Environmental Management

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 301–315

Defining Acceptable Levels for Ecological Indicators: An Approach for Considering Social Values


  • Robyn L. Smyth
    • Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesUniversity of Vermont
    • Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesUniversity of Vermont
  • Robert E. Manning
    • Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesUniversity of Vermont

DOI: 10.1007/s00267-005-0282-3

Cite this article as:
Smyth, R.L., Watzin, M.C. & Manning, R.E. Environmental Management (2007) 39: 301. doi:10.1007/s00267-005-0282-3


Ecological indicators can facilitate an adaptive management approach, but only if acceptable levels for those indicators have been defined so that the data collected can be interpreted. Because acceptable levels are an expression of the desired state of the ecosystem, the process of establishing acceptable levels should incorporate not just ecological understanding but also societal values. The goal of this research was to explore an approach for defining acceptable levels of ecological indicators that explicitly considers social perspectives and values. We used a set of eight indicators that were related to issues of concern in the Lake Champlain Basin. Our approach was based on normative theory. Using a stakeholder survey, we measured respondent normative evaluations of varying levels of our indicators. Aggregated social norm curves were used to determine the level at which indicator values shifted from acceptable to unacceptable conditions. For seven of the eight indicators, clear preferences were interpretable from these norm curves. For example, closures of public beaches because of bacterial contamination and days of intense algae bloom went from acceptable to unacceptable at 7–10 days in a summer season. Survey respondents also indicated that the number of fish caught from Lake Champlain that could be safely consumed each month was unacceptably low and the number of streams draining into the lake that were impaired by storm water was unacceptably high. If indicators that translate ecological conditions into social consequences are carefully selected, we believe the normative approach has considerable merit for defining acceptable levels of valued ecological system components.


Ecosystem indicatorsAcceptable levelsNormative theorySocial norm curvesAdaptive managementLake ChamplainSocial preferences

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007