U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Directorate Decision

Executive Summary


Conceptual Framework




References Cited

List of Tables

List of Figures

1A. Project Concept

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the only federal agency with a primary mission of conserving fish and wildlife resources and habitat, is in the midst of substantive change. This change revolves around the concept of the Ecosystem Approach to Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Ecosystem management, ecosystem approach, holistic landscape-scale management, and other related concepts have multiple interpretations, both biologically and sociopolitically. These interpretations and misinterpretations have major implications for those who advocate, lead, and manage change.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS or Service) became in 1994-95 a lead federal agency in articulating and implementing An Ecosystem Approach to Fish and Wildlife Conservation. This action was part of a major federal initiative within the Executive Branch to revise government. The Service began work on the management concept in 1992 under the heading "biodiversity management" and in 1993 shifted to ecosystem management terminology. In 1994, the FWS Directorate adopted the concept of ecosystem management. By 1995, a formal Ecosystem Approach terminology and Service concept document were adopted.

On December 15, 1995, the Service (via signature of the U. S. Department of the Interior) formally joined with other federal agency partners in a "Memorandum of Understanding to Foster the Ecosystem Approach." The memorandum defines the ecosystem approach as:

A method for sustaining or restoring ecological systems and their functions and values. It is goal driven and it is based on a collaboratively developed vision applied within a geographic framework defined primarily by ecological boundaries. (Section 1 Definitions).

The goal of the Ecosystem Approach as stated in this interagency memorandum, was to:

restore and sustain the health, productivity, and biological diversity of ecosystems and the overall quality of life through a natural resource management approach that is fully integrated with social and economic goals.

Former Service Director Mollie Beattie (1996: 696-699) clearly articulated the Service's philosophy and action orientation in the journal Ecological Applications by stating:

Although many in the Service have been following some of these principles for years, formal adoption of an ecosystem approach has involved a shift in management focus beyond immediate, local problems and beyond political boundaries. To emphasize this change of focus, the Service delineated 53 ecosystem units based essentially on U. S. Geological Survey watersheds. These units provide a framework around which to mobilize staff resources, organize budgets and help break down program barriers. But the Service has not simply traded in one set of boundaries for another. The management issues, the stakeholders and other interested parties and the ecological processes involved all influence the area to be studied and to which a management strategy will apply .

It is important to realize the Service is not abandoning its traditional activities and partners. We will still establish refuges to protect habitat and fish and wildlife populations in jeopardy, restore habitats, reduce environmental degradation and contamination, regulate the harvest of migratory birds, and provide technical assistance to private landowners. However, we are modifying our actions and encompassing them into a broader, overriding philosophy. The Service is accomplishing its objectives in a more coordinated fashion with greater input from a broader array of partners. We are also integrating information across multiple levels of organization. For example, a critically endangered species may still need immediate actions taken specifically to prevent its extinction, but at the same time, we will address the causes that led to its endangerment, which will ultimately help limit the necessity of future species listings under the Endangered Species Act.

This philosophy is in keeping with ecosystem science and management perspectives presented by the Ecological Society of America and by other federal agencies. The philosophy is also in keeping with a dominant social shift, in which stakeholding communities (place-based), and other stakeholders of interest are demanding a role in managing natural resources. This "ecosystem thinking and acting" philosophy also recognizes that federal resource management agencies need political support, moral support, and community/user cooperation to manage federal lands and to achieve nationwide goals.

The Service's Ecosystem Approach to Fish and Wildlife Conservation (February 1995) fully outlines the approach and articulates its goal as "the effective conservation of natural and biological diversity through perpetuation of dynamic, healthy ecosystems." This document evolved from a three year process involving stakeholders both internal and external to the Service.

Conceptually, the adoption and implementation of the Ecosystem Approach was intended to:

  • Add a formal change to the role cross-program teams play (some teams were established prior to formal adoption of the Ecosystem Approach to Fish and Wildlife Conservation in 1995).
  • Divide the nation into fifty-three ecological regions (based on the U.S. Geological Survey's Hydrological Unit Map).
  • Institutionally realign the organization so program ARDs (Assistant Regional Director) also assumed the title and duties of Geographic Assistant Regional Directors with budgeting authority retained at the program level.
  • Provide general direction for the different levels within the organization--Cross-Program Ecosystem Teams, Cross-Region Ecosystem Teams, Regional Office (via Regional Facilities Teams), Washington Office Coordinating Team, and the Service Directorate.

