Science Key Messages

Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project

December 1996

For further information regarding:


1. The Interior Columbia Basin science effort is a comprehensive, landscape-scale assessment of natural resource conditions, trends, risks, and opportunities:

The Integrated Scientific Assessment and related science documents provide the most comprehensive assessment of the ecological, economic, and social conditions in the Basin.

2. Public land managers need this scientific information in order to make reasoned decisions about broadscale issues.

Many land management challenges, such as catastrophic wildfires, insect and disease infestations, and salmon habitat management, transcend traditional management boundaries. This "big picture" scientific assessment was needed in order to understand the management risks and opportunities associated with these broad scale issues.


1. Scientists are providing information for decisions; scientists are not making the decisions:

Scientists provide credible information on resource conditions, management options, and the consequences of those options. Land managers use this information to weigh decisions about how natural resources can be used and conserved.

2. The scientific information was compiled and synthesized by over 300 scientists and technical specialists under the leadership of Forest Service scientists:

The diverse group of scientists and technical specialists developed and synthesized the scientific information. Individuals were affiliated with federal agencies, state agencies, universities, tribal governments, and private contractors. The scientific information was brought together through task groups, scientific panels, workshops, field trips, literature reviews, and technical reviews.

3. The credibility of the science information was assured through independent peer review:

The scientific reports were peer reviewed with oversight from an independent peer review board to assure credibility of the scientific analysis and findings. The science team was not informed of who the reviewers were and the reviewers were not informed of who the authors were; it was a double-blind peer review. Internal and external groups were allowed to provide names of potential peer reviewers to the review board for consideration.

4. The science information helps focus follow-on research and adaptive management efforts:

The scientific information now available through the project supports reasoned decisions today. It also highlights significant gaps in our understanding. This helps establish priorities for future research and development. Some areas that have particularly surfaced include: the role of natural disturbance processes in maintaining ecological integrity, how restoration activities can help maintain or enhance aquatic integrity, the short-term and long-term relative risks of active versus passive management, how the provision of goods and services relate to ecological integrity, and how rangeland integrity is related to management activities.


1. Ecological integrity and socioeconomic resiliency are used to characterize broad scale conditions within the Basin:

Ecological integrity refers to a system's ability to sustain an organizing, self-correcting capability to recover when it is subjected to disturbances. In this sense, integrity refers to the presence and functioning of ecological functions and processes.

Socioeconomic resiliency reflects a community's ability to maintain well-being through personal and community transitions. In this sense, it reflects how adaptable the social and economic systems are.

2. Over half (54%) of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in the Basin have a high or moderate ecological integrity rating. The remaining 46% has a low ecological integrity rating:

Some measures that indicate low ecological integrity include the landscape's 60% increase in susceptibility to fire, insects, and disease; uncharacteristically severe wildfires; altered watersheds; habitat decline for some species of wildlife and fish; and noxious weeds on rangelands.

3. On Forest Service- and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands, the percentage of high intensity, stand replacement wildfires has increased by nearly 20%. This poses a significant threat to ecological integrity, water quality, species recovery, and homes in rural areas:

Wildfire suppression and selective large tree harvest have contributed to changes in tree species composition, reduced average tree diameter, lead to stands with a younger average age, increased fuel loadings, and increased insect and disease outbreaks. Rangeland fire suppression and management activities have contributed to increases in woody vegetation and reduction in species diversity. These conditions have collectively lead to an increase in wildfires and wildfire intensity. While fire has a natural role in ecological processes, this increase in fire severity poses an important threat to ecological integrity.

4. The interior Columbia River Basin has experienced widespread and dramatic change in the composition, structure, and distribution of fish communities:

These changes include widespread introduction of non-native species, extinction of endemic species (i.e., Alvord cutthroat and Miller Lake lamprey), and extensive reduction in habitat range. Changes are most pronounced in larger, lower elevation rivers and streams. Many higher elevation streams in forested areas retain much of their historical character and provide a core for rebuilding. Tremendous opportunities exist elsewhere for rebuilding and structuring high integrity aquatic ecosystems that could support healthy populations of native species.

