socially, would he spend his time wondering if he is better than his neighbor, if he will be in the majority or minority, if he has certain privileges due to his social position, and so forth. If this "stability" was not there we humans would be a mess; not knowing our place in society from day to day. Economically, the same is true. Without some stability, why should Joe Shmo go to work if he isn't assured of getting paid, or if he isn't sure that the money he does earn will have any value in the market place. Environmentally, stability translates into knowing that water will come out of the faucet and that he (Joe Shmo) will be able to buy a role of toilet paper. At larger levels, environmental stability is often the means to create the economic and social stability in a region. For example, in the Lee chapter in Bridge & Barriers, he basically states that the areas of the northwest exist solely because of our ability to harness water flows and control them. To me this translates into water as being a structuring force in the region and without this control and stability, the extent of development (social and economic) would not be possible. Now onto the case studies...which should be fairly obvious by now.

In New Brunswick, the reliance upon controlling the budworm outbreaks by spraying was an attempt to create environmental stability. It was also, and perhaps more importantly, a practice that attempted to create economic stability. As we saw, this practice of eliminating the natural variation in the budworm cycle created more problems than solutions, although they took some time to be felt.

In the Everglades, there were several attempts to control mother nature. As we learned, the early eras were defined by the backlash of human manipulation of the landscape from natural events like drought, flood and hurricanes. Clearly, Broward's goal was to control water and create an area that could be developed and inhabited by more people. Therefore, the Everglades is really characterized by the need to create environmental stability in order to have economic growth. Not many people would want to live down in S. Florida if there were REAL problems with water deliveries to urban areas or REAL problems with mosquitoes. What is occurring now in the region is a search for possible solutions that will provide the economic and social stability for the urban areas as well as the environmental dynamics in the natural system.

Finally, in the Columbia River Basin we again see that environmental stability (in terms of power generation) is the driving force for social and economic stability. However, the issues in the CRB make the tradeoffs more clear than in the Everglades for example. Power and water v. Salmon stocks. Both have social and economic consequences for people, perhaps different people. However, it is still basically an issue of the tradeoff between creating the stability for humans in the form of electricity versus the salmon stocks. Clearly, for a long time, electricity was the more important of the two. But today, there is greater concern for the salmon and some sacrifices are being made in terms of economic stability (tradeoffs for salmon and against electricity). In the CRB, the social issues are also important. The Native Americans clearly have lost their most precious resource, salmon. To them, the salmon stocks were their form of economic, social and environmental signs of stability. However, I don't think they see stability in the same light as I have talked about in this page. Stability to them is seen as resilience in the salmon stocks, the natural fluctuations from year to year, and the assurance that the stocks will return and survive. The Native Americans had learned to cope with the natural variation in salmon runs each year, and over the long run they were "stable" that is they occurred. Our definitions of stability are on a different temporal scale and is one, that in terms of the environment, is much shorter. Our version of stability is day to day. Is there electricity to turn on my TV or is there water to wash the dog? I'm sure we will talk about resilience in class because it basically defines the goal of adaptive management. Also, this first myth is central to the entire concept of Holling's models, that is, by trying to create this "stability" in systems we end up eroding resilience and creating brittleness....and then we fall on our faces and wonder why....

John Craig

Myth 11: Systems analysis will allow effective selection of the best alternative from several proposed plans and programs.

My understanding of the process of systems analysis is that we first define the system boundaries (usually spatial extent and time frame) and then identify the most important components of the system and their relationships to one another. Exchanges between the components are then quantified, and various policy options can be tested by computer simulation, or by 'thought experiment'. The main weaknesses of this method are:

1) Possibility of poorly choosing the most important components, incorrectly setting the boundaries, incorrectly defining relationships and quantifying. It may be that not enough is known about the system components, or the system is just too complex to define in terms of a few components.

2) As Holling points out, it's hard to compare various outcomes since values must be assigned to them, and we may not be able to agree on the values. Also, what people can agree on may change with time, so what is desirable now may not be in the future. We may even question whether what humans consider desirable or valuable is relevant to natural systems (are we too anthropocentric)?