The various organizational levels were charged to work together to:

  • fulfill fish and wildlife needs in the context of the natural and human environment in which they occur,
  • increase cross-program collaboration within the Service, and
  • communicate, coordinate, and collaborate more frequently, more consistently, and more effectively with partners, affected stakeholders, and the public.

The approach, as a new concept, is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Ecosystem approach strategies that had shown promise in the past--teams, area office type activities, stakeholder relations and partnering, and cross boundary activities--were reorganized and incorporated as part of this holistic management thrust. New, however, was that these strategies were now the norm, not the exception, in the Service's way of conducting business.

Although the Ecosystem Approach may have been well conceptualized, limited guidance for implementation planning was provided. Implementation planning responsibility was placed at the regional level and regions were given the leeway to implement the cross-program teams, ARD/GARD positions, and the approach philosophy in a manner they deemed most appropriate.

Philosophically, the Service, according to Clarke and McCool (1997) was in less than an ideal state organizationally to make the substantive changes called for in an ecosystem approach. The authors characterized the Service as being "over committed" and poorly staffed and funded for the multiple mandates it had been given (Clarke and McCool, 1997). The Service was also dealing with downsizing and streamlining while trying to implement the Ecosystem Approach.

Responsibilities added to the Service mandate over the last two-plus decades, e.g., wetland protection and Endangered Species Act, although appropriate and useful management tools, added stress to the organization. Factors such as government downsizing, the societal trend of demanding more responsive government (with fewer real dollars), and political controversy over the role of federal government in resource management have the potential to disrupt the Service's efforts to change. Even today, Service personnel have great difficulty separating the impacts of the Ecosystem Approach from those of downsizing and other changes.

An agency that manages ninety-two million acres of the federal estate and numerous off-federal lands activities and is part of a one hundred billion dollar wildlife and fisheries related industry must be proactive. Such was the case when the Service made the commitment to test a new, rapidly evolving philosophy of management.

The Service did not enter this approach with a lack of knowledge of its organizational stresses. In fact, the Service has been characterized (Clarke and McCool 1997:107) as holding "the dubious honor of having the most chaotic organizational history" of the seven federal resource management organizations examined in their study. A history dating back to 1871 and a series of both introspective and externally driven assessments have left the Service with a good knowledge of its corporate culture. Outlined in Section IB is an evaluation history enumerating the various issues the Service has attempted to assess both formally and informally.

As part of that ongoing commitment to meet resource needs and societal demands, the Service deemed it appropriate to conduct a formative assessment of its Ecosystem Approach. From the outset of the Ecosystems Approach, evaluation has been called for because of the recognition that change is evolutionary and adjustments will be needed. Because the Ecosystem Approach is too new to have generated measurable fish and wildlife resource effects, proxy measures will need to be found.

In May 1997, Acting Service Director John Rogers advised all employees that a formal evaluation of the approach would begin in 1997 with an Oversight Committee guiding the activity. (See Appendix I for members). Rogers outlined the organizational issues, as identified earlier by the Geographic Assistant Regional Directors, as:

  • Field employees feel they are not getting the support they were accustomed to receive under the previous organization.
  • There is a lack of program knowledge and/or advocacy at the regional level.
  • There is a sense that the Service is losing ability to be visionary, to advocate effectively, and to discuss programmatic needs with the Washington office.
  • There is a need for organizational consistency between regions and the Washington office.
  • There are continuing problems with budgeting within the current organizational context.
  • There is too much concern with, and meetings about, process.

These initial issues and further reflection resulted in an evaluation contract with The Ohio State University (see Appendix II for contract).

As the evaluation began, a new Service Director, Jamie Rappaport-Clark, was appointed. In her formal swearing-in ceremony on September 16, 1997, Director Clark referred to the "difficult stretch" the Service has been through in recent years and affirmed that the Service is fully capable of and committed to carrying out its mission.

As the Service seeks to assess its effectiveness with the Ecosystem Approach, it is moving forward with strategic planning for the 21st century. On September 30, 1997, the Service submitted its Strategic Plan in compliance with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). The Strategic Plan commits the Service to managing for:

1) the stability of fish and wildlife populations nationwide;
2) the conservation of a network of lands and water for habitat conservation;
3) an external orientation toward service to the American public, and
4) an internal orientation toward excellence in the work force.

Collectively, these goals, a myriad of legal mandates, societal expectations, and natural resource challenges create numerous ecosystem related opportunities and challenges. This assessment is one attempt among many by the Service to seize on the opportunities associated with ecosystem thinking/landscape scale management and avoid as many of the pitfalls as possible.

Continue to the next part of Section I: Evaluation History