Ecosystems are already responding to climate change. Continued warming—some of which is now unavoidable—may impair the ability of many such systems to provide critical resources and services like food, clean water, and carbon sequestration. Buffering against the impacts of climate change will require new strategies to both mitigate the extent of change and adapt to changes that are inevitable. The sooner such strategies are deployed, the more effective they will be in reducing irreversible damage.

Ecosystems can be managed to limit and adapt to both the near- and long-term impacts of climate change. Strategies that focus on restoring and maintaining natural ecosystem function (reducing deforestation, for example) are the most prudent; strategies that drastically alter ecosystems may have significant and unpredictable impacts.

THE REALITY OF CLIMATE CHANGE: The Earth is warming— average global temperatures have increased by 0.74°C (1.3°F) in the past 100 years. The scientific community agrees that catastrophic and possibly irreversible environmental change will occur if average global temperatures rise an additional 2°C (3.6°F). Warming to date has already had significant impacts on the Earth and its ecosystems, including increased droughts, rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, and changes in the distribution and seasonal activities of many species.

THE SOURCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE: Most warming seen since the mid 1900s is very likely due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Global emissions have risen rapidly since pre-industrial times, increasing 70% between 1970 and 2004 alone. 

THE FUTURE OF CLIMATE CHANGE: Even if greenhouse gas emissions stop immediately, global temperatures will continue to rise at least for the next 100 years. Depending on the extent and effectiveness of climate change mitigation strategies, global temperatures could rise 1-6°C (2-10°F) by the end of the 21st century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Swift and significant emissions reductions will be vital in minimizing the impacts of warming.


Decision makers now have a number of options for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), ranging from improving energy efficiency and regulating emissions to sequestering carbon in geological reservoirs. While such strategies should be considered as part of a long-term solution, they may take some time to deploy. Ecosystems, meanwhile, can substantially offset human-generated emissions by naturally sequestering carbon, incorporating it through photosynthesis and storing it as organic matter. Ecosystem management therefore represents an effective and immediately available means of partially mitigating climate change.

Management strategies can help limit climate change by 1) accelerating the uptake of carbon into ecosystems and 2) preventing the release of carbon already stored. Current options range from protecting forests to reducing agricultural emissions to boosting carbon uptake above natural capacity. However, since ecosystems are sensitive to environmental change and their function is regulated through complex relationships and feedback loops, the less management strategies propose to alter natural environments, the better we can gauge their potential impacts.

The following actions will help ensure that limitation strategies are both functional and sustainable:

Prioritize low-alteration strategies: The most straightforward approaches focus on preserving natural ecosystem function, thereby providing many additional benefits associated with habitat conservation. For example, reducing forest degradation—long promoted as a way to protect forest species and conserve water—allows trees to store much more carbon over time and keeps stored carbon undisturbed. This means that ecosystem destruction has the double impact of removing sources of sequestration and releasing carbon already stored. Deforestation, in fact, is now second only to industrial emissions as a contributor to atmospheric CO2. In agricultural systems, applying fertilizers in ways that increase the efficiency of incorporation into crops offers significant benefits to the environment, both in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving surrounding water quality.

Critically evaluate management-intensive strategies: Many approaches seek to enhance the sequestration potential of ecosystems beyond natural levels, offering the benefits of reduced greenhouse gas concentrations without requiring significant changes in land-use. Such management strategies may be accompanied by undesirable side effects, however, and should therefore undergo thorough evaluation prior to implementation. Increasing carbon uptake on agricultural lands, for example, may require a great deal more fertilizer than standard processes—a problematic tradeoff given the high emissions and pollution associated with producing and using chemical fertilizers.

Acknowledge the ecological implications of geoengineering: Some approaches seek to limit warming by engineering the environment, or “geoengineering.” Such strategies could have unintended negative, possibly catastrophic impacts, some of which may only emerge after long-term or widespread use. For example, injecting sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect solar rays could have an immediate cooling effect but could also increase acid rain and ozone layer degradation, destabilize weather patterns, and could negatively affect ecosystems and human health. Efforts to limit climate change may eventually benefit from certain geoengineering strategies, but until additional research confirms the safety and efficacy of these strategies, they should be avoided.

Address long-term risks: Ecosystem alterations can have far-reaching consequences, some of which may not emerge for several decades. To help prevent negative impacts, assessments should both monitor existing carbon stores and use multi-decadal models to predict how ecosystems will respond to new management practices.


Management strategies have traditionally operated under the assumption that natural systems fluctuate within a certain range—the past has served as an indicator of future conditions. But this assumption does not hold in the face of rapid climate change. Even conservative warming projections show that natural systems will experience unprecedented stresses, including shifting habitats and ecological processes (e.g. wildlife migration and reproduction) and more frequent and severe natural disturbances, such as fires, floods, and droughts. These unavoidable changes will require management that addresses ecological thresholds, tipping points, and other sources of uncertainty. Ecosystems are naturally dynamic and diverse—they are the products of change and adaptation. But human activity has impaired the ability of many systems to respond. Preserving natural function is central to maintaining resilience and safeguarding ecosystem services in the face of climate change.

