Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Chapter 5 - Integrating park and regional planning through an ecosystem approach

D. Scott Slocombe*

*Acknowledgement is gratefully given for support from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Maria Kothbauer and Suzanne den Ouden were research assistants on this project.

Ecosystem science
Ecosystem approaches
Case studies


Protected areas have been a feature of the landscape and of the resource and environmental manager's arsenal for over a century. Today systems of protected areas seek to preserve representative samples of ecological, geological, and scenic wonders in most countries of the world. And there is growing urgency to "complete" protected-areas systems before human pressures, land-use change, and political decisions eliminate all opportunity to preserve at least samples of all of the Earth's species, habitats, and ecosystems. Protected areas, especially biosphere reserves, national and provincial parks, and World Heritage Sites, are established in part to preserve natural, unaltered ecosystems and species as benchmarks and as areas for scientific study. In addition, parks are established for public use and experience of their intrinsic values, as well as means to demonstrate the potential for coexistence of nature and human activities.

These goals often conflict; park planners and managers face difficulties reconciling conflicting goals within parks and between the parks and their surrounding regions. Traditionally, park staff have turned to ecological sciences for guidance in making policy decisions. And, indeed, ecological understanding of protected areas tells us many important things about them. It can underscore that they are dynamic and complex systems of many interconnected and interacting components (Dolan et al., 1978). The removal of one component, from a species to an entire ecosystem, can have unexpected, hard-to-predict consequences, including the numbers and distribution of species or ecosystems, or changes in physical processes and flows. Ecological understanding forces one to incorporate spatial and temporal dimensions into resource surveys, research, planning, and management (di Castri and Hadley, 1988). The pattern of activities and ecosystems in space and time is of central importance to understanding and managing a protected area. Further, ecological understanding supports assessment of the impacts of different circumstances on a protected area (Beanlands and Duinker, 1988): visitor activities, the refuse of old resource extraction activities, the effects of poaching, or the transport of pollutants in air and water from outside the boundaries. Ecological understanding highlights the fact that a protected area is subject to change and threats from both internal and external processes and activities, and that as a result management must be proactive.

Such issues are not new. But the more one applies "lessons learned" to planning and management, the more one is pushed toward a focus on entire, functioning systems rather than arbitrarily limited protected areas. Technically, this is the domain of several rapidly developing areas of research that might collectively be referred to as ecosystem science.

Ecosystem science

The holistic, interdisciplinary study of ecosystems has been around for twenty or thirty years. It gained early impetus from the International Biological and Man and the Biosphere programs and from the work of ecologists such as E.P. and H.T. Odum (Brown et al., 1980; Odum, 1983). Today there are many different but complementary approaches. Of particular relevance to parks are conservation biology, landscape ecology, ecosystem science, state-of-environment reporting, and ecological integrity (Slocombe, 1991b).

The lessons of conservation biology elaborate the implications of protected areas as islands in a sea of different land uses and strongly altered ecosystems. Such islands may have difficulty maintaining species diversity, may not incorporate functional ecosystems, and, as a result, may require intensive management of populations because of small breeding populations. Conservation biology contributes to an understanding of the dynamics of small-scale population management within isolated ecosystems (Newmark, 1987; Soulé, 1986). It provides a view of the protected area as islands from the inside looking out.

Landscape ecology provides a view of the protected area as an island from the outside looking in. It deals with the protected area as the remnant of a once much larger landscape element, now isolated in an otherwise modified landscape. It identifies the dominant landscape elements, or matrix, and identifies other islands and corridor and network features that may link islands into functionally larger systems. Landscape ecology suggests quantitative measures of landscape structure and function, and provides a framework for outlining the processes of connection and change between protected areas and other landscape elements (Forman and Godron, 1986; Gardner et al., 1987; Turner, 1989).

Ecosystem science is critical to an understanding of the actual processes within particular ecosystems at various scales. Such an understanding is what permits us to anticipate and mitigate alterations caused by internal or external threats. The idea of stress/response functions in ecosystems is a particularly useful one for park managers, whose lands are almost always stressed in some way and who can often improve their recovery responses through particular interventions (Jordan et al., 1987; Kothbauer, 1992; Rapport et al., 1985).

