Federal Ecosystem Management
Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife
James R. Skillen
For the better part of the last century, “preservation” and “multi-use conservation” were the watchwords for managing federal lands and resources. But in the 1990s, amidst notable failures and overwhelming needs, policymakers, land managers, and environmental scholars were calling for a new paradigm: ecosystem management. Such an approach would integrate federal land and resource management across jurisdictional boundaries; it would protect biodiversity and economic development; and it would make federal management more collaborative and less hierarchical. That, at any rate, was the idea. Where the idea came from—why ecosystem management emerged as official policy in the 1990s—is half of the story that James Skillen tells in this timely book. The other half: Why, over the course of a mere decade, the policy fell out of favor?
This closely focused history describes an old system of preservation and multi-use conservation ill equipped to cope with the new ecological, legal, and political realities confronting federal agencies. Ecosystem management, it was assumed, would not demand choices between substantive and procedural needs. Looming even larger in the push for the new approach was a shift of emphasis in both ecology and political science—from stability and predictability to dynamism and contingency. Ecosystem management offered more modest managerial goals informed by direct public participation as well as scientific expertise. But as Skillen shows, this purported balance proved to be the policy’s undoing. Different interpretations presented conflicting emphases on scientific and democratic authority. By 2001, when both models had been tested, the Bush administration faulted federal ecosystem management for running “willy-nilly all over the west,” and shelved the policy.
“Skillen masterfully tackles the difficult and thorny problem of explicating the underlying forces driving public lands management, but this time in the post-Sagebrush Rebellion era.”
—American Historical Review
“A nuanced and novel account of how ecosystem management was influenced by contingencies ranging from the requirements of NEPA and the ESA to the varied agendas of scientists, activists, and presidential administration.”
—Western Historical QuarterlySee all reviews...
“In this careful and fine-grained study, James Skillen examines the collaborative interagency management paradigm that emerged at the federal level in the 1990s called ‘ecosystem management.’”
“A perceptive historical analysis of how and why collaborative environmental governance arose during the 1990s and why it survives today. His analysis of why ecosystem management (ESM) is a balanced assessment of its potential to reframe public discourse on a broader ecological scale.”
“Skillen meticulously dissects the complicated history of ecosystem management and its implementation among the federal land divisions from the 1990s to the late 2000s. . . . The book is authoritative and thorough, supported by extensive references.”
“Skillen brings a high level of expertise to the subject of federal land management. Presents a much needed history of the challenges of federal natural resources management.”
—Forest History Today
“Ecosystem Management was supposed to offer public-land managers in the 1990s a new paradigm that resolved the tensions between preservationism and conservationism. But it has not done so, argues James Skillen in this carefully reasoned analysis, because it is not firmly embedded in the legal statutes regulating the national forests, grasslands, parks, and refuges. His is a model administrative history.”
—Char Miller, author of Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy
“Professor Skillen meticulously chronicles the emergence of ecosystem management within the federal public land agencies, tracing its origins in ecological science and political theory to its on-the-ground implementation through several administrations. The book deftly weaves together the diverse ideas, forces, and initiatives that brought about this controversial paradigm shift in federal natural resource management, while also critically examining key successes and failures in this new world of public land policy.”
—Robert B. Keiter, author of Keeping Faith with Nature: Ecosystems, Democracy, and America's Public LandsSee fewer reviews...
In this book, Skillen gets at the truth behind these contrary interpretations and claims to clarify how federal ecosystem management worked—and didn't—and how many of the principles it embodied continue to influence federal land and resource management in the twenty-first century. How the policy’s lessons apply to our politically and environmentally fraught moment is, finally, considerably clearer with this informed and thoughtful book in hand.