Adaptation strategies should:

Take additional steps to protect water quality and quantity: Water is critical to life, and its availability is directly connected to many important ecosystem services, including food production, regional cooling, and electricity from hydropower. Climate change puts freshwater resources at particular risk, however; rising temperatures have already led to lower river flows, warmer waters, and the drying out of wetlands. These impacts are compounded by human activities; in the western US, for example, nearly all water is already appropriated for human use. In many cases, the sustainability of freshwater resources will depend as much on the tradeoffs society makes to protect them as it will on direct impacts from warming.

Enable natural species migration across human dominated landscapes: Studies indicate that climate change has already affected over half of the world’s wild species. Plants and animals are often adapted to narrow climatic ranges. As temperatures rise, many habitats are shifting closer to the poles or higher altitudes, forcing species to follow. But extensive changes in land use over the last 100 years have fragmented habitats, limiting species’ ability to migrate. Effectively squeezed from their habitats, many species are increasingly at risk of extinction. Creating and maintaining wildlife corridors across jurisdictions and private lands will help species adapt.

Improve capacity to predict extreme events: Natural disturbances like wildfires and major storms are often important to ecosystem self-regulation, and many species are well-adapted to these events. But as event frequency and intensity increase, monitoring and modeling efforts at all scales will be imperative in efforts to understand and respond to novel rates and intensities of environmental change.

Manage collaboratively at the ecosystem level: Climate change is already affecting the ability of ecosystems to provide vital resources. Addressing the resulting shortages is a complex task, compounded by diverse ecological and political priorities. Many natural resources and services—fresh water, clean air, crop pollination—are not contained within governmental boundaries and are often not uniformly accessed, used, and valued. The effective management of these resources demands strategies that operate at the ecosystem level, rather than within jurisdictional boundaries. Effective management will require extensive collaboration and cooperation, across borders and between public and private sectors.

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: Ecological Impacts of Economic Activities

Healthy ecosystems are the foundation for sound economies, sustaining and enhancing human life with services ranging from food and fuel to clean air and water. As such, ecology has an important role to play in society’s efforts to improve the quality of life throughout the world. Although ecological scientists have neither the remit nor the capacity to judge the right of people to grow their economies, they do have the expertise and the responsibility to identify the ecological consequences of current and alternative growth strategies, recognizing that:

  • Human activities can degrade ecosystems, diminishing ecosystem services of value to society (loss of natural capital)
  • Many ecosystem services such as clean air are public goods—they are freely and indiscriminately available to all members of a community, giving stakeholders little incentive to maintain them
  • In cases where ecosystem services do have a market value (e.g. food and fiber), economic activities may have ecological impacts that are not captured in market prices (environmental externalities)
  • Society’s ablity to predict the consequences of ecoystem change is limited (environmental uncertainty) but can be improved with newmodelling and forecasting tools

The Sustainability of Economic Growth

At present, economic growth is a double-edged sword: Although it enhances the standards of living in the short-term, it can degrade the ecological infrastructure needed to sustain long-term welfare. This dichotomy may be humanity’s central challenge in the 21st century—sustaining living standards and spreading the benefits of economic development to the large fraction of humanity still mired in poverty, while preserving the ecological life-support system on which future welfare depends. The nine Millennium Development Goals1 of the United Nations include both eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring environmental sustainability, reflecting an understanding that these two endeavors are intertwined.

Development will remain a priority in light of the millions currently living without the resources to satisfy their most basic needs. Yet there are limits to the amount of material consumption and pollution the Earth can sustain. The problem is not economic growth, per se, but the ways in which it is implemented. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development released the Brundtland Report2, which stated that “sustainable development…can be consistent with economic growth, provided the content of growth reflects the broad principles of sustainability.” Sustainable development requires that individual wealth—including natural capital assets—does not decline. This requires technological and behavioral changes to reduce both the demand for material resources and the volume and toxicity of waste products, while simultaneously improving human wellbeing. It also requires investments to offset the degradation or depreciation of natural capital, and to maintain robust ecosystems.

For millennia, the impacts of human population growth and the demands it placed on the natural environment were felt only at local or regional scales. Since the industrial revolution, however, these impacts have expanded, and are now often global. In the last 50 years, the Earth’s population has grown by a factor of 2.5, and the global economy, as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP), has grown by a factor of 8. Economic growth has increased material standards of living throughout many parts of the world, with significant improvements in nutrition, health, and life expectancy. In many cases, however, economic and population growth and the increasing rate of per-capita consumption have also disrupted ecosystems. Examples include the depletion of water resources, the fragmentation of plant and animal populations, and the conversion of habitat for the harvesting of natural resources. The burgeoning scale of these impacts raises the question of whether the aforementioned gains are sustainable or will instead result in the widespread degradation of the very ecosystems on which society relies.

The Ecological Impacts of Economic Growth

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment3 provides a comprehensive review of the status, trends, and possible future conditions of ecosystems, ecosystem services, and human welfare. Its findings include:

  • “Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.”
  • “The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.”

