The State of Our Ecosystems
A new report from the Heinz Center distills environmental data from 150 different organizations, businesses, universities and government agencies. Host Steve Curwood talks with the Heinz Center’s project director Robin O’Malley about what we know and don’t know about the nation’s ecosystems.
CURWOOD: Welcome to an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. To start off the new year, we’re taking a look at the state of the nation’s ecosystems. That’s the name of a report recently put out by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. The report catalogues everything we know about the state of our oceans, forests, farmlands and cities. It also points out the many gaps where we need more data. Project director Robin O’Malley joins me now to talk about what we know and don’t know today about the ecological health of America. Welcome sir.
O’MALLEY: Glad to be here.
CURWOOD: Let’s talk first about what we do know. What are the ecological areas where we have the most data?
O’MALLEY: Well, it’s very clear that among the major ecosystem types in the United States we know more about forests than we do about any other kind of system. We’ve had a monitoring and information gathering program in place for forests for a very long time and we can tell you more about the important features of forests than for any other system. It’s also quite obvious that when we look at information about ecosystems we know more about the economically important components of those ecosystems – the food we produce, the timber we produce, the fish that we catch, the water we use – than we do about the ecological condition – how many endangered species there might me and information like that. So there are certain patterns, as I say forests and the commodity and productive aspects of those systems that we know better than we do about the ecological condition.
CURWOOD: Now let’s talk about what we don’t know. What are the ecological areas where we’re very, very thin on the data?
O’MALLEY: Well, there are two that really stand out. The areas that we call grasslands and shrublands, which are primarily large portions of the American west, tundra in Alaska, places like that. And urban and suburban areas are both ones in which we had very little success in pulling together national perspectives on how we’re doing.
CURWOOD: Robin, specifically what data are we missing from the grasslands and the urban areas.
O’MALLEY: Well, in fact there’s more that we don’t know than that we do. We can’t report, for example, the ways the land is used in grassland and shrubland areas. We have large areas of those lands that are used for livestock production and cattle production, but we really can’t tell you how much of those lands are used for that. We have large areas that are used for intensive recreation or that are used for mining or oil and gas production. We can’t give you that kind of information. It’s very important to understand how fragmented these lands are. They’re broken up into little patches of grassland and shrubland or there are large expanses that are basically undivided ecological areas. We can’t tell you how much carbon is stored in the nation’s grasslands and shrublands and with climate change being as important an issue as it is, we should be able to know that information. We can’t tell you about how many non-native species are spreading across the nation’s grasslands and shrublands and with the fact that many non-native species do not serve as good wildlife habitat as native species and in fact don’t serve as good forage for cattle and other livestock a very important fact that we ought to know.
CURWOOD: And what about the cities and suburban areas, what don’t we know there?
O’MALLEY: More than half of the indicators we were not able to report at a national level. These include things like the amount of impervious surface, the amount of paved surfaces and roofs and driveways and sidewalks and this is an indicator that has enormous importance for water quality, for amount of heat that builds up in central city areas, and we simply don’t have that kind of information. Another one that’s in the news very frequently is sprawl, this sort of development pattern at the outer edge of suburbia where it goes from being clearly suburban to being rural and there’s development that happens that kind of breaks that area up and is sprawling outwards. We don’t really have a means of measuring whether sprawl is increasing or decreasing. And many, many private non-governmental organizations have policies and programs to try to prevent sprawl, but we don’t really have a mechanism to understand whether we’re slowing it or stopping it or whether it’s continuing to increase.
CURWOOD: Ok, here’s the big question. Why don’t we have this data?
O’MALLEY: Well, we simply haven’t organized ourselves and set priorities to collect these data. And that’s one of the things this report is intended to do, is from the hundreds or thousands of different kinds of things that one could monitor and report, we need to select a set of important indicators, important bits of information about the way that the natural world is functioning and go about reporting these things. And this is the first time that we’ve been able to set that kind of priority and select from those hundreds and thousands of things and pick just about a hundred things for the entire country.
CURWOOD: Now, a number of the folks who came to the table with you on this have varying political and environmental and social interests. What were some of the more difficult conversations that happened around the table?
O’MALLEY: There were some very difficult discussions over how to measure some contentious and controversial issues. Forest fragmentation is an issue of extreme importance. If forests are broken up into small fragments, they often serve as less useful wildlife habitat. And exactly how to measure that fragmentation is something that the technical community doesn’t agree on, the environmental community doesn’t always agree with the business community. And I think that was the single most controversial issue that we faced and I would say we made important progress on how to measure forest fragmentation but that there’s much more work to be done.
CURWOOD: How can people use the information that you’ve generated in this report? How should they use this information?
O’MALLEY: People in national policy-making positions are asked to vote on things, asked to approve policies or regulatory changes and this provides a grounding in fact. There are lots of claims in a city like Washington of what’s actually going on out there on the ground. Sometimes those claims are correct, sometimes they’re not. This will provide a grounding for policy makers and people who are involved in these decisions to really check those claims against the reality.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time. Robin O’Malley is a senior fellow and project director for the Heinz Center report on the state of the nation’s ecosystems. Thanks for speaking with me today.
O’MALLEY: Thank you very much.
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