In the New Brunswick case, we see most of these systems analysis failures. No attempt was made at systems analysis until the last half of this century. The first model of the forest used was much too simplistic, and considered only the total volume of wood in the forest without age classification or forest dynamics. When the reality of budworm effects were considered, the response was to control them with insecticides. This showed a lack of understanding of the pulsing nature of the forest system, which was only made obvious by the simulation model. The validity of the model was rejected by many at the time because the weaknesses (listed above) allowed reasons to doubt it. We also see changing and conflicting values regarding pesticides (better living through chemistry vs. Silent Spring).

The same goes for the Everglades. Up to the 1940's there was no true systems analysis. The first attempt was done from an engineering perspective, and succeeded in reworking the hydrology in its own image. Already there were clashing values, highlighted with the publication of 'River of Grass'. More recent attempts at systems analysis aim at restoring the natural functions of the ecosystem. It is hard to convince people that major changes in management need to be made, because the validity of the model cannot be proven conclusively, and because it may conflict with what is still considered to be important to many people: availability of water for people and economic expansion in South Florida.

In the Columbia River case, the first systems analysis (hydropower potential) left out a major component (salmon), and did not consider the values of some people (fishermen and Indians). This was easy to do, since the people who design electric power systems consider themselves to be experts in systems analysis. It has been a slow, painful process to realign the methods of exploitation of resources (dam infrastructure, management techniques) to fit the revised model. Various sub-system models were developed, such as that of the process of salmon migration and response to water flow. The uncertainties inherent in these models made it difficult to use them as a basis of policy, since they were easily rejected by those who had an interest in rejecting them.

Marianne Donohue

Myth 12: Ecological evaluation and impact assessment aim to eliminate uncertainty regarding the consequences of proposed developments.

In reviewing Holling's diagnosis of managed ecosystems, it becomes apparent that the case studies of the Everglades, the Columbia River Basin, and New Brunswick reflect the pathology of institutional management. In the three cases, the success of managing a target variable (see below) for the sustained production of agriculture, development, and employment, led to economic and social crises and environmental degradation. Management policies and regional developments in the three cases were designed for purely economic ends. Policies sought unlimited economic and social stability in an unpredictable environmental system; they were fixed sets of actions that did not involve revisions and modification of management design and were only reviewed for their environmental consequences when crises were perceived. To recap the cases:

New Brunswick


Columbia River Basin

Crises developed in these systems for two main reasons: (1) understanding of the structure and behavior of the systems was limited and (2) management policies were not designed to cope with the uncertainties inherent in both the environmental and human systems.

According to Holling, understanding of environmental systems will be incomplete. Holling states that "Not only is the science incomplete but the system itself is a moving target", evolving because of natural events and human-induced influences. Furthermore, the societies with which these systems are linked involve unpredictability-management policies change, economies change, principles and values change. For example, in New Brunswick objectives of management policies were uncertain-priorities shifted from stabilized employment and economy, to development of mass pulpmill facilities, to environmental and human health concerns. With such management practices, surprises in each of these systems were inevitable. However, not expecting the unexpected ultimately led to crises.

What was the solution to these crises? Greater understanding and insight? Flexible, holistic policies? No...just MORE reactive policies that utilized technology to control and subdue nature. According to Holling, such management behavior stems from the inherent characteristics of industrial man: humans do not like to admit and pay for their mistakes; they prefer to correct them. Results of such "fix-it" actions included increased investment, increased cost for maintaining/controlling the system, fewer future policy options, and decreased public trust. Such pathologies of exploitative and myopic management inevitably led to less resilient ecosystems, rigid management policies, and dependent societies.

In each case the myth of uncertainty was sustained. Myopic, single target, piecemeal policies were designed and implemented to regulate and control the system with no regard for the uncertainty inherent in it.