Why is our current approach to development unsustainable?

Ecologically sustainable development must maintain ecosystem resilience—the continued ability of ecosystems to provide future generations with services in spite of natural and human-driven disturbances. Many current ecosystem management strategies are unsustainable, focusing on a single service—such as the production of food, fuel, or fiber—to the neglect of others. Such strategies can reduce biodiversity and ecosystem resilience by eliminating native species, introducing new and harmful species, converting and simplifying habitat, and polluting the surrounding environment.

In addition to reducing resilience, these strategies reduce the capacity of ecosystems to deliver other important services. For example, harvesting timber might provide a near-term profit to the owner of wooded land, but only at the expense of the ecosystem services that the forest ecosystem once provided, such as clean water, carbon sequestration, and recreational opportunities. Humanity as a whole will not necessarily be “richer.”

How can we determine sustainability?

Human wellbeing depends on numerous forms of wealth. People’s quality of life is determined not only by their property (produced capital), but also by their skills (human capital), their social institutions (social capital), and their biophysical environment (natural capital). Some of this wealth is in private hands, but much belongs to communities, and resources such as the atmosphere belong to all of humanity. Sustainable investment should be informed by gains and losses in all forms of capital, across all ownership categories.

Most conventional measures of economic growth, such as Gross National Product, focus exclusively on produced capital. This provides decision makers with little incentive to safeguard natural, social, and human capital. The best test of sustainability is to determine whether average inclusive wealth (all forms of capital taken together) is being maintained. There have been very few attempts to measure inclusive wealth, but measurements that do exist, such as the World Bank’s concept of adjusted net saving, indicate that the growth patterns of many nations are currently unsustainable.


Sustainable Development: Strategies for Achieving Ecologically Sustainable Growth

To encourage decision makers to account for the environmental costs of growth, we propose the following four strategies:

  1. Internalize externalities


    Environmental impacts and resource shortages caused by economic activities often affect people far removed in space and time from those whose actions produced these problems. This separation of cause from consequence represents what economists refer to as externalities. Agribusiness, for example, benefits from using nitrogen fertilizers but does not bear the costs associated with oxygen-depleted “dead zones” that agrochemical runoff produces in aquatic ecosystems. Because the adverse environmental impacts of fertilizer use are not reflected in fertilizer prices, they do not affect decisions about how much fertilizer to use. 

    Resolving this disparity would drive more environmentally and socially sustainable investments, but only following significant changes to our existing economic framework. Environmental economists advocate a range of measures to internalize externalities. Examples include property rights for environmental assets, payments for ecosystem services, and liabilities for environmental damage. Developing effective incentives requires an in-depth understanding of the ecological implications of externalities.

  2. Create mechanisms for sustaining ecosystem services


    Environmental economists have long recommended creating markets for ecosystem services such as pest control and carbon sequestration. Such markets would provide incentives for environmentally sound investments, while allowing communities to be compensated for actions that benefit others. Whether this means clean air in Beijing, China or safe drinking water in Central Valley, California, people would be able to invest in their welfare and the welfare of their children, just as they are currently able to invest in more material forms of security.

    Markets must often be coupled with other strategies in order to be effective. In the emerging market for carbon sequestration, for example, if sequestration is priced while other services like freshwater provisioning remain unpriced, negative ecological outcomes may ensue. Carbon markets need to be paired with other strategies, such as the regulation of land use, the direct protection of biodiversity, and the development of “green standards” to which projects must adhere.

  3. Enhance decision makers’ capacity to predict environmental impacts


    Society is growing increasingly aware of the economic repercussions of environmental change. Still, this linkage often only becomes apparent after the environment has been damaged, sometimes irreversibly. Routine assessments of environmental risks, such as environmental impact statements, play an important role in identifying short-term environmental damage, but they rarely account for impacts that take decades to emerge. For example, DDT, a synthetic pesticide, was widely used for almost 20 years before its harmful effects on human and bird populations were recognized. The resulting US ban on DDT led to marked recoveries in bald eagles and other impacted species, but not all environmental impacts can be reversed with such success. Similarly, deforestation in Panama displaced mosquito populations in the canopy, causing a dramatic increase in Yellow Fever cases. Such outbreaks of zoonotic diseases are rarely foreseen in routine environmental risk assessments but can quickly escalate to unmanageable proportions, leading to the loss of countless human lives as well as billions of dollars in damages, lost output, and livestock mortality.

    Recognizing that environmental impacts are often highly uncertain, it is important to develop models better able to project the consequences of anthropogenic environmental change. Equally important are new monitoring systems to detect problematic trends before they surpass society’s ability to address them.

  4. Manage for resilient ecosystems


    When ecosystem thresholds are breached, undesirable and often irreversible change can occur. For instance, grassy savannas capable of supporting grazing and rural livelihoods can suddenly “flip” to woody systems with lower productive capacity. Many common management strategies move ecosystems closer to these thresholds. Ecosystem management strategies need to leave a “margin of error”, trading some short-term yield for long-term resilience that sustains a suite of services.

