Getting the Message Across: Using Ecological Integrity to Communicate with Resource Managers

  • Brian R. Mitchell
  • Geraldine L. Tierney
  • E. William Schweiger
  • Kathryn M. Miller
  • Don Faber-Langendoen
  • James B. Grace


This chapter describes and illustrates how concepts of ecological integrity, thresholds, and reference conditions can be integrated into a research and monitoring framework for natural resource management. Ecological integrity has been defined as a measure of the composition, structure, and function of an ecosystem in relation to the system’s natural or historical range of variation, as well as perturbations caused by natural or anthropogenic agents of change. Using ecological integrity to communicate with managers requires five steps, often implemented iteratively: (1) document the scale of the project and the current conceptual understanding and reference conditions of the ecosystem, (2) select appropriate metrics representing integrity, (3) define externally verified assessment points (metric values that signify an ecological change or need for management action) for the metrics, (4) collect data and calculate metric scores, and (5) summarize the status of the ecosystem using a variety of reporting methods. While we present the steps linearly for conceptual clarity, actual implementation of this approach may require addressing the steps in a different order or revisiting steps (such as metric selection) multiple times as data are collected. Knowledge of relevant ecological thresholds is important when metrics are selected, because thresholds identify where small changes in an environmental driver produce large responses in the ecosystem. Metrics with thresholds at or just beyond the limits of a system’s range of natural variability can be excellent, since moving beyond the normal range produces a marked change in their values. Alternatively, metrics with thresholds within but near the edge of the range of natural variability can serve as harbingers of potential change. Identifying thresholds also contributes to decisions about selection of assessment points. In particular, if there is a significant resistance to perturbation in an ecosystem, with threshold behavior not occurring until well beyond the historical range of variation, this may provide a scientific basis for shifting an ecological assessment point beyond the historical range. We present two case studies using ongoing monitoring by the US National Park Service Vital Signs program that illustrate the use of an ecological integrity approach to communicate ecosystem status to resource managers. The Wetland Ecological Integrity in Rocky Mountain National Park case study uses an analytical approach that specifically incorporates threshold detection into the process of establishing assessment points. The Forest Ecological Integrity of Northeastern National Parks case study describes a method for reporting ecological integrity to resource managers and other decision makers. We believe our approach has the potential for wide applicability for natural resource management.


Assessment point Communication tool Conceptual diagram Condition metric Ecological integrity Ecological threshold Forest Index of biological integrity Natural variability Wetland 



We acknowledge the assistance of Donald Schoolmaster, who contributed to the IBI analyses at ROMO, and Greg Shriver, for his early contributions to the NETN monitoring approach. We also gratefully acknowledge the NETN and ROMN field crews; their dedication and long hours in the field have made a lasting contribution to our understanding of forests and wetlands managed by the NPS. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian R. Mitchell
    • 1
  • Geraldine L. Tierney
    • 2
  • E. William Schweiger
    • 3
  • Kathryn M. Miller
    • 4
  • Don Faber-Langendoen
    • 5
  • James B. Grace
    • 6
  1. 1.Northeast Temperate NetworkNational Park ServiceWoodstockUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental and Forest BiologySUNY College of Environmental Science and ForestrySyracuseUSA
  3. 3.Rocky Mountain NetworkNational Park ServiceFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Northeast Temperate NetworkNational Park ServiceBar HarborUSA
  5. 5.Conservation Science DivisionNatureServeArlingtonUSA
  6. 6.National Wetlands Research CenterU.S. Geological SurveyLafayetteUSA

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