5. On average, strong salmon populations inhabit between 0.1% and 33% of their historical range. Healthy salmon populations may be rebuilt from many of the remaining core areas:

The habitat, and populations in turn, have dwindled due to habitat loss through land conversions to agriculture, timber harvesting, road building, rangeland conversions, and competition with introduced fish species. About 58% of the existing salmon strongholds are in roadless areas and 42% are in roaded areas, most of which have relatively low density road systems.

6. Simultaneous habitat protection and restoration alone are not enough to ensure healthy populations in the future. Actions must be taken to address the effects of dams, hatcheries, and fish harvest if healthy salmon populations are to be restored:

Habitat is vitally important to the restoration of healthy populations, but the effects of non-habitat, off-site factors are vital too. In general, the more dams the salmon must traverse going to and coming from the ocean, the less that habitat protection and restoration alone can ensure population recovery.

7. Terrestrial species habitat associated with old forest structures, native grasslands, and native shrublands have declined. Conserving and restoring these habitats can stabilize and reverse these downward trends:

Historically covering 14% of the Basin, old forest structures have declined to 8%. Similarly, native grasslands have declined from 20% to 6%, and shrublands have declined from 30% to 21%. These reductions have been caused primarily by timber harvesting, grazing, and conversion to agriculture. Conservation and restoration of these habitats could stabilize and reverse the downward trends in these terrestrial species.

8. Generally, the Basin's economy is healthy and natural resource production plays a relatively small role in the overall regional economy:

Only 4 % of the Basin's economy directly depends on commodity extraction (including logging and grazing) on Forest Service- and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands.

9. While the regional economy is diverse and adaptable, the story is different with some local, rural economies which are less diversified and rely heavily on products and services from Forest Service- and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands:

Sixty-seven percent of the Basin's population lives in counties with high socioeconomic resiliency. These counties adapt well to economic change. Only 20 percent of the area within the Basin falls under this category. Most of the area in the Basin (68%) has counties with low socioeconomic resiliency, yet only 17% of the population lives there. Counties dominated by Bureau of Land Management- and Forest Service-administered land generally have low resiliency.

10. Any successful management strategy must recognize and manage the multiple risks to ecological integrity and economic well-being, whether from natural causes, such as wildfire and floods, or management causes, such as erosion from roads and disturbances from timber harvesting and grazing:

These different risks exist under any management strategy and they interact, one affecting the magnitude of the other. For example, targeted timber harvesting and prescribed burning can reduce the risk of wildfire, but they pose their own direct risks to ecological integrity. Any strategy that focuses on the management of only one risk while ignoring the others is certain to generate significant detrimental ecological and economic effects. Ecosystem management must address the specific actions being proposed and the consequences and outcomes associated with not taking action. Both action and inaction result in changed environments.

11. Ecosystem management strategies must recognize that multiple risks and opportunities vary significantly throughout the Basin:

The Basin is a heterogeneous landscape of varying conditions and capabilities. Any management strategy that dictates a "one size fits all" prescription won't take advantage of this reality and will be less successful than a strategy that recognizes and takes advantage of this variability across the landscape.

12. Managing ecosystems requires a recognition that individual sites are linked to broad landscapes and that broad landscapes are linked to individual sites:

Neither a broad landscape approach nor a site-specific approach alone can be successful. Ecosystem management must address the site, the landscape, and their interactions simultaneously. In this multiple scale approach science implications for land management cumulative effects will be managed by through the identification and management of risks and opportunities at multiple scales.


1. Land managers need sound information on which to base land management decisions:

This scientific inquiry was initiated so as to have the best available scientific information on which to base management decisions. This science information provides a sound foundation on which to make reasoned decisions about management of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in the Basin. Land managers are required to base decisions on current science information.

2. Land managers used this science information to build alternative long-term management scenarios for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands in the Basin:

Management has two goals associated with this project. First, to restore and maintain long-term ecosystem health and integrity. Second, to support, within the capacity of the land, the economic and/or social needs of people, cultures, and communities and to provide sustainable and predictable levels of products and services from Forest Service- and Bureau of Land Management-administered lands. The science information highlights the risks and opportunities associated with these goals.

3. The scientists then estimated the consequences of these alternative scenarios:

This was done to insure that the projects are fully consistent with the scientific information.

4. Two Draft Environmental Impact Statements (DEISs) will be released for public comment in 1997.

The DEISs are being finalized now and the preferred alternative will be selected soon. The final EISs and the Record(s) of Decision are slated for completion in late 1997.