HELP!?!? Holling proposes that evolving systems need policies that not only satisfy social and economic objectives but also provide for continual understanding of the changing conditions and flexibility for handling surprises. The primary challenge of Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management (AEAM) in managing complex evolving ecosystems is not simply to utilize known information in constructive ways but to cope with the uncertain. AEAM utilizes knowledge to develop alternative policies and to evaluate their consequences. It is also a means to explore management decisions in the face of uncertainty and changing/conflicting socio-economic objectives. AEAM involves risk-taking; a willingness on the part of the managers, policy makers, and scientists to design alternative hypotheses to test; to take the opportunity of failure to learn about system behavior and structure; and to design policies that are more resilient to the unknown.

"If man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubt; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties". Francis Bacon

Maynard Hiss

Myth 10: Physical boundaries will allow effective selection of the best alternatives from several proposed plans and programs. Physical boundaries based on watershed areas or political jurisdictions can provide sensible limits for impact investigations.

Defining and bounding problems, developing alternatives and plans, implementing programs, and testing hypothesis of large scale phenomena is a complex science. Many problems are intertwined in a intricate web of ecological and social agendas and manifestations, yet are elusive and lack boundaries. When capturing a problem and solution there is not only the dilemma of understanding the contents and context (e.g. defining the key ecological variables, processes, and inherent characteristics of the system), there is also the daunting task of successfully moving through a boundless morass of social and political paradigms and power structures that benefit and control what happens, and who often steer and limit the bounds the discussion.

The problems in New Brunswick, Everglades, and the Columbia River basin were inherently cultural problems, whose diagnostic symptoms inevitably manifested themselves as radical and disastrous ecological changes. Attempts to bound and resolve the problems were only attempted when parties that were adversely affected by the existing management strategies successfully infiltrated the power structure. However, the ethno-centric focus and intensive emphasis on the social and political paradigms to exploit and cultivate the natural resources (wood : New Brunswick; water : Everglades; and fish and electrical power : Columbia River) were never challenged, nor included within the bounds of discussion. Instead the focus was on testing the hypothesis of specific natural resource management techniques to maintain intense exploitation rates for the groups within the political arena.

The adaptive management scoping process opened up the discussion and broadened the focus of debate, however the perspective was always within a ethno-centric context. Adaptive management was useful as a methodology for testing and expanding the realm of management and manipulation of the ecological systems, however, there should have been a parallel discussion and adaptive management strategy to test human paradigms of exploitation and landscape use. Otherwise any gains in management will be used up by increased demands for exploitation, and regional landscape ecosystems will become a new type of agriculture; e.g ecoculture.

Alternatives to the ethno-centric paradigms of exploitation and human domination (which occurs in spurts and cumulatively) were never discussed as potential hypotheses to be tested, yet the increased pressure to exploit these systems were the key variables of uncertainty and surprise that caused the major declines in the ecological integrity of the systems.

Huge amounts of money are being spent to encourage and subsidize haphazard patterns of growth and development within the regions, that will forever alter the natural ecology and processes. Saw mills, pulp mills, logging and urban infrastructure in New Brunswick; infrastructure and hazard insurance to support incredible growth and paving over of South Florida; and infrastructure for industry and agriculture the Pacific Northwest. If adaptive management is going to work it will need to cross the physical boundaries of ecosystems and expand itself into the realm of testing hypothesis and searching for new paradigms for managing and maintaining cultural systems in the landscape, so that future human-ecological interactions are consistent with the natural integrity of the environment.

Barb Houren Myth 9: Any good scientific study contributes to better decision making. - was broad so I tried to just cite some examples to jog people's memory -

New Brunswick? As quoted from B&B p.100, "The role of science was ambiguously and inefficiently performed...". Although there have been numerous budworm investigations, none considered the appropriate temporal or geographical scale of the population as a whole. Studies concentrated on outbreaks exclusive of one another and at small spatial scales. Although a good deal of knowledge was collected, it was not useful in a management situation; especially since "management" focused on control rather than understanding.

