Small Businesses and Ecosystem Management

Sustainable Biosphere Initiative Project Office Notes from a Conversation on Ecosystem Management
May 17, 1996

2nd in a Series "Small Businesses and Ecosystem Management"

The role of small businesses in ecosystem management was the focus of a recent conversation convened by the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative and the Interagency Ecosystem Management Coordinating Group. The 13-member discussion group identified ways in which the interests of small businesses can be served with a vision for long term ecological health. Participants in the Conversation addressed many of the challenges confronting an ecological approach to natural resource management, and identified a wide variety of existing and potential efforts which may contribute to its successful implementation. Emphasis on the necessity of healthy local economies as a cornerstone of successful ecosystem management emerged as a central theme in the conversation. Participants agreed that small businesses have an important role to play in economic vitality, and can be assisted in that role by a variety of government and community initiatives. General themes which emerged in the discussion are outlined below.

Fear of ecosystem management on the part of the small business community:

  • To many small businesses, ecosystem management represents the potential for new restrictions and regulations which may limit the ability of a business to make a profit.
  • The small business community is concerned that ecosystem management will be implemented without input from the general public, and therefore will not be sensitive to their needs.
  • Contrasting with public apprehension, federal agency representatives are adopting the position that successful ecosystem management relies on economic vitality at the local level. From this perspective, aspects of a successful ecosystem management plan include:
    •     Grassroots participation in the decision making process
    •     Partnerships: Solving local problems for local people
    •     Good science at many scales
    •     Developing an inventory of what a piece of land can produce
    •     Management for diversification of species

Small businesses as essential components in successful ecosystem management:

  • Diversification of the local economy can work well in the context of ecosystem management, yielding production and income without the concomitant damage to the surrounding ecosystem caused by intensive focus on a single resource.
  • Promoting small business discourages absentee land ownership, a condition which reduces the investment of land owners in the health of natural systems locally.
  • Community Land Trusts incorporate ecological considerations into local harvesting priorities.

Existing policies which discourage ecologically sound stewardship of natural resources:

  • At the county level, pressure to produce real taxable wealth promotes short-term profitability at the expense of long-term ecological health.
  • Legislative takings, used to preserve fragile or declining natural habitats, are often an inefficient and ineffective means of promoting both economic and ecological health.

Generating profits while fostering healthy ecosystems:

  • Harvesting special forest products, such as mushrooms, grasses, and berries for food and pharmaceutical use, in balance with timber harvest, may be an effective means for maintaining profits while decreasing one's reliance on trees for income.
  • Conservation easements, or agreements to refrain from developing land, reduce property taxes and increase profits.
  • Value-added practices, such as making finished wood products from locally harvested timber, are a means of maximizing local profits from local resources.
  • Directories that identify industry members who produce their products sustainably allow consumers to support ecological responsibility with their buying power.
  • Community supported agriculture takes advantage of local capital to generate profits while adhering to the ecological values of the community

The importance of local control of natural resources:

  • Interactions between members of a local community are a necessary and valuable context for making decisions about ecosystem management.
  • The interaction between small business interests and community members allows small businesses to take advantage of unique local resources: Human, natural, and capital.

Management sensitive to local needs:

  • Successful management must consider local realities and historical legacies, such as the fragmentation of landscapes in the eastern U.S. and the concept of coordinated resource management pertaining primarily to the western U.S.
  • The ways in which resources are used by regional industries (e.g., extraction vs. renewable resources), as well as the spatial distribution of resources, must be reflected in management policy.

The roles of government in ecosystem management:

  • Government can educate the small business community regarding sustainable land use practices (e.g., horse logging, management for diverse tree species).
  • Government can promote collaborative efforts among stakeholders (e.g., between concessionaires and managers at park boundaries, between different types of community trusts).
  • Government can provide incentives for responsible stewardship of natural resources (e.g., tax breaks to businesses that give land to local communities).

The small business community has real concerns that ecosystem management may overlook local economic needs and priorities for the sake of achieving goals at a macroscopic level.  However, as evidenced by the points raised in this second Conversation on Ecosystem Management, local economic vitality and public participation in natural resource management decisions at the local level are fundamental to a successful management approach.  In order to achieve economic growth in the context of long-term ecosystem health, local efforts and government efforts must be linked by an overarching and continually evolving management plan, based on priorities and programs such as those outlined above.  By identifying future work that needs to be done, the Conversation represents an important contribution to the necessary dialogue in moving toward a responsible approach to ecosystem management.

*The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (SBI) of the Ecological Society of America, in association with the Interagency Ecosystem Management Coordinating Group (IEMCG), is hosting a series of conversations on issues surrounding ecosystem management.  The SBI highlights the value of ecological research information for decision making.  The IEMCG provides a coordinating mechanism for agency ecosystem management activities.  Participants in the Conversations are drawn from different sectors and represent a broad sweep of expertise in the areas of natural resources, land use, and governance.

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