Midwest Region
Conserving the Nature of America

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Ecosystem Conservation

Priority Issues

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Conservation in Action


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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Ecological Services
1 Federal Drive
Fort Snelling, MN 55118
Phone: (612) 713-5467
E-Mail: Tom_Magnuson@fws.gov

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Great Lakes/Big Rivers Ecosystems | Wetland | Savanna | Tallgrass Prairie | Forest | Karst


There are a variety of landscape planning models available to facilitate conservation of Service Trust Resources in Region 3. Most models focus on action planning and include the necessary operational components for achieving environmental results. Key elements usually involve:

  1. Establishing a leadership forum comprised of stakeholders representing a diversity of environmental, political, economic, and public interests. Establish purpose, vision, and gain commitments from senior staff.

  2. Developing a list of 10-12 priority environmental issues affecting the structure and function of the landscape over the next 10-30 years.

  3. Conducting a preliminary assessment of available information regarding the landscape, including studies and investigations relevant to the priority issues. The purpose of this step is to define the current status and key trends.

  4. Identifying and documenting environmental indicators capable of measuring progress toward each of the priority environmental issues.

  5. Developing environmentally explicit, indicator-driven, results-oriented goals and objectives using the most appropriate indicators for each strategic issue.

  6. Developing action strategies to provide long-term guidance and direction for each of the plans goals and objectives.

  7. Developing an operational plan to establish organizational and/or individual accountability and time-constrained responsibilities for specific action strategies.

  8. Developing a monitoring and evaluation plan that establishes standards of plan performance as well as a ?change procedure? to make corrections and/or modifications.

Establish Desired Future Conditions through a Strategic Planning Framework

The purpose of the strategic planning framework is to establish long-term direction for the ecosystem in terms of measurable, indicator-driven, environmental, results-oriented goals and objectives that will result in sustainable protection and/or restoration of the ecosystem's structure and functions.

Inventory and Assessment

The inventory and assessment process examines the relevant existing information concerning the ecosystem. This includes characterizing the status and trend of key ecosystem resources and their use, identifying stakeholders and interests, and examining factors and trends in society that have the potential to impact the future of ecosystem. An outcome of the inventory and assessment process is the development of context and the identification of strategic issues.

Inventories involve both looking for information (gathering information) and looking at information (analyzing and interpreting information). Essential to this process is asking the right questions regarding the integrity of the ecosystem?s soil, water, plant, air, animal, and human resources. These questions are usually framed around the following aspects of an ecosystems structure and function:

  • Ecosystem Processes - Internal system sustaining ecological processes, including cultural, social, political, and economic systems and their commodities and values. Identifies and evaluates hydrologic cycle maintenance, nutrient cycling, and financial viability.

  • Recovery Processes - The ability of the ecosystems structure and function to withstand ecological and human disturbance and stress. Identifies and evaluates processes and mechanisms that provide for long-term sustainability, such as trophic diversity and disturbance regimes.

  • Community Structure - The ecosystem?s plant and animal species composition, the spatial distribution of plant and animal species, and the hierarchical assemblage of species at different trophic levels. Identifies and evaluates landscape patterns, their configuration and connectivity and the integrity of natural communities (including human communities).

  • Abiotic Features - The non-living or physical characteristics of the ecosystem and its potential (e.g., climate, topography, geology).

Strategic Issues

Strategic issues are those issues that must be dealt with if the ecosystem is to be conserved, preserved, rehabilitated, or restored over the long-term. Strategic issues however are not policies, programs, or administrative matters and do not constitute all of the ecosystems environmental problems. Ideally, strategic issues should be one of 8-12 critically important issues facing the ecosystem in the next 10-30 years, be of the same scale and scope as other issues identified, and be distinct from other issues.

