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Taking Stock of U.S. Ecosystems
24 September 2002 (All day)
Think the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but for the environment. A new report, published 24 September by the nonpartisan Heinz Center in Washington, D.C., starts with widely accepted data to create a broad set of environmental indicators. The center won't say whether the results represent good or bad news, a choice it calls necessary to foster constructive debate--but some environmentalists claim that such rigid neutrality masks the dire straits of certain ecosystems.
The $3.7 million report was conceived in 1995 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which asked the Heinz Center to complete it. Its funders run the ideological gamut from International Paper to Defenders of Wildlife, and its 150 authors come from universities, environmental groups, industry, and government. About 100 reviewers of a prototype report in 1999 (Science, 10 December 1999, p. 2071) helped the team's seven committees compile government data into 10 national indicators plus 93 other indicators tailored to fit six broad ecosystem types.
Despite all the number crunching, the 270-page report is most striking for what it lacks. "Half the report is empty," admits William Clark, chair of the report's design committee and a professor of international science policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Missing data are marked by bleak gray boxes that say, "Data Not Adequate," meant to prod monitoring programs to fill the gaps.
The available indicators organize and add precision to a welter of existing data. For example, the report points out that the four major U.S. rivers carry three times as much nitrate per year as in 1955. A fifth of native animal species are faced with serious decline. Three-fifths of estuaries are contaminated. On the other hand, 85% of streams meet human health standards. Moreover, agricultural production has doubled since the 1950s, and land threatened by erosion has declined by a third since 1985.
Initial reactions are mixed. The report "is the first to employ a comprehensive set of indicators integrating biophysical and sociocultural measures," says ecologist Bruce Wilcox of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, who edits the journal Ecosystem Health. David Rapport of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, however, is disappointed. "No attempt is made ... to relate human activities to the changes in American ecosystems, and no attempt is made to evaluate the health of U.S. ecosystems," he says. But Chet Boruff of Farmers National Marketing Group in Moline, Illinois, defends the report's neutrality: "That's the best way to build understanding ... and to come up with a report that is unbiased."