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The Ecosystem Management Approach

River boats, Van Vieng, Laos © Steven Hufnagel

What is Ecosystem Management?


Ecosystem management uses an ecosystem-based approach to resource management in order to address the myriad challenges that arise from fragmented landscapes and diverse management strategies. In our view, an ecosystem management approach has five key elements. Ecosystem management:

  • Requires consideration of geographic areas defined by ecological boundaries and the perspectives provided by different spatial scales and longer time frames.
  • Requires managers to take into account the complexity of natural processes and social systems and use that understanding to craft management approaches that take advantage of these processes rather than work against them.
  • Incorporates explicit definition of biological and social goals at both the national and local scales and elevates maintenance and restoration of ecological sustainability and ecosystem integrity as important goals.
  • Emphasizes collaborative decision making to deal with a landscape owned by many individuals and organizations with different values, interests and capabilities.
  • Uses a process of adaptive management to account for the uncertainty inherent in our understanding and the future, and employs a wide range of strategies and policy tools.

Why Use and Ecosystem Management Approach?Van Vieng sunset, Laos © Steven Hufnagel


Natural resource management is at a crossroads. New scientific understanding, updated management strategies and better methods for interaction are needed to begin solving the most pressing natural resource issues. An ecosystem management approach can help to solve these issues which include:

  • Ecological concerns including loss of biological diversity, invasion by exotic species, fragmentation of habitat and landscapes, and decline of key ecosystem processes. These changes have resulted in declines of species, such as the Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and the Scarlet macaw (Ara macao), as well as ecosystems, such as coastal mangroves throughout the tropics and the longleaf pine forest communities in the Southeastern United States.
  • Economic difficulties due to declines in the effectiveness of ecosystem services including loss of economic capacity in forestry, agriculture and fisheries; lowered resilience to catastrophic change caused by fire or other disturbances; and loss of aesthetic value due to land-use patterns such as urban sprawl.
  • Ineffective decision-making processes including top-down approaches that restrict creative strategies and undermine support by affected parties; adversarial processes that have led to excessive conflict and impasses; and narrow regulatory strategies that have failed to induce needed changes in behavior.
  • Social concerns including the disassociation of people from the land and from each other, which has frayed the basic fabric of civility that holds communities together.



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