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Archaeological Contributions to Ecosystem Management

A Policy Rationale from the Integrated Resources Management Workshop at the SAA "Save the Past for the Future" Conference

James P. Barker

The federal government has decided to manage federal lands on the basis of the ecosystem concept. If this decision is fully implemented, it will entail significant changes in federal land management policy and restructuring of the relationship between cultural resources management programs and other resource programs in federal agencies. In a schizophrenic legal environment, the government is charged with both maximizing the short-term economic use of federal lands while maximizing long-term environmental protection. Historically, the federal land management system has been divided into two competing camps: commodity production vs. environmental protection, with cultural resources falling into the environmental camp. The system has dealt with this opposition by fragmenting land-use planning to concentrate on individual land-use proposals and their environmental effects in isolation from larger systems. As a consequence, most federal cultural resources management activities deal with mitigating the negative effects of individual land uses on individual archaeological and historic sites.

Under the umbrella of ecosystem management, agencies should move to a more holistic and inclusive management approach. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) defines ecosystem management as "the integration of ecological, economic, and social principles to manage biological and physical systems in a manner that safe guards the long-term ecological sustainability, natural diversity, and productivity of the landscape." The federal commitment to ecosystem management represents a significant departure from traditional public lands management. Since 1976, BLM has managed the land for multiple use and maximum sustainable yield. In practice, this has meant land management for commodity production and commercial land uses at the expense of non-monetized resource values. Short-term management objectives were developed to expedite the development, extraction, and production of commodity resources on public lands. There were no long-term objectives. Non-commodity resources, such as wildlife, recreation, wilderness, and cultural resources were managed so as not to impede commodity production objectives. Over time, non-commodity resources came to be viewed as impediments to managing commodity resources and experts in non-commodity resource management were excluded from primary roles in land-use planning.

With ecosystem management this could change so that archaeologists (cultural resource management specialists) are included in initial land-use planning and considered as full partners in regional land management. Ecosystem management potentially allows archaeologists to make direct managment contributions by providing historical data. Unfortunately, in the initial development of ecosystem management, archaeologists have been excluded from the process, and ecosystems have been defined in purely biological and physical terms. This reflects, in part, the fragmentation of the federal land managing system. More importantly, it reflects the American notion that humans are free from the constraints of ecosystem dynamics and can thus use ecosystems in any way desired without suffering long-term consequences.

If archaeologists and other cultural resources managers are to realize the potential for direct and meaningful participation in land management inherent in the ecosystem concept, they and their supporters, such as the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), must develop and implement policies that convince land managers and the general public that they should be included in ecosystem management teams. Whatever policy is adopted, it will not succeed unless it addresses three problems: 1) the cultural separation of humanity from nature, 2) the assumption that ecosystems are not historically constituted, and 3) the perception that archaeology focuses on individual archaeological and historic sites.

The first problem is the most difficult because it involves altering the rooted belief that people are in a privileged position relative to other components of the ecosystem. In contrast to many others, European American culture developed a conceptual dichotomy between humanity and the environment through an artificial separation between the human and natural worlds, whereby humanity is considered superior to nature and not bound by ecological limits. While this separation can be traced to biblical and classical Greek references, it became a dominant theme during the Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution. The elaboration of this theme created the conceptual problem of maintaining human progress while, at the same time, maintaining the natural environment (J. B. Hagen, 1992, An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, N.J.). This tension is best exemplified by Rousseau's concept of the "natural man" uncorrupted by the effects of civilization opposed to Bacon's concept of the human right to exploit nature in the name of progress.

Through time, this opposition was exaggerated by the expansion of Western culture throughout the New World, during which it was politically and economically expedient for European Americans to deny the validity of indigenous cultures and to focus on the short-term utility of the environment as a cradle for expansion (P. Shabecoff, 1993, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement. Hill and Wang: New York). The concept of "highest and best" use was developed to legally remove indigenous populations from their traditional lands and to appropriate natural resources. Under this concept, if there was no significant resource use before 1492, then European Americans were free to use the environment in any way. As long as they could maximize the immediate resource productivity, relative to indigenous land use, European Americans claimed to have a natural right to displace indigenous peoples and use their resources.

Although this thinking was developed as a rationale for expansion, it has remained a vital element in our environmental thinking. On the one hand, contemporary American environmental thought notes that humans play a negative role by disturbing an essentially pristine and static ecology (D. B. Botkin, 1990, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford University Press: New York; Shabecoff 1993). On the other hand, commodity-based land management focuses on short-term production and managment for the highest and best economic use of the land. This translates into commodity production and short-term analysis (Shabecoff 1993). It is clear from the way in which ecosystems thinking was developed that ecologists are focused on synchronic studies over limited areas. As long as this attitude persists, it will be impossible to develop an ecosystems management that meets the intent of the BLM definition (Botkin 1990).