Everglades? The focus of Everglades water management "changed from drainage to flood control to water supply to water quality to environmental protection to ecological restoration.".(p.166) Were any of these management focuses based on scientific studies which looked at multiple aspects of the system? Generally, the answer is no. The water delivery plan utilized years of data to determine appropriate yearly water levels, but did not further consider this data at the appropriate temporal scales of seasons and wet/dry years. More recent efforts though, such as the restoration of the Kissimmee River, are attempting to utilize scientific knowledge across scales and in conjunction with management and social considerations in order to contribute to better decision making.

Columbia River? The choice to initially implement hatcheries as the answer to the problem of decreased salmon illustrates the narrow view of management at that time, while also illustrating the trend of management to favor scientific work which is geared toward new technologies. Even the recent research conducted on river flow and the river travel time of juvenile salmon illustrates that the appropriate variables are not always known, and even though it was an interesting study it was not utilized in management but instead fueled further investigation.

Kate Moran Myth #7--Comprehensive "state of the system" surveys (species lists, soil maps, and the like) are a necessary step in environmental assessment.

The forests of New Brunswick were carefully monitored and "surveyed" as to the size, type, and health of trees in the forest to determine logging status, and distribute licenses and set standards of harvest for following years. During the budworm outbreaks, thorough surveys were conducted to determine the extent of the infestation and the damage to the trees. However, these surveys were not comparative, in the sense that they did not consider present outbreaks in relation to historical problems in an effort to predict future pest problems. Spraying was the (insufficient) solution to the information gained by the surveys--they looked at WHERE the worms were and tried to eliminate them there. Needless to say, the spraying of budworm infested forests was extremely expensive without alleviating the problem, and without giving any clue as to the cause of the outbreaks. Surveys were also conducted on the number of growing stock for all stands in the forest, in order to calculate the amount of allowable annual harvest, but they tampered with the numbers to get the desired results and failed to take into account the age-class structure of the forest which did not generate an accurate ecological assessment. In this case, the myth of a "state of the system" survey was sustained...the state of the system was always changing one step ahead of the surveys.

The Everglades is a perfect example of a case where an inordinate amount of surveys have been conducted (on wildlife populations, precipitation levels, soil types, population numbers, etc.) but where all of these surveys have not been coordinated to suggest alternative possibilities for ecological management. Because the Everglades system is one that is changing so constantly and so dramatically, even constant monitoring is not very useful in extrapolating to future changes. Unless the descriptive data on social, economic, and a variety of environmental factors is compiled into a modelling program, no interpretation can be used to make an assessment of the possibility of a healthy ecosystem in the future. The Everglades are operating at much too large a scale to be encapsulated by static lists of species and numbers of hectares.

Once again, the Columbia River Basin has several hundred years worth of survey data on the number of salmon stocks in the system, but those data are not doing anything to restore the fish populations. Some very expensive techniques (i.e. fish ladders, barges, hatcheries) are being utilized in an attempt to restore the numbers of fish, but until the salmon surveys are incorporated into policy involving the hydropower system, an accurate assessment of the state of the system cannot be completed. In this case, a number of institutions, focused by the Northwest Power Planning Council seem to be moving beyond a linear, static understanding of the system and toward an integration of the needs of various resources.

Linda Tyson Myth 5: Environmental assessment should consider all possible impacts of the proposed development.

In the cases we've looked at this term, uncertainties, combined with lack of information on how natural and socio- economic systems function, resulted in an inability to consider ALL possible impacts. It is important to include in an assessment the caution that impacts that are described may very well be a "short list" of what could be. I do believe, however, that in any field it is ethical and important for a professional to supply information that is known that may affect decisions made by those relying on the professional for input. In this case, the professional then should note the inability to predict future uncertainties and the impossibility of predicting ALL impacts on ALL scales. Models have been used to demonstrate possible linkages and outcomes. Their apparent ability to deal with complexity, however, is tempered by their limitation to relate factors linked by the modeler.

