SCIENCE AND THE GREATER EVERGLADES ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION:
A REVIEW OF THE CRITICAL ECOSYSTEM STUDIES INITIATIVE
Linda Blum, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor
University of Virginia
Chair, Panel to Review the Critical Ecosystem Studies Initiative
National Research Council
The National Academies
Committee on Appropriations
U.S. House of Representatives
March 26, 2003
Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today. My name is Linda Blum. I am a Research Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. Today I am appearing as the Chair of the National Research Council panel that reviewed the contributions of the Department of Interior’s Critical Ecosystem Studies Initiative. The National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on matters of science and technology. The Panel to Review the Critical Ecosystem Studies Initiative was organized by the National Research Council in response to Congressional concerns that the restoration of the greater Everglades ecosystem be supported by the best possible science.
The Everglades is recognized globally as a unique ecological treasure. However, south Florida has been transformed by population growth and agricultural activities in the last century from a “river of grass” into an international center for tourism, agriculture, finance, and transportation. Only 50% the original Everglades now remain. These remnants of the natural system must compete for water with urban and agricultural interests and store runoff from these two activities. The restoration of the greater Everglades ecosystem that is beginning to unfold within this complex social, economic, and political framework is one of the most ambitious ecosystem renewal plans ever conceived. The path to restoration will not be easy because there is a large element of uncertainty in this undertaking. As a result, good science must be a vital component of the effort because it will increase the reliability of the restoration, help enable solutions for unanticipated problems, and potentially reduce long-term costs.
Since 1993, Congress has provided considerable financial support for science to support the restoration of the greater Everglades. These appropriations included Department of Interior (DOI) funding for the Critical Ecosystem Studies Initiative (CESI) beginning in 1998. In the past few years, however, the investment in science and research relevant to the restoration has eroded measurably within some agencies, including DOI funding of the CESI. Funding for the CESI has decreased from a maximum of $12 million per year in fiscal year 1998 to its current level of $4 million per year in fiscal year 2002. It was this decline in funding that lead to congressional concern about the adequacy of science support for restoration decision-making. At the Department of the Interior’s request, we assessed the adequacy of the science conducted in the CESI program in light of other restoration science activities and the needs of the overall restoration. The panel also was asked to identify opportunities to improve strategic planning and management, to review coordination and integration of the CESI program with relevant research outside the program, and to examine communication and dissemination of CESI research findings to the diverse set of restoration stakeholders. We recently completed our review and published the findings in a report entitled “Science and the Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration: An Assessment of the Critical Ecosystem Studies Initiative.” My comments this morning are drawn from that report.
It is important to understand the approach that the review panel took to complete its work. The CESI review panel chose to focus on the broad scientific approach, or the problem-solving process necessary to support the restoration, rather than on the specific products generated by the scientific process. In other words, the panel concentrated on topics such as setting science priorities, identifying science gaps, and communicating research results to restoration policy-makers and planners.
It also is important to note some topics that were outside the charge of the review panel. We did not (a) evaluate the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, or suggest improvements to it; (b) provide more than a summary review of South Florida science; or (c) review individual CESI-funded research projects. The findings of the review panel are based on discussions with Everglades scientists, managers, and engineers who freely shared their insights during four committee meetings, and on documents supplied by the CESI program managers supplemented by review of pertinent peer-reviewed literature.
The CESI program was intended to meet the most important science information needs for the south Florida ecosystem restoration related to Department of Interior lands in order to support project design and decision making, as well as to support restoration planning. Prior to the CESI program’s establishment in 1997, South Florida was rich with agencies conducting scientific and engineering research; yet inadequate funding, divergent agency missions, insufficient coordination, and compressed project timetables left critical voids in the restoration science. The CESI’s “gap-filling” strategy offers agility and flexibility, allowing the CESI program to address emerging research needs and to respond to urgent decision-making timeframes, while also supporting overlooked or underfunded science needs.
From its inception, the CESI program has funded a wide range of studies, including applied ecosystem research, model development and refinement, ecosystem characterization, environmental impact assessments, restoration planning, and science review. Extensive work has been accomplished to clarify the linkages between hydrological conditions and ecosystem attributes. Broadly, studies funded through the CESI program were intended to provide information about how the natural system functions, the ways in which the natural system has been altered, and how the current system might respond to restoration of historic hydrological conditions.
Our review panel found that the CESI science program has produced valuable science, a rich database, and a starting point for understanding the dynamics of the greater Everglades ecosystem. Research funded by the CESI science program is also important to restoration planning, project design, and decision making. The value of a science program focused specifically on the Department of the Interior’s needs and responsibilities within the South Florida ecosystem restoration is great since the CESI program is the principal vehicle by which the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service can evaluate how restoration activities might impact the Everglades National Park and other federal lands and resources in South Florida. Although significant changes in the management and administration of the program must be made, the panel concluded that the fundamental purposes and objectives of the CESI program should remain intact to provide science support for the Department of Interior’s resource stewardship interests and restoration responsibilities, including its concurrence, consultation, and reporting requirements for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. As the restoration plan is implemented over the next several decades, the Department of the Interior will need an effective, coordinated, and strategic research program including ongoing basic and applied research on the ecological and biological impacts of the restoration projects, model development, comprehensive monitoring and assessment, and data integration and synthesis. The Department of Interior’s need for high quality science to support the restoration will not diminish, rather it is very likely to grow, as the restorationprogresses during the coming 30-40 years. Therefore, we recommend continued and substantially increased funding for the CESI program.