Given this history, it is not surprising that most Americans believe there has always been a separation between the human and natural worlds. In the popular mind, once humans were created, they have existed free from environmental constraints and, through technological and social innovations, could expect unlimited progress (T. C. Patterson, 1994, Toward a Properly Historical Ecology. In C. Crumley, ed., Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes. School of American Research Press: Santa Fe). Americans also believe that people in other cultures live "in harmony" with nature and have not significantly affected the natural world (Shabecoff 1993).

The effects of the false separation of humanity from the environment have been minimized in American archaeology. That is, from its beginning American archaeology has focused on investigating indigenous cultures in an environmental context. This trend was reinforced in the 1930s by Julian Steward, who attempted to place human society in an environmental context by developing an explicitly ecological model for understanding the long-term relationship between native cultures and environmental change (C. L. Crumley, 1994, Historical Ecology: A Multidimensional Ecological Orientation. In C. Crumley, ed., Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes. School of American Research Press: Santa Fe). Following Steward, American archaeologists in the 1950s began turning away from the investigation of single sites and artifact classes in favor of investigation of settlement systems in a regional context, based on the assumption that settlement systems provided direct evidence of past human behavior in their geographic setting. The focus of American archaeology shifted again in the 1960s and 1970s when Lewis Binford and others developed processual archaeology to explain underlying processes of behavior. As practiced, processual archaeology incorporated systems and cybernetic concepts to develop models of human behavior in an explicitly ecosystems context.

Coincident with the development of ecological thinking, archaeologists adopted a regional approach to understanding prehistoric settlement and subsistence systems. This orientation is especially amenable to ecosystem thinking and should have placed archaeologists in the vanguard of ecosystem management. However, while the theoretical orientation shifted to regional models, archaeological input in land management remained focused on single sites. That is, at least in federal land management, archaeologists have primarily been used as compliance specialists who manage the Section 106 process, so that proposed land uses are not unduly hampered by cultural resource concerns. The goal has been to meet NHPA requirements in order to maximize commodity production while avoiding threats of legal entanglements. This limited role is fostered by the way in which archaeologists have allowed the Section 106 process to be defined, and also by the legal parameters of the process itself. The result is a land management system in which individual land-use proposals command the attention of land managers to the exclusion of long-term or regional management concerns. Once the individual project has been approved, management attention shifts to the next individual project. Over time there is no synthesis or evolution of our understanding of the natural world and our place in it. There is no perception among managers that archaeologists can and should be involved directly in ecosystem management.

Ecological thinking is a relatively recent addition to Western thought, developed largely by biologists who implicitly held to the false dichotomy between human and natural worlds (Hagen 1992). In 1864 George Perkins Marsh set the stage for the contemporary environmental movement by fostering the idea that nature was orderly unless disturbed by human activities (Botkin 1990). This was followed in the late 1880s by Stephen Forbes's concept of plant and animal communities tending to equilibrium in an environment through natural selection. In the 1920s Frederic Clements developed an organismic analogy for describing plant communities and argued for the concept of succession to a climax community as the way in which communities tend toward equilibrium. At about the same time, Charles Elton contributed the concept of trophic levels in a food chain as the basic structure in a community. Finally, in the 1930s, Arthur Tinsley replaced the organismic analogy with the ecosystem concept: the ecosystem was a flexible abstraction for describing very large-scale relationships between living and non-living environmental components. In its early form, the ecosystem concept was used as a heuristic and didactic tool that was not applicable to single site studies or even to regional analyses. Tinsley's concept went beyond a population or organismic community focus, and had the advantage of incorporating both biological and physical factors into a single conceptual system. The ecosystem concept was expanded in the 1940s with Raymond Lindeman's focus on empirically tracking energy and materials flowing through trophic levels and, again, in the 1950s when Evelyn Hutchinson introduced cybernetics to ecosystem thinking. The advantages of the concept were fully realized in the 1960s when Eugene Odum and Howard Odum developed the ecological concept of homeostasis in an integrated trophic system. The Odums also proposed the ecosystem as the basic unit of ecological analysis because it embodied a comprehensive analytical system in which local environments could be bounded, equilibrated, and structured in manageable units apparently based on actual natural relationships (Hagen 1992).

In addition to the ecosystem becoming the basis for many ecological investigations, it has now become the basis for public land management in the federal government. Federal land managers now need to be aware of ecosystem concept limitations in order to devise and implement viable management plans (Botkin 1990). Archaeologists can assist managers in dealing with the two most significant limitations by providing information on the historical nature of ecosystems and on the human dimensions of ecosystem management.

