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Ecosystem Management and CRM:
Do We Have A Role?

Tim Church


Over the past few years several cultural resource managers have broached the topic of integrating cultural resources with natural resource management (e.g., R. Smith, 1992, Resources Management: An Interdisciplinary Approach. CRM Bulletin 15(4): 10­11). These earlier discussions argued that cultural resource information could contribute valuable data to the management of other resources. With the emergence of initiatives within federal land managing agencies to adopt an ecosystem management perspective, the topic is increasingly discussed among cultural resource managers. "Archeological sites present a unique opportunity for managers to learn about the long-term functioning of ecosystems. The archeological record reveals how prehistoric human populations and their environments interacted over extended spans of timewith both changing as a result" (F. P. McManamon, 1995, Hidden Data: Learning about Ecosystems from Archeological Sites. Federal Archeology Spring: 2).

What Is Ecosystem Management?

One of the problems in the evolution of ecosystem management has been a multitude of definitions, all generally headed in the same direction, but with enough differences to cause friction between agency viewpoints. According to the BLM, it is "the integration of ecological, economic, and social principles to manage biological and physical systems in a manner that safe guards the long-term ecological sustainability, natural diversity, and productivity of the landscape" (J. P. Barker, 1996, Archaeological Contributions to Ecosystem Management. SAA Bulletin 14(2): 18­21). In other words, ecosystem studies are those that attempt to understand the dynamic interplay of the component systems' processes. At the practical level ecosystem management is a policy alternative that attempts to bring the often fragmented studies done by federal resource managers under a unified conceptual framework.

Ecosystem management draws heavily on the theories, concepts, and methods developed in ecology in the last decade and in particular from landscape ecology. Ecology has evolved quickly over the past decade; it is not the ecology that many of us studied during our college years. Instead, ecological discussions today speak in terms of the fractal geometry of landscapes, percolation theory, self-organizing units, and the hierarchical nature of scale.

Controversy over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest brought ecosystem management to the forefront in federal land managing agencies. As a result, the Regional Ecosystem Office (REO) was established in Portland, Oregon to coordinate and guide ecosystem studies by the various land agencies in the Pacific Northwest. The office has published Ecosystem Analysis at the Watershed Scale: Federal Guide for Watershed Analysis. REO is a temporary office and due to expire in 1998. Congressional efforts are underway to formalize many of REO's functions as well as expand them with the establishment of the National Institute for the Environment (S. 2242, 1994, and H.R. 2827, 1995). Other efforts include amending the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 to specifically add ecosystem management to the regulation (S. 2189, 1994). However, recent policy analysis paints a gloomy picture of ecosystem management's expected life span and some have argued that the policy window through which ecosystem management entered will be politically short lived, if it hasn't already disappeared.

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Is Human Activity a Separate Ecology?

Ecosystem management specifically includes human activities as part of its domain. This is a departure from the traditional view that pristine ecosystems are those devoid of human influence. However, the view that humans are separate from natural ecological systems is still strong: "Returning to the specific issue of benchmarks for managing ecosystems, the clearest, least ambiguous one is that of no human influence. This fits well with the goal that most ecological reserves should be managed to minimize human influence as much as possible" (M. Hunter Jr., 1996, Benchmarks for Managing Ecosystems: Are Human Activities Natural? Conservation Biology 10(3): 695­697). Others argue that all ecosystems bear the mark, recognizable or not, of human influence and that by ignoring that influence in their management we may create artificially fragile ecosystems vulnerable to the inevitable impact of human activities. While humans are generally recognized as a part of the ecosystem and have been so for thousands of years, there is little understanding of that fact's relevance and value.

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How Do CRM Studies Relate to Ecosystem Management?

The National Park Service's draft discussion paper on ecosystem management recommends, "The NPS should reduce the barriers to ecosystem approaches that result from artificially separating cultural and natural resources and strive to replace them with collaborative planning, research, and resource management efforts that reflect the real-world integration of material, human and natural features" (National Park Service, 1994, Ecosystem Management in the National Park Service: Discussion Draft. NPS, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.).

However, arguments concerning the value of archaeological data to ecosystem management fail to recognize the inherent limitations of traditional archaeological data. These limitations revolve around two central issues. First is that much of the data collected since the inception of cultural resource management some 20 years ago is fragmented, incompatible, and arbitrary. Personally I disagree with the first part of the assertion that, "Given the wealth of data in hand, and the expertise to gather additional data, archaeologists can and should contribute directly to developing ecosystem-based land management" (Barker, op. cit., p. 21). Rather I agree with Fawcett's statement, "the contemporary structure of CRM rewards broad unfocused (shot-gun) projects, using lots of fancy high-tech methods, to reinforce existing culture histories coated with only a superficial gloss of theory. Such projects create vast quantities of unpublished reports and poorly analyzed collections, yet they represent the bulk of the archaeology being done" (B. Fawcett ,1995, Bringing Theory to Method within the Context of Academic Research Funded by Cultural Resource Management. Paper presented at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Minneapolis). Some authors touting the value of archaeological data have often cited prehistoric sites as time capsules of environmental data, but again, ecosystem management is not about simple environmental reconstruction.