Guidelines for Implementing an Environmentally Sustainable Framework

To move toward sustainable growth, ecological scientists, economists, and public and private decision-makers should collaborate to incorporate the following factors into investment decisions:

  • The value of ecosystem services and the economic impacts of changes in the availability of these services:Decision makers should take all forms of capital into account. Natural capital can be integrated quantitatively into economic indicators, as demonstrated by the World Bank’s concept of adjusted net saving, which calculates an economy’s rate of savings after factoring in natural resource consumption, pollution-related damages, and other environmental impacts.
  • Environmental externalities: Data on environmental costs of public and private investment decisions should be used to develop methods to internalize externalities, reassigning to decision makers the full consequential cost of their activities. In regulating greenhouse gas emissions, for example, these methods might include carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems. More generally, this effort will require several strategies (e.g. market creation, direct protection) to work in concert, providing stakeholders with incentive to protect unpriced ecosystem services
  • Improved predictive capacity: Society must further develop its capacity to predict future environmental costs of public and private investments and, where these costs are uncertain, take precautionary measures. Such measures already exist in many national regulations and international agreements concerning human, animal, and plant health—a recent example is the World Trade Organization’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement.


1 United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008. United Nations, New York.
2 World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987.  Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: Biofuel Sustainability

Much attention is currently focused on the use of biofuels as an alternative energy source, both to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil supplies, and as a means of addressing one facet of global climate change.  Supplying the emerging biofuels industry with enough biomass to meet the U.S. biofuel energy target – replacing 30 percent of the current U.S. petroleum consumption with biofuels by 2030 – will have a major impact on the management and sustainability of many U.S. ecosystems. Biofuels have great potential, but the ecological impacts of their development and use must be examined and addressed if they are to become a sustainable energy source.

The sustainability of alternative biofuel production systems must be assessed now, in order to maximize the potential for developing truly sustainable scenarios – that is, profitable systems that can provide adequate biomass with the least amount of environmental damage. 

Biomass extraction and the byproducts of biofuel manufacturing will directly affect ecosystems in many ways.  Much of the biomass needed for biofuel production will be supplied by croplands.  Marginal croplands will be farmed more intensively and previously unfarmed areas will be brought into production. As this happens, the U.S. landscape will change. Current technologies emphasize use of annual and perennial grains. However, crop “leftovers,” such as corn husks and wheat straw, and fiber from perennial crops such as switch grass are likely to contribute as well. The exact mix will depend on a number of factors including emerging technologies, market prices, and policy incentives. That mix will have a major impact on both the long-term sustainability of the biofuel enterprise and on the underlying health of U.S. ecosystems.

The current focus on ethanol from corn illustrates the risks of exploiting a single source of biomass for biofuel production. A growing percentage of the U.S. corn harvest – 18 percent in 2006 – is directed towards grain ethanol production. This has not only resulted in record-high corn prices, it has produced strong incentives for continuously-grown corn, higher-than-optimal use of nitrogen fertilizers, the early return of land in conservation programs to production, and the conversion of marginal lands to high-intensity cropping. All of these changes exacerbate well-known environmental problems associated with intensive agriculture:

  • Continuously-grown corn is more susceptible to insect damage and allows weeds to become more persistent, requiring more insecticides and herbicides.
  • Nitrogen fertilizer is the principal contributor to nitrogen pollution of groundwater, surface waters, and coastal zones, and a major source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.  
  • Placing previously fallow land enrolled in conservation programs back into production reduces wildlife diversity, requires irrigation, and releases carbon dioxide.   
  • Converting marginal lands to agriculture or farming them more intensively creates new sources of agricultural pollution and, in many cases, disproportionately increases nutrient loss and soil erosion; many of these lands are marginal to begin with because they are on sloping, sandy, or wet soils particularly susceptible to soil and nutrient loss.

We must assess the tradeoffs of these impacts with the benefits associated with biofuel development.  Current grain-based ethanol production systems damage soil and water resources in the U.S. and are only profitable in the context of tax breaks and tariffs.  Future systems based on a combination of cellulosic materials and grain could be equally degrading to the environment, with potentially little carbon savings, unless steps are taken now to ensure that three specific principles of ecological sustainability are incorporated into their design.

1. SYSTEMS THINKING.  A systems approach is crucial to assess the energy yield, carbon neutrality, and the full impact of biofuel production on downstream and downwind ecosystems.  It should take into account all of the flows, controls, and storage of materials and energy.  A positive energy yield means that more energy is produced than is consumed by its extraction and transport.  Carbon neutrality means that any fossil fuel carbon used in the production of biofuels is offset by carbon sequestration elsewhere in the system (and the system is the entire globe in this case).  A systems approach must consider the effects on interconnected ecosystem processes such as nitrogen emissions from land to air, nitrate and phosphorus export, soil erosion, and other important impacts of agriculture on surrounding landscapes, including pests, nonnative species, and effects on wildlife or protected species.  Consistent monitoring of the energy yield, carbon neutrality, and impact on interconnected ecosystems is critical to ensuring the sustainability of biofuel production.