A stress/response approach to park system management leads to a concern for the state of the environment in the protected area. What are the structural and functional features and characteristics of the protected area, and what is their current state? Such an assessment is critical for determining the effects of particular activities on the areas of the protected ecosystem that require more active intervention and protection. Such an approach emphasizes the need for monitoring the protected area to track change as an aid to timely intervention (GEMS, 1989). Many of these approaches can be used to collect and organize information for assessments of protected-area problems and to identify interventions needed for more effective management.

A related topic receiving much attention is "ecological integrity." It can be argued that the goal of ecosystem management should be to maintain their integrity. Indeed, since 1988 the Canadian National Parks Act makes the maintenance of ecological integrity of national parks the first priority of management. Yet ecological integrity is a difficult thing to define (e.g., Anderson, 1991). The significant quantitative work done on freshwater ecosystems (Karr, 1991) recognizes that ecosystems are complex and interconnected and have their own inherent functional and organizational properties. They draw on a range of systems and other theories to emphasize the self-organizing, self-maintaining abilities of intact ecosystems (Kay, 1991; Slocombe, 1990).

When we turn to the management of actual protected areas and their surrounding areas we are faced with other problems: "large" ecosystems, a significant human presence and activities, and the need to integrate science with planning and management activities. This is where it may be useful to speak more generally of "ecosystem approaches."

Ecosystem approaches

Protected-area management is never simply using science to understand the protected area. Science and the understanding it brings are of necessity, parts of planning and management. But planning and management also involve institutions, administrative hierarchies, organizations, and individuals with varied goals and perceptions, all of whose interests should be reflected in the planning and management processes. Yet these processes often reflect historical, political, and disciplinary priorities and prejudices and are less inclusive and interdisciplinary than they should be. Such a priori narrowness creates problems for both scientific understanding and program implementation (e.g., Chase, 1987).

Over the last twenty years or so, in parallel with the growth of ecosystem science as described above, a number of disciplines have developed "ecosystem approaches" based on ecological and systems principles that better integrate description, understanding, and prescription in complex scientific and professional situations.

These ecosystem approaches use a holistic, interdisciplinary systems perspective and seek to place the system of primary interest in a larger context. The ecosystem is defined bioregionally or in terms of watersheds, and includes people and their activities. Ecosystem approaches focus on interactions and system behavior, and take an ecological approach to changing patterns of structure and organization. From traditions in human ecology and anthropology there is often an emphasis on linking biophysical and socioeconomic dimensions. When extended to planning and management, an ecosystem approach uses actor and institutional analyses to recommend or facilitate more consensual, participatory processes; cognitive or perceptual shifts; and institutional integration (Table 1).

Table 1. Core Characteristics of Ecosystem Approaches.

· Describing parts, systems, environments, and their interactions.

· Holistic, comprehensive, transdisciplinary.

· Including people and their activities in the ecosystem.

· Describing system dynamics,e.g., through concepts of stability, feedback, etc.

· Defining the ecosystem naturally,e.g., bioregionally, rather than arbitrarily.

· Looking at different level/scales of system structure, process, and function.

· Recognizing goals and taking an active management orientation.

· Incorporating actor-system dynamics and institutional factors in the analysis.

· Using an anticipatory, flexible research and planning process.

· Entailing an implicit or explicit ethic of quality, well-being, and integrity.

· Recognizing systemic limits to action--defining and seeking sustainability.

Source: Slocombe 1992b.

Slocombe (1991a, 1992a) presents a review of theory and experience of ecosystem approaches in a range of disciplines. At their worst such approaches blend 1960s popular "ecology" with a particular perspective on a problem. Ecosystem approaches are commonly criticized as being equilibrium-oriented, emphasizing energy flow and functionalist approaches, and neglecting historical, evolutionary, and individual factors (Moran, 1984). Yet with broad theoretical and empirical grounding, an ecosystem approach can provide a framework for organizing and integrating research, planning, and management for protected and other areas (Francis, 1988). Although interest in ecosystem management for protected areas (Agee and Johnson, 1988) has been growing, the broader ecosystem approaches as described here are less common (but see Darrow et al., 1990). But interest in transdisciplinary, integrative ecosystem approaches is growing. The Canadian Government recently announced a new fifty-million-dollar program for research on large ecosystems in which human activities are central. The next section briefly presents three case studies of national-park-centered regions where various initiatives suggest possible directions for ecosystem approaches.