The second issue is the "baggage" CRM carries. This baggage consists of (a) a cultural historical paradigm and (b) a historic and preservation foundation. Without entering the debate about the value of culture history studies, the fact is that almost all of the methods used in CRM investigations today were developed within a cultural history paradigm formalized and codified by regulation. Careful reading of a number of recent papers and publications by cultural resource managers on the potential role of CRM in ecosystem management studies reveals this inherent historical attitude. "We now know that ecosystems function more like living systems, in which history determines current conditions..."(Barker, op. cit., p. 20). This linear, mechanistic view is, again, at complete odds with the theoretical basis of ecosystem management.

Another piece of baggage is a foundation of historical preservation. This foundation developed out of a goal to preserve structures and other easily bounded "properties." When one speaks of archaeological sites there are two sides to the coin. The first is the archaeological side and the second the administrative side. The debate over the value of non-site archaeology typically is confined only to the archaeological side of the coin. The concept of a non-site, or a "non-property" property will throw almost every SHPO into fits, and with good reason. From their standpoint they cannot manage something that they cannot physically bound. Yet, within ecosystem management, boundaries are one of the aspects of traditional management practices that are considered antithetical. What are the implications inherent in adoption of ecosystem management principles (rather than just the label) to historic preservation ?

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Square Peg in a Round Hole? CRM Studies and Ecosystem Management

The bottom line is that landscape ecology and ecosystem management on which it is based is a nonlinear, dynamic series of system component processes and their interplay. In other words, chaotic. Using data collected and generated from linear, predictive, reductionist studies will be doomed to failure. Therefore, if we as archaeologists are to truly embrace ecosystem management and become a contributing force, we must recognize the paradigmatic implications. These implications are profound and I suspect will require a total rethinking of the methods, the concepts, and the language that we have traditionally employed. It's not that it can't be done; it already has been done. The work of Butzer, Winterhalder, Binford, Ebert, Wandsnider, and others provide examples of approaches in anthropology compatible with ecosystem management. Unfortunately, this type of work is the exception rather than the rule and has met with determined resistance from the majority of cultural resource managers.

Barker, in a recent reflection on the issue, states, "Coincident with the development of ecological thinking, archaeologists adopted a regional approach to understanding prehistoric settlement and subsistence systems. This orientation is especially amenable to ecosystem thinking and should have placed archaeologists in the vanguard of ecosystem management" (Barker, op. cit., p. 19). This statement belies a basic misunderstanding of the tenets of landscape ecology. As NPS discussions point out, "A common misconception is that ecosystem management entails solely drawing new maps and assigning new boundaries around broader ecological areas" (NPS, op. cit., p. 8).

Landscapes are not merely large areas, nor are they aggregates of sites as most regional archaeological studies are structured.

"Systems are groups of interacting, interdependent parts linked together by exchanges of energy, matter, and information. Complex systems are characterized by: (1) strong (usually nonlinear) interactions between parts; (2) complex feedback loops which make it difficult to distinguish cause from effect; (3) significant time and space lags; discontinuities, thresholds and limits; all resulting in (4) the inability to simply "add up" or aggregate small scale behavior to arrive at large-scale results" (R. Constanza, L. Wainger, C. Folke, and K. Maler, 1993, Modeling Complex Ecological Economic Systems: Toward an Evolutionary, Dynamic Understanding of Humans and Nature. BioScience 43(8): 545­555).

If we simply relabel traditional CRM work under a category of ecosystem studies, as do some biologists, we will eventually be recognized as an irrelevant and noncontributing member to the discussion and be ignored. Becoming a "player" means more than just working with an interdisciplinary team, or using ecological terms, or employing the techniques of ecological analysis ("talking the talk" as it were). If we are to realize the goal of providing "the kind of information and long-term perspective that can help land managers understand how the ecosystems they manage have changed through time, how human land uses have modified them over the past hundreds or thousands of years, and how present-day land use proposals are likely to affect the health of those ecosystems, [G. Stumpf, 1995, Using Ethnoecology Studies to Improve Ecosystem Management. Paper presented at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Minneapolis]" it will require a fundamental paradigmatic shift. Paradigmatic shifts do not come easily, especially in areas that have become etched in regulatory tradition.

Tim Church is with Science Applications International Corporation.

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