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Agreeing on what to argue about:

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Environmental report tries to make sense of flood of data

A new report on the nation’s environment presents a mosaic picture, containing both disturbing news such as the fact that virtually all our streams and groundwater contain contaminants and good news such as the fact that global-warming producing carbon safely stored in trees increased by 80 percent in the Eastern United States from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Such apparently contradictory factors highlight the difficulty of assessing the health of the nation’s environment. Statistics and reports on environmental damage and progress routinely come from dozens – if not hundreds – of nonprofit, government, and other agencies.

The new report, “The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems,” released Tuesday (Sept. 24) in Washington, D.C., is an effort by 150 experts in business, government, environmental organizations, and academia to make sense of the picture. The 270-page document makes the argument that just as economic policies in the United States are set after the examination of key economic data, environmental policy ought to be based on similar broadly accepted indicators.

“There’s lots of data,” said William Clark, chairman of the project and Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG). “The analogy we’re using is that we’re [currently] doing environmental policy for the nation in a way that’s equal to doing economic policy with just companies’ annual reports and reports from chambers of commerce.”

If it is successful, Clark said, the report will shift environmental disputes from arguments over the accuracy or appropriateness of particular data to policy debates based on mutually agreed-on data.

“The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems,” sponsored by the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, pulls together information from sources across the country to present a comprehensive picture of the nation’s environment. Perhaps more importantly, it establishes 100 environmental indicators in 10 broad categories that will be used in future reports as measures of the nation’s environmental health.

Clark said he anticipates the report to be revised in print every five years, with annual revisions to the report posted on the Internet. The biggest change he expects, at least initially, is filling in the enormous gaps in information that became apparent in drafting the report.

“Only half the data needed for a full view of the nation’s ecosystems are prepared,” Clark said.

Clark stressed that the report compiles data released by other organizations and therefore the picture it paints of the nation’s environment is already known, at least in a more fragmented form. Still, he said, he found the data on the extent of contamination of the nation’s rivers and streams surprising. The report said that at least one measurable contaminant has been found in virtually all freshwater streams, groundwater, sediments, and in the flesh of freshwater fish. Further, 26 percent of groundwater has at least one contaminant at levels that exceed human health standards.

“Most surprising in the analysis [to me] was the appearance of contaminant chemicals in the nation’s waters. We found [almost] every stream sampled had at least one contaminant. The picture that every bit of freshwater we have has been chemically transformed by human activity – I thought it’d be large, but not that large,” Clark said.

In addition, Clark said he was also struck by data showing that exotic and invasive species have already altered the American environmental landscape. Data compiled in the report shows that virtually every river system has at least one invasive species, with 60 percent having between one and 10 invasives living in it.

“That degree of transformation of our nation’s ecosystems is not something I was prepared for,” Clark said.

Clark was encouraged by the reception the report received. He testified before the House Science Committee after the press conference where the report was launched. To be useful in setting policy, he said it’s important that the report remain succinct, yet scientifically credible, and nonpartisan in tone.

The report breaks the nation’s ecosystems into six broad categories: coasts and oceans, forests, farmlands, fresh waters, grasslands and shrublands, and urban and suburban areas. For each of those categories, the report cites 10 key characteristics, composed from about 100 indicators. The characteristics are thought to be important measures of the health of an ecosystem and include ecosystem extent – whether it’s growing or shrinking; fragmentation; the presence or absence of key chemicals needed for life; contaminants; and physical condition, including things such as erosion or depth to groundwater. Other characteristics include plants and animals, biological communities, plant growth and productivity, production of food and fiber and use of water, and recreational use and other services provided by the ecosystem.

“Policymaking about the environment will always be contentious in a democracy,” Heinz Center President Thomas Lovejoy said in a statement. “But debates on how best to manage our nation’s natural resources should not be sidetracked through needless debates about the facts.”

To access the report on the Web, go to