Case studies

Each of the three regions discussed below includes one or more large national parks, and a mix of traditional and modern land uses. Each region needs the parks as a catalyst and as a base of economic activity. These short descriptions highlight planning and management processes that appear to be indicative of the integrative, multidisciplinary, multi-actor methods that would best facilitate an ecosystem approach to management of the region. The three regions exhibit progressively more formalized, comprehensive processes.

Kluane National Park Reserve, Yukon

Kluane National Park covers 22, 015 km2. Formally established in 1976, it has been a game sanctuary since 1943. Together with the adjoining Wrangell/St.Elias National Park and Preserve, it is a World Heritage Site (Slocombe, 1992a). The core of the park is the St. Elias Icefield and surrounding mountains ranging from 2, 000 m to the 5, 951 m Mt. Logan. The lower, outer slopes of the park are forested and include some significant lakes and marshes. They are home to some of the largest concentrations of big game found anywhere in North America.

The region has a long history of native settlement and resource harvesting. European exploration and settlement in the region were originally catalyzed at the turn of the 20th century by gold and copper mining and big-game hunting. The construction of the Alaska (Alcan) highway and the establishment of the game sanctuary ended all these activities within the protected area and created hard feelings that still exist among local inhabitants.

There is a regional population of about 1, 000, 40 percent native, with a median income somewhat lower than for the Yukon as a whole. This produces strong feelings and desires for greater economic opportunities. The national park is the region's main resource, yet there are no access roads into the park and, of course, park policy precludes major hunting, trapping, and mining activity. Access was a major issue in the consultative process on updating the park management in the late 1980s. The new plan is a compromise, allowing moderate development in some less sensitive, already developed areas and formally closing the most sensitive areas to development.

In late 1987 the preparation of a Greater Kluane Regional Land-Use Plan began under joint federal, territorial, and native auspices. A Regional Planning Commission with local and government representatives was established in August 1988, and public hearings were held over the next six months to identify issues and goals. The process explicitly sought balanced development, emphasizing tourism and the highway corridor, and coordination between federal, territorial, and native planning initiatives. Although its results are only advisory, and indeed the entire program was scrapped in July 1991, the process was a unique opportunity for diverse interest groups to hear each other and consider opportunities to integrate their needs and goals.

Development of the Yukon Conservation Strategy is also significant in this regard. Led by a public working group established by the Yukon Department of Renewable Resources, it too used a public consultation process. The result was a statement intended to guide environment and development policies in the Yukon. The final strategy, released in 1990, seeks the development and sustainable use of renewable resources; a stable, healthy nonrenewable-resource sector; conservation of natural and human heritage, environmental protection; benefits and opportunities for Yukoners from resource development; community involvement in resource and conservation decision-making; and understanding aboriginal resource-management practices and knowledge.

More formally, a final umbrella agreement was reached in March 1991 on settlement of the Council of Yukon Indians' comprehensive land claim. In addition to new territory-wide planning and assessment boards and commissions, there is a specific Kluane sub-agreement. It is expected to allow Kluane native peoples to carry out subsistence harvesting in the park and game sanctuary under guidelines, to provide for 50 percent native representation on a Kluane National Park Management Board, and to grant Tribe members greater employment and training opportunities and a right of refusal on some economic development schemes.

Northern Yukon National Park

Northern Yukon National Park, in the northwest corner of the Yukon on the Beaufort Sea, covers 10, 170 km2 of gently rising arctic tundra and taiga, dissected by three major rivers flowing to the sea. The park was established in 1984 as part of the settlement of the comprehensive land claim of the western arctic Inuit Tribe. Although the nearest communities are 200 km south and southeast of the park, the area is used seasonally for subsistence harvesting by Inuvialuit and Loucheux peoples. The park is significant geomorphologically, biologically, archaeologically, and historically. It is part of the migration route of the Porcupine Caribou herd (see Parks Service, 1988; den Ouden, 1992, for details).

