Published on April 5th, 2016 | by Ella Xiong


Lawyers, scientists propose new management techniques for the environment

Recently, researchers from universities, federal agencies, and law firms came together and drew a path toward more efficient environmental protection. According to a new study by green et al, the current legal system could incorporate advanced systems for ecological monitoring, which would enable the law to adapt to unpredictable changes in nature.

Rigid protocols aren’t always effective

“The ecological world does not always respond in predictable ways,” said Olivia Green, lead author of the mentioned report and Water Resources Specialist at Atlantic States Legal Foundation (ASLF). This is one reasoning her group has named for why laws aimed at conservation rarely work as planned.

Green drew the following example: if we make the management decision to suppress fires, we might assume that will achieve our goal of less fire damage. It turns out that suppressing fires leads to much more intensive and destructive fires because the ones we suppressed help control the forest understory. And fires in forests with dense understories are extremely difficult to put out and damaging, leading to the exact opposite of the original goal.

Conventional management, Green explains, utilizes front-end management, where decisions are made before an action takes place. “The only information that informs the decision is the information available before the action takes place,” said Green.

An alternative model is adaptive governance, which incorporates back-end management using continuous cycles of monitoring, feedback, and implementation. The proposed iterative learning and feedback management model resembles, in many ways, machine learning, such as in Big Data’s predictive analytics, where each iteration allows models, or in this case laws, to independently adapt as they process new information or data. This ensures legal measures apply to the most updated situation of a given ecosystem.

The researchers noted that an adaptive legal system can improve conservation efforts and bolster society politically and financially. Sweden has demonstrated the effects of this proposal.

According to Stockholm International Water Institute’s recent report, prior to the 1900s, forest resources in Sweden were largely depleted due to industrialization. Today, Sweden has larger areas of lush forests than ever before. Much of its success is due to a technology-driven management system.

As Lotta Samuelson, program manager at the Swedish Water House, explained, “Management plans are done in digital programs, and practical work is guided by these digital plans in the forestry machines.” This allowed for small details to be carried out, for instance, “individual trees worth keeping for conservation, humid soils to avoid when driving, cultural remnant etcetera are all marked in the digital maps,” said Samuelson.

The program manager also revealed another key to success in the Swedish forestry policy development: a close cooperation between science and policy, as well as between industries, forest owner associations and science.

US Environmental Protection Agency’s research scientist Ahjond S. Garmestani, who worked on the report with Green, also emphasized on this. “The interaction between the law, governance, and the ecosystem being managed is what largely determines if you end up with desirable management outcomes,” he said.

“It takes time; a stepwise approach is needed and a strong driver,” Samuelson suggested. But the efforts are well worth it. As Green’s team concluded, collaborative legal reforms can “align social systems with the ecosystems they rely on,” preserving the environment for countless generations to come.

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About the Author

-- Ella holds a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering, with previous work experience including programming, software consulting, and hardware assembly. But she's not a robot; writing sparks her passion and allows her to feel more human. She loves nature and animals, so eco-friendly innovations are always at the top of her list.

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