The ecosystem concept was based on synchronic investigations of well-bounded environments, such as lakes and plant communities, that focused on short-term environmental interactions (Patterson 1994). This research domain limited ecological thinking by creating the illusion that ecosystems could be bounded, equilibrated, and structured in ways that highlighted the balance of nature through systemic relationships. It also fostered the illusion that ecosystems could be understood without accounting for the history that created the apparent system at a given place and time (Patterson 1994). We now know that ecosystems function more like living systems, in which history determines current conditions, than like physical systems, in which history is not a factor in current function (Botkin 1990; Patterson 1994). The ecosystem concept has suffered from two problems created by the synchronic focus of most studies: (1) the difficulty in specifying the boundaries and content of the system and (2) defining processual parameters within the system (R. A. Rappaport, 1990, Ecosystems, Populations and People. In E. Moran, ed., The Ecosystems Approach in Anthropology: From Concept to Practice. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor).

Both of these problems stem from the historical nature of ecosystems. In any study at a specific place and time, ecosystem boundaries can be determined and the trophic and structural content of the system specified. Further, it can be empirically argued that the system is either at--or tending toward--climax conditions (equilibrium). However, due to the effects of evolutionary processes and long-term biogeographic and geomorphological dynamics, none of this is possible (R. Levins and R. Lewontin, 1985, The Dialectical Ecologist. Harvard University Press: Cambridge). That is, (1) through time ecosystems do not appear to be tending toward equilibrium and are probably not tending anywhere, (2) the species composition and structure of ecosystem systems change through time and across space so that the living components of the system cannot be specified, and (3) geomorphological processes alter the non-living environment through time so that niches cannot be reliably specified.

Ecologists have become aware of historicity in ecosystem development and are moving away from their characterization as cybernetic, homeostatic systems (Hagen 1992). Some ecologists recognize that succession is routinely disturbed by endogenous and exogenous factors in ways that make it more useful to consider ecosystems as historically derived statistical patterns rather than balanced cybernetic entities (Botkin 1990). If the organismic cybernetic community model is to be replaced by the concept of an ecosystem as dynamic, then historical development has to be considered crucial in understanding an ecosystem at any point in time and space (Levins and Lewontin 1985).

Since archaeologists have been gathering data on environmental changes through time, it would seem reasonable for them to be included in a land management system that values developmental history. However, archaeologists have not yet been included in the mix of specialties considered necessary for ecosystem In addition to providing data and insights on the human dimension of ecosystems, archaeologists can provide managers with data that is directly relevant to plant and animal managment. For example, current renewable resource inventory techniques identify potential or desired plant communities from "relic sites," which may not be indicative of an area's capability to sustain them over a long period of time. Archaeologists have extensive documentation of plant and animal distributions across geographic areas throughout the Holocene and, in some cases, well into the Pleistocene. Archaeologists can provide the baseline information necessary for establishing achievable goals for both desired plant communities and wildlife populations within an ecosystem management concept.

Archaeologists can also (1) track the ecological status of biotic communities through time and across the landscape to aid wildlife or range managers in defining critical habitat, (2) relate changes in the physical environment and climate to changes in biotic communities and define the "natural" environment, given that human alterations began at the end of the Pleistocene, (3) document the ecological effects of human land use in both prehistoric and historic periods, (4) determine the historic limits of change in biotic communities, (5) dispel popular myths that the arid west was a "wasteland" until European American occupation and development, (6) use historic data on abandoned homesteads to determine recent biotic recovery processes and rates, (7) use cadastral survey notes to develop detailed biotic characterizations through time in specific geographic areas, (8) identify the historical presence of wildlife species to determine which are historically exotic in an area, and (9) work with traditional cultural groups to better understand their land use.

Given the wealth of data in hand, and the expertise to gather additional data, archaeologists can and should contribute directly to developing ecosystem-based land management. Rather than simply consider cultural resources as a hindrance to managing real resources, land managers should use all available data to enhance management efficiency, acknowledging archaeologists as necessary and active partners in ecosystem management. Better ecosystem management can be fostered by collapsing the false conceptual dichotomy between humanity and nature and by developing historically justified ecosystem management plans (Patterson 1994). Archaeologists have always collapsed the human/nature dichotomy and taken a long-term perspective toward human environmental interactions. With this orientation, archaeologists and archaeological data should be instrumental in developing effective ecosystem management.

SAA can assist in making archaeology an integral part of ecosystem management by working to change the public perception of the role of archaeologists and archaeological information in land management. To do this, SAA needs to adopt policies and action plans that foster and work toward (1) collapsing the false conceptual dichotomy between humanity and nature, (2) positioning archaeologists as experts in the human dimensions of ecosystem management, (3) positioning archaeologists as useful in direct ecosystem management by providing land-use managers with diachronic environmental insights, and (4) dispelling the perception that sites and artifacts are the basic unit of analysis in archaeological research.

James P. Barker is at the Bureau of Land Management, Reno, Nevada.


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