What is ecosystem protection? What is the watershed approach?

Summer 1994

Note from Bob Wayland

Director of EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds

What is ecosystem protection? What is the watershed approach? How do they differ? How are they the same? These are questions I am hearing more and more. I would like to take this opportunity to provide a perspective from my EPA corner, and describe recent developments that should help clarify these questions.

Let me begin with ecosystem protection. At least from EPA's perspective, we made a giant leap forward when, on March 5, 1994, a group of assistant administrators and senior managers from EPA met in Edgewater, Maryland, to define ecosystem protection and to discuss strategies for ensuring that EPA programs worked to protect ecosystems.

This high energy meeting, which I attended, resulted in a proposed strategy -- the Edgewater Consensus -- for ecosystem protection at EPA.

The Edgewater Consensus states that ecosystem protection is place-based environment management that is driven by the key environmental problems that occur in particular geographic areas.

It relies on stakeholders in those places to define the problems, to set priorities, and to help with the solutions.

As envisioned, such place-based environmental management would integrate the goals for long-term ecosystem health with those for economic stability.

I want to emphasize that the Edgewater group's view of ecosystems includes both human and nonhuman living systems.

We agreed that protecting human health and welfare and protecting natural systems are integral to ecosystem management.

Threats to people and natural systems from contaminated ground water, hazardous waste disposal, and air pollution are all included in our idea of essential elements of ecosystem protection.

In the long term, sustaining healthy ecosystems will help us protect both the human and natural environment.

Let me now turn to the watershed approach, and how it is related to ecosystem protection.

I like to describe the watershed approach as "ecosystem management within watershed boundaries."

EPA's 1991 Watershed Protection Approach Framework Document states that the watershed approach provides a framework for the development of "watershed-specific plans that prevent, reduce, or abate environmental degradation and risks to ecological systems and public health from all stressors and all sources..."

The framework document also describes the watershed approach as dependent upon good coordination of federal, state, tribal, and local governmental and nongovernmental programs; involvement of interested and affected parties (stakeholders); and an iterative process whereby the problems within watersheds would be identified, appropriate actions selected and implemented, success evaluated, and revisions made, as needed.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner has reinforced our vision for watershed management. In congressional testimony advocating adoption of the watershed approach during Clean Water Act reauthorization, the Administrator said "The Clinton Administration envisions an approach to water resource protection that looks first to the ecosystem itself, evaluates its needs based on risk, and then tailors workable solutions to those needs through the participation of stakeholders in every phase of the process."

Of course, watershed boundaries are not always the most appropriate ones for ecosystem management.

For certain living resources or ecological concerns (e.g., migratory bird flight paths), other boundaries are more appropriate.

In some cases an ecosystem may be a large geographical area (e.g., the Great Plains, the Mississippi Delta) within which smaller watershed management projects may contribute to broader ecosystem goals.

Overall environmental objectives will determine the most appropriate "place" on which to focus.

EPA's role in place-based management may be less influenced by the place than by the commitment, capabilities, and concerns of the other organizations and the opportunity to complement and further them in a team approach.

As described by the Edgewater participants, the EPA role in "place-based" environmental management will often be that of catalyst or enabler.

For any given place, EPA would establish a process for determining environmental needs and would orient its work to meet those needs.

EPA would help to define the vision, assist in convening collaborative efforts, bring to bear its expertise and authorities, and provide financial and technical assistance.

I want to stress the importance of collaboration.

EPA will not always be the lead but will frequently be a participant in an ecosystem management project convened by another entity such as another federal agency.

Successful ecosystem management requires that all stakeholders play a role.

At the federal level, a number of federal agencies will need to work together and build on each others' expertise and program responsibilities in order to assist locally-based efforts.

In our work with watershed protection we have found these types of partnerships to be very valuable, and I am sure the same will continue to be true for ecosystem management efforts that employ other ecosystem boundaries.

To conclude, the Edgewater Consensus reinforces and provides a further impetus for continuing our watershed efforts. Indeed, our watershed efforts provide a foundation for achieving the vision articulated in the Edgewater Consensus.


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