However, there are several areas of the CESI program needing immediate attention. These include (a) improvements in CESI management to insure that the strongest, most relevant science is being conducted, (b) increased funding for research to reduce uncertainty about how the Everglades will respond to the Restoration Plan, and (c) better science synthesis and integration of scientific knowledge into restoration policy and planning.
Improvements are needed in CESI management. Specifically, the CESI science program managers should broaden the distribution of requests for proposals and improve proposal review standards. Expert advisors appointed to the CESI’s advisory committees should be integrally involved with the program’s priority setting and proposal review. These two management changes can be made both quickly and inexpensively and will substantially strengthen the science program, ensuring that new funds are directed in an efficient and effective manner to the proper science priorities and the highest quality research projects. Any increase in CESI funding should be contingent upon these specific management improvements.
The panel also recommended several additional management changes, which are no less critical but may require additional time or resources to implement. Formal mechanisms should be developed to improve the application of CESI funding across all DOI lands and resources affected by the greater Everglades ecosystem restoration. Recently, an interagency memorandum among DOI’s South Florida science programs was signed. The panel generally supports this initiative. However, the proposed management plan needs to include more scientific expertise and adequate agency representation to ensure approriate prioritization of the research investments. Ideally, DOI should appoint a senior scientist for the CESI program to provide leadership in setting science priorities, conducting scientific synthesis, and communicating scientific knowledge to restoration decision makers. The panel recommended management changes to improve coordination with other restoration science programs and to provide the CESI manager with more direct responsibility for funds allocated by interagency agreement. The panel also suggested that the National Park Service remove the South Florida Natural Resource Center from the organizational and supervisory structure of Everglades National Park to improve the application of CESI science funding over all DOI lands in South Florida.
Increased focus on high-priority, yet insufficiently funded, research is necessary. Original estimates of the requirements for Department of the Interior science were far larger than the amount of support that has been provided. As a result many of the science needs identified in restoration science planning documents remain unaddressed. The result is that difficult choices had to be made and high-priority scientific research needs have gone unmet. The CESI program has provided important initial research contributions at the intersections of ecology and hydrology; yet this research is still in its infancy and requires a strong and continued funding commitment to maximize the likelihood of meeting the restoration goals. Other significant gaps that the CESI program has not adequately addressed include contaminants, water-quality modeling, and those important human dimensions that will be critical to the restoration effort. This list is undoubtedly incomplete, as the review panel did not conduct a complete gap analysis of the many science programs in South Florida.
We recommend that the CESI program identify priority research topics in under-funded areas and formulate effective research programs based on rigorous peer-review. CESI budgets should be increased to support these new programs. Scientific research represents an investment in the knowledge base that will support the restoration over its lifetime. Inadequate science support now may result in exponentially increased costs later if failed restoration projects need to be redesigned based on unanticipated consequences.
Improvements are required to enhance synthesis and integration efforts both within the CESI program and more broadly in the South Florida restoration. Significant barriers and challenges limit the effectiveness of science to inform decision making in the Everglades restoration. Of these barriers, two of the most important are the accelerated timetables of the restoration and inadequate communication of scientific findings to restoration decision makers. These issues broadly affect all of South Florida’s restoration science activities, not just the CESI program. Improved mechanisms for science prioritization, research coordination, and communication within and among agencies involved in all components of the restoration are essential.
In order for scientific knowledge to be useful in restoration planning and decision making, the extensive array of data gathered in the restoration efforts must be synthesized before it can be disseminated to all stakeholders. Synthesis is the process of accumulating, interpreting, and articulating scientific results, thereby converting them to knowledge or information. In the absence of synthesis, the restoration will become “data-rich but information-poor.” Yet, synthesis is notably lacking in the CESI program, as well as in other south Florida science programs.
To achieve greater synthesis of science and promote its integration into restoration planning, it will necessary for CESI management to place increased emphasis on these critical activities. Efforts to synthesize and disseminate the Initiative’s research results will be most successful with cooperation of other agency science programs, since the CESI program is only one among many science initiatives in the Everglades. We also recommend that a restoration-wide mechanism for science synthesis and integration be developed, with appropriate staffing and resources. A single overarching restoration science entity could coordinate scientific efforts beyond the boundaries of the CESI program or any specific restoration project. With appropriate resources, such a group could leverage research to address priority science needs of the entire ecosystem. Such an entity would provide scientific vision for the restoration, promote collaboration to maximize the cost effectiveness of science resources, and improve the usefulness of new and existing scientific information.
In conclusion, the CESI program provides a strategic framework for addressing restoration science needs, and the suggested management improvements should ensure that the funds are directed in an effective manner. Many high-priority scientific information needs remain, and the value of a science program focused on the Department of the Interior’s needs and responsibilities with the South Florida ecosystem restoration is significant. Strategic early investments in ecosystem science should improve the likelihood of reaching restoration goals while reducing the overall cost of the restoration effort. Yet, these research investments must also be supported by ecosystem-wide science synthesis, integration, and coordination. Science synthesis and integration are critical challenges faced by all agencies contributing to south Florida restoration science, and they cannot be solved by the CESI program – or any of the existing science programs – alone.
Thank you again for this opportunity to speak with you today. I would be pleased to address questions you may have about this panel’s recommendations regarding the CESI program.