2. CONSERVATION OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES. A focus on ecosystem services will provide the foundation necessary for win-win scenarios. It is easy to design systems for maximum crop yields; over a century of agronomic research has shown that this can be done very successfully. Managing for other ecosystem services also provided by agricultural landscapes is less common but equally necessary.  Lower yields from an unfertilized native prairie, for example, may be acceptable in light of the other benefits provided by native plants in an agricultural landscape. These include:

  • A complete and closed cycling of nutrients;
  • Minimized flooding and increased groundwater recharge;
  • Enhanced  carbon sequestration in the soil because tilling would be unnecessary;
  • Fewer pests because habitat for insects and birds that prey on them is left intact;
  • Genetic diversity;
  • Reduced nitrogen and phosphorus runoff because no fertilizer is needed;
  • Reduced soil erosion due to continuous soil cover;
  • Reduced nitrous oxide production; and
  • Pollinator habitat and resources.

These benefits, in turn, would help ensure ecosystem services such as better water and air quality, crop pollination, flood mitigation, runoff reduction, and food and fiber production.

3.  SCALE ALIGNMENT. Explicit consideration of scale in policy and management is necessary to achieve sustainability goals. Fields are managed at the level of individual farms, but sustainability must also be assessed at landscape, regional, and global scales. What is sustainable at one scale may be unsustainable at another.  Policies must provide incentives for managing land sustainably and encourage the development of alternate technologies to create biofuel from various biomass sources.  If used, incentives should be applied to the biomass content rather than the biofuel product in order to spur the development of a diverse portfolio of alternative energy sources. 

Finally, biofuel production must also attend to economic impact, particularly on communities least likely to be able to afford higher food prices resulting from demand-driven increases in crop prices. 

Taken together, these three principles – systems thinking, conservation of ecosystem services, and scale alignment – can create a sustainable biofuels infrastructure that will serve U.S. citizens, the economy, and the environment.

Adopted by the ESA Governing Board, January 2008.

The Ecological Society of America is the country's primary professional organization of ecologists, representing 10,000 scientists in the United States and around the world.  Since its founding in 1915, ESA has pursued the promotion of the responsible application of ecological principles to the solution of environmental problems through ESA reports, journals, research, and expert testimony to Congress.  For more information about the Society and its activities, visit the ESA website at

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: Ecological Society of America Statement on No Child Left Indoors

The Ecological Society of America ( ESA ), the nation's premier organization of 10,000 ecological scientists, is promoting “No Child Left Indoors” week as part of Earth Week, 2007, to encourage adults to connect a child with nature.   The locally begun “No Child Left Indoors” concept has grown into a national movement that encourages students, families, and adults to experience nature. Teaching children about their “home,” Planet Earth, fosters better stewardship and science literacy. 

More and more, people around the globe are migrating from rural to urban areas, and the number of people living in cities is growing twice as fast as total population growth. In fact, by this year, a majority of the world's people will be living in cities. 1 Children growing up over the last 20 years have increasingly limited experience of the outdoors, which is contributing to decreased understanding and appreciation of the environment on which humanity depends:

  • National statistics show that visits to national and state parks have fallen off by as much as 25 percent in the last decade, and kids remain indoors watching TV and playing computer games.  
  • A recent scientific study found that more children knew the characters of Pokemon (an electronic game) than could recognize an oak tree or an otter. 
  • Science education–especially ecology and earth-based sciences–in America is falling behind that of other countries. 
  • Biological, health, and economic data indicate that children who connect with nature perform better in school, have higher SAT scores, exhibit fewer behavioral challenges, and experience fewer attention-deficit disorders. 

ESA endorses activities locally and nationally for youth to learn about ecology and experience ecosystems. SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Development and Sustainability) is an ESA program established to reduce the serious underrepresentation of individuals from certain minority groups within the field of ecology. The program's mission is to diversify and advance the profession of ecology by promoting opportunities that stimulate and nurture the interest of underrepresented students.

The United States offers a wide array of parks and recreation areas where children can connect with a tremendously diverse natural environment, from the gulf shore waters, to coastal dunes, to wetlands, to oak hammocks, to dry prairies, to treetop canopies. 

The Ecological Society of America takes great pride in recognizing the week of April 15-22, 2007, also known as Earth Week, to celebrate “No Child Left Indoors” and to challenge all citizens–young and old–to take a child into the natural world for a shared educational experience. 

1 UNFPA State of World Population 2004. The Cairo Consensus at Ten: Population, Reproductive Health and the Global Effort to End Poverty (Press Summary Report)

Adopted by the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America , April 2007

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: Position Statement on Scientific Peer Review

Peer review is an integral component of scientific research and publishing. It allows the scientific community to maintain quality control of research through the review of research proposals, journal manuscripts and other reports. Academic peer review, although far from perfect, is the best tool scientists have to ensure high standards for their professional work.

This idea has been translated into the policy arena through ‘scientific peer review’ – the review, by scientific experts, of in-house agency science or the body of science underlying management decisions. These types of reviews are critically important tools for policy makers. They allow experts from both inside and outside the federal government to provide technical advice and analysis, increasing public confidence in federal science, and ensuring that the best quality information is used in decision making.

