WERA_OLD040: Application and Utility of the Ecological Site and Condition Concept for Monitoring Rangeland Ecological Status in the Western U.S.
Statement of Issues and JustificationIn 1974 Congress directed USDA to establish a national level "renewable resource program" that would meet local and national needs for various renewable resources. The USDA was specifically charged with performing a national level review that was to be updated on a regular basis. The review was to include a "comprehensive assessment of present and anticipated uses, demand for and supply of renewable resources from the nation's public and private forests and rangelands" (Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, 1974). To meet these statutory goals USDA established the National Resource Inventory and directed the Natural Resource Conservation Service (then the Soil Conservation Service) to undertake an annual inventory of range and forest ecological condition on private lands throughout the nation. Subsequent legislative action (Federal Land Policy and Management Act, 1974 and National Forest Planning Act, 1976) directed the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to undertake the same process on public lands. As range and forest assessment efforts went forward, USDA and Department of Interior planners had difficulty in collating information from assessments of private land with those from the various public land units into a national report because each Federal agency used a different set of criteria for assessing the general ecological health and long-term sustainability of forest and rangelands. Early in the 1980s Range Science faculty from a number of the western land-grant universities developed a proposal for a Western Coordinating Committee to review rangeland monitoring protocols in the 11 western states. A goal of that WCC was to recommend a single, unified assessment method to facilitate development of the National Resource Inventory report. By 1989 efforts by WCC-40 (Rangeland Assessment and Monitoring) led to the creation of a Task Group under the direction of the Society for Range Management. The group was composed of university faculty and range management experts from various state and Federal land management agencies. Titled Unity in Concepts and Terminology the group published several white papers and in 1995 recommended the creation of a standing committee on rangeland assessment and monitoring within the Society for Range Management. The WCC-40 committee continued work on specific rangeland assessment concepts and protocols throughout this period and exchanged information with the Task Group on a regular basis. During the early 1990s WCC-40 and the Task Group also provided input to the National Resource Council's Rangeland Classification Committee which was reviewing rangeland assessment concepts and methodology for the Academy of Sciences.
In 1994 the National Research Council published the results of its review as Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory and Monitor Rangelands (NRC 1994). This report recommended the use of a series of ecological indicators rather than the single parameter approach in use at that time. Even with the efforts of the NRC Rangeland Classification committee, Washington level administrative planners and non-governmental environmental organizations were frustrated with the capacity or ability of existing rangeland assessments to quantify non-economic parameters, e.g. biological diversity. This led to the formation of at least two national level task groups that were to develop a rangeland assessment protocol that could be used to monitor ecological health of the nation's rangelands and the rural communities that depend on them. Both the H. John Heinz III Center and the Sustainable Range Roundtable groups began to hold regional and national meetings to develop a comprehensive rangeland assessment tool. By 2004 the Heinz Center and SRR efforts had produced criteria for evaluating rangeland sustainability at the national level but the pertinent information still had to be extracted from local assessments. This closed the loop and brought land managers and agency planners back to the earlier issue of identifying an assessment method(s) that would accurately measure rangeland health across a broad spectrum of climate, geology, soil types and ownership patterns.
After reviewing existing assessment protocols and emerging ecological theories (Friedel 1991), the NRC committee recommended the use of multiple ecological indicators to evaluate rangeland health and sustainability. In anticipation of the recommendations USDA personnel had begun developing such an assessment. Over a three year period the new assessment protocol went through multiple reiterations (Pellant 1996, USDA 1997 and Rasmussen et al. 1999) to arrive at a new interagency approach, Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health. Ver. 4 (Pellant et al. 2005). In 1999 WCC 40 reviewed and commented on version 3 of the indicators handbook and in 2004 and 2005 WERA40 reviewed version 4 during the annual work meeting. Experience with the Indicators methodology at local and state levels coupled with the WCC-40 review indicates the general framework used in version 4 is ecologically sound and practical. However, questions remain about the reliability of one of the major components of the indicators criteria.
Successful application of the Indicators assessment methodology rests on accurate identification of the ecological site where the assessment is conducted. During the October 2005 WERA-40 meeting in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service scientists pointed out limitations with the current ecological site identification approach. Specifically needed were a) improved definitions of ecological thresholds for various range vegetation complexes, b) investigation into formative processes of vegetation and soil spatial patterns in arid ecosystems and c) development of discrete indicators for ecological site differentiation. One example of the challenges to achieving a rangeland assessment protocol that will integrate from the local ranch scale to the National Resource Inventory level is whether ecological sites are described by soil pedons or the broader soil mapping units. Some NRCS scientists theorize that the occurrence of multiple soil pedons within a landscape may be fundamental to biodiversity. Thus, description of the relationship between soil taxonomic units and biodiversity will be fundamental to developing discrete eco-site indicators. Efforts to resolve such issues are just beginning and members of WERA-40 believe the group can contribute substantially to the research by providing a focal point for scientists to discuss new ideas and concepts and evaluate initial results.
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