ESA Position » Letters from the ESA's President:

ESA’s letter to the Obama administration

January 14, 2009

Dear President-elect Obama:

As the nation’s leading society of 10,000 professional ecological scientists, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) congratulates you and applauds your vision of a green economy.  Since its founding in 1915, one of ESA’s core missions has been to ensure the application of ecological science to environmental challenges.  Your nomination of one of our Past-Presidents, marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a wonderful reflection of that mission.

As you have emphasized, investment in initiatives such as sustainable agriculture and green-collar jobs will help America lead the way in resolving global challenges, while improving citizens’ quality of life.  National security, the economy, climate change, education and health care are not isolated issues; they are often intertwined with environmental concerns. Never before has it been so important to find common and compelling solutions, and we are confident that you will set an agenda anchored in cooperation, sound research, and an understanding of connections. ESA is eager to assist you, both by identifying areas where ecological solutions can address multiple, seemingly disparate problems, and by providing timely expertise from our members.

Ecosystems provide many services to society, ranging from food production to carbon sequestration to water purification and flood control. We can sustain and even enhance these services by managing ecosystems in ways that preserve their integrity. Developing new management practices will require additional basic research to improve our understanding of how ecosystems function and how crucial functions are best sustained. ESA has identified several areas of particular importance to continued ecosystem health, many of which relate directly to prominent challenges facing the country.  Issues such as climate change and energy development, for example, have demonstrable connections to the well-being of both the country and its citizens. As ecologists, we understand the gravity and centrality of climate change, and we commend your commitment to addressing it as part of your plan for a green economy.  Below we suggest four additional areas of ecological concern:

Protecting water quality and quantity: Water sustains all life on Earth, but over 800 million people worldwide lack access to clean water and associated resources. Water shortage and contamination have led to famine, the spread of disease, and international conflict. These impacts are already widespread in Africa and Asia and are expected to increase both in scope and severity if management practices are not revised. In the U.S., an EPA report indicates that 36 states will be experiencing water shortages by 2013.

Efforts to address other pressing issues, such as alternative energy development, can place our scarce water resources at risk—the extraction of oil from tar sands or shales is extremely water-intensive, as is underground sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal burning.  Boosting midwestern agricultural production for biofuel production, particularly by converting previously unfarmed land to corn fields and increasing the use of fertilizers, will stress local drinking water supplies, many of which are already contaminated. It is therefore critical that the efficiency of green energy alternatives be calculated not only in terms of energy generated per acre and/or investment dollar, but also per gallon of clean water expended or polluted.

The development of sustainable agriculture and water practices will require not only additional investment in both research and monitoring, but also improved coordination among the 20-plus federal agencies currently working on water issues. House Science Committee Chair Bart Gordon is set to introduce a bill that would establish an interagency committee to coordinate work on water resources. If well-received by Congress, this legislation would represent an important first step in revising the way the country approaches water resources.

Preserving biodiversity: Ecosystems, including managed systems such as agriculture, are complex webs of interactions between species and their environments. Research continues to uncover surprising ways in which species cooperate and compete, often impacting their environments in unexpected ways. Frequently, even seemingly small changes in species numbers or composition (either from the reduction of existing species or the introduction of new ones) can lead to widespread changes throughout ecosystems. Extinctions pose ecological threats whose severity could be orders of magnitude greater than projected due to the complexity of species interactions. This adds considerable gravity to the already sobering estimates of future extinction rates (20-40 percent loss of extant species this century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).  We commend your commitment to overturning the Bush administrations’ changes to the Endangered Species Act and restoring mandatory scientific review for actions that may threaten critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.

Controlling invasive species is also important, not only to preserve native biodiversity, but also to prevent economic damage. Invasive species that lack natural enemies spread quickly, often supplanting native species. The zebra mussel, for example, kills off native mussels while damaging human infrastructure such as power plants and water treatment plants, costing the country more than $5 billion each year. Similarly, non-native weeds and grasses have invaded croplands and rangelands, increasing the frequency of fires and resulting in massive economic losses.

The close connection between ecological and economic health highlights the need for economic indicators that account for natural and human capital—the goods and services provided by ecosystems and the human populations they support. Such indicators would allow us to better maintain economies that sustain rather than disturb the ecosystems that enable them. There are many encouraging examples of local, community-based development programs that have both enhanced the livelihoods of local residents and bolstered native biodiversity. Globalization, however, has increased the frequency of large-scale and transboundary challenges such as the decline of migratory species. Meeting these challenges will require additional coordination and cooperation between state, national, and international governments.

Addressing transboundary challenges: Ranging from avian influenza to the impacts of climate change, transboundary issues often have significant geopolitical implications, possibly either straining or improving relationships between countries depending on how they are addressed. Egypt’s construction of the Aswan Dam caused flooding in Sudan and displaced more than 60,000 people, while China’s reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions led to a reduction in acid deposition in Japan. In 2007, China and Japan issued a joint statement expressing their commitment to resolving environmental issues through cooperation. With globalization on the rise, this kind of collaboration will be vital to human welfare in the 21st Century. Your vision of amending the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade agreements to better account for natural and human capital gives us great hope for more mutually beneficial solutions to problems that cross international borders.

Providing environmental education: People have always been linked both biologically and emotionally to their natural environments—ecosystems provide society with tangible goods such as food and fuel, as well as recreation and spiritual enrichment.  Sustaining these ecosystem services for future generations requires strong science education for society at large.  ESA and its members support "No Child Left Inside" programs, environmental education in K-12, and citizen science programs, all of which provide current and future decision-makers with a better understanding of how to manage ecosystems to sustain life on Earth.

As our population grows and we work to bolster the economy, ESA encourages you to remember how crucial healthy ecosystems are for a prosperous and sustainable future.  Projects to build and revitalize infrastructure in particular will have environmental interdependencies at every stage, from mining crushed stone and gravel for construction to the impacts of built structures on organisms The ecological consequences of these projects requires careful ecological analysis if we are to avoid creating new persistent environmental problems.  ESA’s 10,000 members have expertise in a host of areas relevant to ecological forecasting and our nation’s environmental policies. A diverse group of our members serve on the ESA Rapid Response Team dedicated to providing prompt, in-depth information about ecological issues upon request.  If we can be of service, or if you would like us to provide you with contact information for members with expertise in a particular area, please contact our Director of Public Affairs, Nadine Lymn (202-833-8773, extension 205;

Thank you for your consideration, and our best wishes and hopes for success during the coming years.



Alison G. Power