Once the strategic issues have been identified a process is put in place to fully examine each of the issues in detail. The purpose of this step is to identify the next level of detail in defining why the issue is important, from an environmental perspective. For example, a strategic issue for water quality might have sub-issues relating to such things as nutrients, toxics, and turbidity. Sub-issues should reflect the actual environmental state or condition that must be changed or preserved if the ecosystem is to be effectively protected and/or restored. Procedurally, this step assesses each of the issues for appropriate indicators to measure progress and trends associated with the issue. In other words, the issue and sub-issues provide a framework around which an indicator system is developed. A few common ecosystem-scale issues and their sub-issues might include:

Native Biological Diversity

  • Invasive species

  • Genetic, species, community, and ecosystem change

Species Decline

  • Inbreeding/outbreeding depression

  • Predation

  • Toxics

Species Habitat Loss

  • Fragmentation

  • Patch size

  • Juxtaposition

  • Disturbance

  • Connectivity

Water Quality

  • Turbidity

  • Flow

  • Eutrophication

  • Nutrients

  • Toxics

Air Quality

  • Carbon dioxide

  • Pollen

  • Toxics


Indicators measure or describe current conditions in relation to predetermined references, and when observed over time, demonstrate progress and trends. Procedurally, this step of the planning process is to assess each of the issues/sub-issues for appropriate indicators. The challenge for most planning practitioners is to identify those indicators that best fit within the constraints of cost, equipment, and expertise and still obtain meaningful information.

In developing the indicator system, it should be emphasized that only the actual indicators or measures are being developed at this time, not the monitoring systems of which they are part of. Indicators should be easy to measure and practical to use, capable of being repeatedly measured over time, and easily understood. Any indicator selected for inclusion should meet the following criteria:

  • Measurable: The indicator measures a feature of the environment that can be quantified simply using standard methodologies with a known degree of performance and precision.

  • Data Quality: The data supporting the indicators are adequately supported by sound collection methodologies. The data should be clearly defined, verifiable, scientifically acceptable, and easy to reproduce.

  • Importance: The indicator must measure some aspect of environmental quality that reflects a priority issue in demonstrating the current and future condition of the ecosystem.

  • Representative: Changes in the indicator are highly correlated to trends in other parameters or systems it is selected to represent.

Goals and Objectives

The key to making an ecosystem planning process work is in the development of environmentally explicit, measurable goals and objectives. Goals set the targets for environmental achievement. Goals reflect desired future conditions in the ecosystem. For the most part goals are usually few in number, quantitatively stated, reflect priority issues, graphically displayable, directly measurable and supported by one or more indicators, and are time limited. Each goal should be stepped-down to one or more objectives. Objectives are intermediate-term targets necessary for the satisfaction of goals. Objectives are more specific than goals, and are a means of measuring progress towards goals. Objectives should possess these five properties to be SMART: (1) specific; (2) measurable; (3) achievable; (4) results-oriented; and (5) time-fixed. Ecosystem goal and objective statements often incorporate attributes from the following key concepts:

  • perpetuation of natural plant and animal communities;

  • restoration and/or maintenance of naturally-occurring structural and genetic diversity;

  • reducing and/or minimizing habitat fragmentation;

  • continued role of natural processes (e.g., fire, floods);

  • elimination or management of an undesirable exotic species; and

  • maintenance of compatible, sustainable human activities.

Strategic approaches used to protect many of the above environmental values often include regulation, restoration, acquisition, incentives, technical assistance, planning, research, communication, and education.

Develop Action Strategies and Gain Commitments through an Operational Planning Framework

The purpose of the operational planning framework is to put in place a series of results-oriented actions (i.e., action strategies and projects) that must be done over a two year period if progress is to be made toward accomplishing strategic goals and objectives. Stated differently, the operational framework is the expression of all of the short-term actions that must be taken to implement the plan.


Strategies constitute solutions or approaches to strategic issues. Strategies are step-down approaches necessary to achieve the objectives and goals, providing direction for defining and coordinating operational tasks to effectively accomplish the plan. For each strategy in the plan, a series of operational statements are developed that, as a group, constitute an action plan. The operational statements should be in the form of simple, clear, direct statements, and specifically identify what needs to happen when and which stakeholder is responsible for the action.

Evaluation and Monitoring

The final step in making the ecosystem planning process work is to ensure that the results achieved during the planning process - both the environmental results of the strategic phase and the program and policy achievements of the operational phase - become the basis for the adaptation and revision of the plan. Success of the strategic and operational plan is in the development and maintenance of a system of accounting that identifies commitments and reporting requirements. The accountability system permits managers of the plan to know what is happening with the execution of the plan and allows them to establish an incentive for participating stakeholders to meet their commitments in a timely way.


Last updated: September 24, 2012