In the New Brunswick forest, I think the approaches used regarding environmental assessment hadn't considered many impacts of the proposed management decisions. Policies were reactionary i.e. to crises surrounding budworm outbreaks and public and industrial outcry. Long-term negative outcomes of spraying the insect were not considered. Socio-economic impacts of new mills with no saw wood was not foreseen as an impact of poor forestry management combined with environmental perturbation. The model that eluded to various impacts was ignored. In addition, environmental groups that predicted complete demise of the forest community lost credibility when some resilience of wildlife to spraying became evident. Had decision makers recognized their inability to predict these impacts they may have been more cautious to proceed with widespread spaying and increased mill construction. Periodic reassessments of the outcomes of their plans and the willing to be flexible when "new" impacts appear may have lessened the effect of these "crises".

In Everglades attempting to predict all impacts becomes an issue of scale. Things that appear unrelated at one scale become closely (or distantly) linked at another. In this week's reading it is apparent that the variability that created places like the Everglades cannot be predicted at all levels. They also cannot be controlled by human engineering projects such that a natural system will result. By accepting the uncertainties inherent in such a large, complex set of habitats and their interactions with human endeavors planners may be more willing to experiment with management techniques. The potential for management failure will then exist beside that of failure of policy related to unexpected crisis. (Could policy or predictions of impacts have changed the last 40 years of exotic species invasions?)

Finally, in the Columbia River Basin many surprises related to water and fish and power production should have resulted in an awareness of uncertainties and impacts. In this case, however, the engineering that makes industrial and residential endeavors possible encourages the notion that man can control variability in the environment and therefore be knowledgeable of all possible impacts (or at least control their outcome).

Jackie Wilson Myth 2: Development programs are fixed sets of actions that will not involve extensive modifications, revision, or additional investment after the development occurs"

First, I feel that this myth is incorrect. Natural systems are not static and are going to change through time whether or not they are managed. Human management only speeds up natural processes at best (that is if the management does not destroy the natural system), and due to the complexity of natural systems, there is no way we can predict how a system will respond to a set management plan. Therefore, we must be willing (flexible, if you will) to modify our management programs in order to accommodate both the natural system and human goals after the program is implemented.

In the New Brunswick Forest, development program after development program was implemented; each one was a reaction to past programs and was used to help correct past mistakes. First, spruce and fir trees were harvested once selective cutting techniques thinned out white pines. Then spraying was used to help maintain budworm outbreaks; however, it turned out that the spraying only perpetuated the outbreaks even more, so management changed to not spraying and re-evaluated how the forest would be maintained and harvested. If changes were not made in the original management plan along with subsequent management plans, chances are the New Brunswick Forest would not even exist today.

In the Everglades (EG) we also see a series of responses to different management programs over time. The EG was originally seen as an inexhaustible resource and was drained in order to use the land. Then there were tremendous floods, so the EG Drainage District was developed. But more floods caused the creation of the Flood Control District, which was followed by a serious drought. The Water Management District was developed in order to control the water flow in the park after the droughts, but this only lead to a problem with water flow into the EG park, so the Everglades Coalition was established. Then human pressure lead to a lawsuit over the condition of the EG and the Technical Advisory Committee was created. The future probably holds many more committees do deal with the changes in sea level, population growth and water control, but if we had only stuck with one management program over time, the EG would either be a completely underwater or a vast desert.

Finally, the Columbia River Basin (CRV) is yet another example of how changing management is needed in order to "preserve" natural systems. The CRV first sustained the Native American population who dealt with natural fluctuations in the salmon population over thousands of years. Then, European settlement managed to build dams for hydroelectric power, dump industrial waste into the river, divert water for agriculture and harvest timber and float logs down the river. This caused a dramatic decrease in the migration of salmon. After the Indians reclaimed their rights for harvesting fish, Indians, commercial fishermen and environmental groups voiced their concerns over the decreasing salmon runs. So, adaptive management was established to help increase the number of salmon. However, the plans implemented at the moment are not bringing back the fish and future programs will have to be developed if the salmon migrations are to be saved.

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Copyright Last modified: Feb 7 1996