However, it is critical that scientific peer review programs be carefully designed to maintain objectivity, quality and thoroughness. While scientific peer review is an important tool for decision makers, a poorly designed process can do more harm than good. It is for this reason that we endorse the following list of important considerations for government scientific peer review of agency-produced science and the body of science underlying management decisions.

  • The first priority in choosing reviewers should be to engage the most competent scientists.Therefore, conflict of interest exclusions must be carefully designed to balance barring those with a direct conflict of interest and the reality of a finite pool of suitable reviewers. The key issue in selecting reviewers is whether they bring the necessary scientific knowledge and objectivity to reviewing the matter at hand.

    Scientific peer review should be insulated from politics as much as possible. Oversight of scientific peer review should be vested in scientists and science managers within the agencies. This adds assurance that the composition of panels is not being unduly influenced by politics and constitutes a representative subset of the scientists most competent to review and assess the topic. The agencies must be trusted to perform the task of constituting and overseeing fair and independent scientific peer review efforts, without interference from political entities.

  • Even the best scientific peer review cannot give policy makers the ‘right’ answer. Scientific peer review can provide assurances that rigorous, transparent and respected methods were followed, that the data were reasonably interpreted, and that the stated conclusions logically follow from the results. However, often more than one interpretation of the data set can be made, and there may be no way to determine which interpretation is ‘best’. Where data are limited or other uncertainties abound, scientific peer review can point these problems out, but it cannot overcome them.
  • Scientific peer review must maintain programmatic flexibility. While guidelines can help to ensure that certain standards are met and maintained, an overly rigid process, particularly for scientific peer review of the body of science underlying policy decisions, will result in inefficient use of time and resources. It may be overly prescriptive to stipulate the number of reviewers, the questions they must answer, or the type of report they must produce for the broad range of agency scientific work.
  • All scientific peer review must be based upon an assumption of integrity. While commonsense measures can be taken to weed out direct conflicts of interest, an implementable system can never be fully cleared of all potential conflicts of interest. Instead, fair reviews are the product of professional standards of conduct that are a fundamental component of training in scientific research. Scientific peer review must ultimately rest on the presumed integrity of the reviewers.
  • Efforts to revise the process of peer review should acknowledge the differences in professional culture that often divide scientists, policy makers, and the public. The academic model of peer review calls on reviewers to be as critical as possible. This is done so that authors are able to make improvements where they can and so that the weaknesses of the work are understood and acknowledged. Thus, results from scientific peer review that highlight uncertainties, questions and alternative explanations do not mean that the science was not well done or that its findings are invalid. Science is inherently uncertain and there will always be unanswered questions and areas where more research is needed. However, acknowledging uncertainty should not be equated with an inability to draw conclusions; managers often must act without complete certainty. Scientific peer review, properly carried out by competent peer scientists, can reassure managers, decision makers, and the public that such difficult decisions are based on research that represents the current state of our scientific understanding.

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: Forest Fire Management

Forest Fire Management

Considerable public and media attention has focused on the causes and consequences of recent forest fires on public lands in the western United States. These fires caused significant harm and upheaval in some communities and, in some of these areas, increased fire intensity was linked to unnatural fuel accumulations. Because past land use management and policies have contributed to these conditions, many have called for prescribed fires and mechanical thinning programs aimed at reducing forest fuels. Recently, the Administration and some Congressional leaders have offered plans to address this situation.

Action is indeed needed in some western forests, but it is critical that any plan enacted is consistent with current scientific understandings. Sustainable forest management can be achieved only when the best scientific information is incorporated into management strategies. The following principles are central to fire management on western landscapes. Attention to them will greatly enhance the likelihood that efforts to address wildfire in western forests will achieve their objectives.

  • Crown fires cannot and should not be eliminated from all forests.
    Different ecosystems require different approaches to fire management. In some forest types, crown fires are a natural, indeed inevitable, part of the regime. For example, chaparral, lodgepole pine, boreal forest, pitch pine and sand pine have long experienced crown fires. Attempting to eliminate such fires in these ecosystems is not ecologically justified and is unlikely to succeed.
  • Restoration is warranted, but it is not a cure all.
    Some forest ecosystems, such as the ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest, have experienced an increase in large scale crown fires in recent years. In these forests, management to achieve a regime of frequent, low-intensity burns may be scientifically justified. Some of these areas can be restored through prescribed burns, but mechanical thinning will be necessary in many areas. However, under severe weather conditions, even forests with normal accumulations of fuel may experience crown fires. Severe fires cannot be eliminated in areas subject to drought; there is no scientific basis for "fire proofing" a forest.
  • To succeed, restoration efforts must recognize natural variability.
    Forests, especially those in the mountainous West, are highly variable in both species composition and structure. Even within a single forest type conditions vary significantly from place to place. Such variability precludes one-size-fits-all solutions to fuel management. Management goals and objectives must be adaptable to changing, site-specific conditions, as well as new scientific discovery.
  • Fire suppression is not the only cause of fire regime changes.
    Many land use changes including grazing, logging, road building, invasive species (such as flammable grasses) and the intrusion of human habitations into the forest have also contributed to these changes. A management strategy that addresses only fire suppression will be incomplete and likely unsuccessful.
  • Preservation of large trees is necessary to meet management goals.
    To restore frequent, low-intensity fire regimes, it is necessary to restore forest structures. In frequent, low-intensity fire systems it is the largest trees that are the least susceptible to fire. Therefore, restoration management must focus on removal of smaller, highly flammable fuels.
  • Fire management must be adaptive.
    Monitoring and research must go hand-in-hand with management. We have much to learn about fuels management and fire behavior across the wide array of forest types in the western United States. Managers must be able to learn from previous projects and adjust future prescriptions accordingly. Adaptive management should be an integral part of the restoration plan.
  • A long-term commitment is imperative.
    Forest structure changes slowly and restoration requires a long-term commitment. Once fuel reduction treatments have begun, attention must be given to the means by which appropriate fuel conditions are maintained, either through prescribed burns or naturally occurring fires. Without such attention, our forests will soon return to their present condition. Success will depend on the formulation of clear post-restoration management protocols and providing the funding to implement those protocols in the future.

Although this is an urgent challenge in some areas, the challenge will not be met by quick fixes or by strategies that are not based on the best science. Restoration efforts must be prioritized, and areas in which human life or property are at a great risk should be our highest priority. Much will be learned from these efforts that can then be applied to more remote areas. As the nation's largest professional organization of ecologists, we stand ready to assist in both science and practice.

Adopted by the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America, April 2003

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is an area rich in plants, animals, and commercial oil potential. The vast diversity of wildlife within ANWR includes more than 160 bird species, 36 kinds of land mammals, 9 marine mammal species, and 36 types of fish. ANWR is one of the least disturbed ecosystems on Earth, giving it global significance for scientific research and as part of Earth’s natural heritage.

ANWR is also thought to hold considerable reserves of oil and gas. It has been stated that the impacts of oil and gas exploration would be confined to a small portion of ANWR, an area of land on the coastal plain called the “1002 Area.” However, it is important to realize that the 1002 Area also comprises critical habitat of particular ecological importance for many wildlife species. The Ecological Society of America believes that oil and gas exploration will likely have long-term effects on ecosystem processes resulting in unanticipated and potentially detrimental effects on the region.


The land under consideration for oil exploration is known as the “1002 Area.” This section of the Refuge was specifically left as undetermined land, and authority was vested in Congress to decide whether or not to open it up for oil and gas drilling. The 1002 Area includes most of the Refuge’s coastal plain and Arctic foothills region, but comprises only 10 percent of the entire ANWR.

Assessments indicate that the coastal plain may contain substantial amounts of oil and gas. The exact impacts on the region’s relatively pristine ecosystems will depend upon the methods of oil exploration. It is likely that some of the problems that have occurred in the past such as oil spills, dumping of waste water, the building of large gravel roads and pads etc., can be reduced by modern methods of oil exploration. Other potential effects of exploration, however, include altering natural drainage patterns, depositing alkaline dust over a wide area, contaminating soil and water with fuel and oil from spills, and blocking, deflecting, or disturbing wildlife. It is unclear by how much the impact of development can be minimized.

Further complicating the picture is the geography of the 1002 Area itself. The region is located more than 30 miles from the end of the nearest pipeline and more than 50 miles from the nearest gravel road and oil support facilities. Also, unlike Prudhoe Bay where one giant oil field was found, it is more likely that the oil in the 1002 Area is spread out into many small accumulations. This would mean that development in the 1002 Area could require a large number of small production sites spread out across the Refuge landscape, widening the footprint of development on the region.

Development of the coastal plain’s petroleum resources could have serious impacts on the ecosystem of the region, in turn affecting numerous plant and animal species. Winter oil exploration is most likely to impact muskoxen, polar bears, and arctic tundra vegetation. If winter exploration is extended to other seasons, the breadth of potentially affected species grows to include caribou and birds that use the area for calving and nesting.

The potential effects of oil exploration on caribou, one of the region’s most abundant species, provide a detailed example of the possible impacts of exploration on the wildlife of ANWR. Potential impacts on the Porcupine Herd, which calves in the area proposed for exploration, include reducing the amount and quality of preferred forage habitat available during and after calving, restricting access to habitats where animals can find refuge from parasitic insects, and altering an ancient migratory pattern, the consequences of which are uncertain.

It is evident from the oil and gas exploration of nearby Prudhoe Bay that industrial activities affect the behavior of caribou. Prudhoe Bay data show that although the Central Arctic caribou herd has grown in numbers in areas with oil exploration, they have shifted their calving sites away from development. Proponents of drilling often point to the increase in the herd as evidence that oil exploration does not adversely impact animal populations. However, scientific data clearly demonstrate that the behavior of the herd has changed, and it is entirely possible that the population increases would have been even more pronounced without human intrusion.

The geographic conditions of the 1002 Area could exacerbate the effects of caribou behavior changes associated with oil exploration. The 1002 Area is much smaller than that of Prudhoe Bay, with mountains in closer proximity to the sea, leaving fewer places for displaced cows to go. If cows moved inland to avoid oil fields in the 1002 Area, they would end up in the foothills where predators are more abundant, further reducing calf survival rates. A reduction in annual calf survival of as little as 5 percent would be sufficient to cause a decline in the Porcupine caribou population.

Because the area in question is vital habitat to many native animal and plant species, the Ecological Society of America believes that drilling in the 1002 Area could produce unanticipated and possibly negative effects on the region.

Approved by the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America, March 2002



The Ecological Society of America notes with serious concern the Kansas State Board of Education ruling and similar efforts in other states regarding the teaching of evolution and the teaching of religion in science classes. Efforts to weaken the quality of science education should be resisted. Science education is more important than ever before as we prepare students for our increasingly complex world of environmental challenges and technological advances. 

ESA Resolution on Science of Evolution

Evolution is a widely accepted scientific theory that all living things have shared ancestors from which they have diverged. It is one of the most fundamental building blocks in science, touching nearly every other discipline including those that directly effect humans, such as medicine and agriculture. Evolutionary science allows us to determine not only how and why living things have become the way they are today, but also what processes are currently acting to change them. Thus, evolutionary biology is vital to our enhanced awareness and prediction of the future of life on earth. Understanding why and how some species change when faced with new challenges is critical to the sustainability of ecosystems upon which humans rely. 

Science teaching must include evolutionary biology, which is the core of our understanding of life on Earth. Scientific disciplines such as biology, ecology, and geology cannot be taught with scientific integrity if evolution is not included. The National Science Education Standards recognize the importance of evolution in teaching students to understand the natural world. 

Religion-based teachings are not scientific theory. The scientific theory of evolutionary biology has been repeatedly tested and validated. While scientists may debate the mechanisms that drive evolution, they agree that the empirical evidence for it is undeniable. Science has been greatly successful at explaining natural processes, leading to a better understanding of the universe and enormous benefits to society. Science classes should focus on science and not religion. 

Adopted by the ESA Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America,  November 1999 

ESA POSITION STATEMENT: Endorsement of AAAS Evolution Statement

Endorsement of AAAS Evolution Statement

The Ecological Society of America endorses the AAAS Statement on the Kansas State Board of Education Decision on the Education of Students in the Science of Evolution and Cosmology.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science deplores the recent decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to remove references to evolution and cosmology from its state education standards and assessments, thereby making central principles for the scientific understanding of the universe and its history optional subjects for science education. This decision by the Board is a serious disservice to students and teachers in the State of Kansas. To become informed and responsible citizens in our increasingly technological world, students need to study and judge for themselves the empirical evidence and concepts central to current scientific understanding. The actions of the State Board of Education may place Kansas 

students at a competitive disadvantage in their education and work environments. By discouraging teachers from using the best available professional knowledge about the nature and history of the universe, the Board's decision will make it more difficult for Kansas to recruit capable and inspiring science teachers. 

Recognizing that the State Board of Education decision is a serious setback for public education in the State of Kansas, the AAAS adopts the following resolution: 

Whereas, it has never been more important for American citizens to achieve a basic understanding of contemporary science and technology; and 

Whereas, the concepts and evidence inextricably linked to our understanding of the nature and history of the universe are fundamental to the basic education of all Americans; and 

Whereas, learning succeeds best when teachers and students can explore, investigate, and criticize the fundamental concepts and ideas in science; and 

Whereas, learning and inquiry are severely inhibited if teachers are placed in a position where they may feel pressured to alter their teaching of the fundamental concepts of science in response to demands external to the scientific disciplines, 

Therefore Be It Resolved, that the AAAS urges the citizens of Kansas to restore the topics of evolution and cosmology to the state curriculum. AAAS stands ready to assist all concerned citizens of Kansas in securing the repeal of this damaging ruling by the State Board of Education. 

Therefore Be It Further Resolved, that the AAAS and others committed to educational excellence in science work aggressively to oppose measures that could adversely affect the teaching of science, wherever they may occur. 

Therefore Be It Further Resolved, that the AAAS encourages its affiliated societies to endorse this resolution and to communicate their support to the citizens and appropriate public officials in Kansas. 

Adopted by the AAAS Board of Directors , October 15, 1999


The Ecological Society of America endorses the following statement
What Is Science?

Science extends and enriches our lives, expands our imagination and liberates us from the bonds of ignorance and superstition. The Ecological Society of America wishes to affirm the precepts of modern science that are responsible for its success. 

Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the universe and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories. 

The success and credibility of science is anchored in the willingness of scientists to:

  • Expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists. This requires the complete and open exchange of data, procedures, and materials.
  • Abandon or modify previously accepted conclusions when confronted with more complete or reliable experimental or observational evidence.
  • Adherence to these principles provides a mechanism for self-correction that is the foundation of the credibility of science.