As part of the Inuvialuit settlement, park management goals and policies must mesh with the activities of a wide range of co-management institutions that have equal government and native representation. These include community-based hunter and trapper committees, the Inuvialuit Game Council, the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, the Wildlife Management Advisory Committee (North Slope), and the Environmental Impact Review and Impact Screening committees. Specific Inuvialuit rights with respect to the park include prior consent to changes in character or removal of park lands; advising on park planning and management; the exclusive right to harvest and dispose of game in the park; predominant employment preference and preferred rights to economic opportunities arising from park operation and management; and first refusal for wildlife guiding opportunities.

Park staff are seeking the goal of ecosystem-wide management to improve cooperation, information-sharing, and regional management by avoiding some of the existing political complications. In June 1991 the process of developing the park's first management plan was begun. A newsletter, a video, and public meetings have facilitated public input.

Regional integration and ecosystem planning concerns are significant, including the Yukon Territorial Historical Park to the north on Herschel Island, and the potential for another national park to the south as part of the Council of Yukon Indians settlement.

Also under way in 1990 and 1991 was the development of the North Yukon Regional Plan. Similar in scope to that for the Kluane region, it formally deals with lands outside the existing protected areas and emphasizes issues related to fish, wildlife, and forest management, heritage, mineral development, subsistence, and tourism. There was some desire to integrate other similar plans developed by the Inuvialuit co-management boards and the Northwest Territories Mackenzie Delta-Beaufort Sea Regional Land-Use Plan. However, this program, too, was cut in July 1991.

A biosphere reserve has been suggested as potentially useful for integrating management in the park region (Sadler, 1989). Given existing institutions and their orientations, it might be simpler to explicitly foster an ecosystem-wide orientation for existing institutions and processes.

Australian Alps National Parks

The Australian Alps National Parks comprise a contiguous 15, 300 km2 that extend from the Brindabella Ranges of Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales through the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales to the mountains of northeast Victoria and contain Australia's highest mountain, all of its mainland snowy country, a well-developed flora and fauna with many endemic species, and significant historical and archaeological sites. These so called "Australian Alps," are of national and international significance (Good, 1989).

More extensive study of the Alps program is planned, but initial research suggests it is unique. There is an explicit attempt to manage an entire ecosystem, a set of watersheds, through a system of protected areas in the region. Each of the seven national parks is managed by the appropriate state or territory government, with the federal government having some overall responsibilities such as migratory species. Although most were established in the 1970s and 1980s, one, Kosciusko National Park, was established in 1944. A review of experience there (Worboys et al., 1991) identifies a number of stages over the years: a formative period that dealt with stabilization and constituency-building without addressing major conflicts; then a period of conflict resolution through active management in the 1960s; a period of professionalization of the parks service in the 1970s, followed by community involvement and political pressures in the 1980s. The 1990s are expected to bring commercialization and increasing cooperative efforts with governments, communities, and private interests.

Cooperative management emerged in the early 1980s in response to observed needs and opportunities to create a conservation framework for a nearly contiguous area in the Alps. The first Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the relevant governments was signed in 1986. Its implementation is guided by the Alps Liaison Committee, a group of senior administrators from the governments involved, which prepares an annual works program and a report and is responsible for achieving the objectives of the MOU. As the administration and management of the MOU have evolved, improvements have been made: a three-year work program with commitment of funds by governments, secondment of a full-time officer to manage the cooperative program, the establishment of specialist working groups, and the identification of lead agencies for particular projects (Worboys et al., 1991).

The benefits of the program have included an Alps map and poster; bushwalking and horse-riding codes; a major symposium and reports on the scientific significance, heritage, and cultural heritage of the Alps; a bibliography on the Alps; and cooperative training and fire management programs. All these are excellent, concrete contributions to ecosystem management, not yet evident in the other regions examined. Potential improvements are seen in making cooperative ventures routine, devolving management to the operational level, increasing uniformity of standards across the whole Alps, and ensuring long-term commitments to the resolution of difficult issues, perhaps through legislating the MOU.

As the land managers focus on protecting biodiversity, achieving regional integration, and on maintaining ecosystem integrity and traditional uses, ecosystem-wide management will become more and more common. This will increasingly require new scientific and administrative methods and processes, ecosystem approaches, and complex administrative regimes such as the above examples illustrate.


Conceiving of protected areas as complex, changing, connected systems at several scales is an important first step towards effective ecosystem-wide management. The second step is developing research and monitoring methods to increase our understanding of protected areas as islands, as distinct systems responding to stresses, whose overall ecosystem integrity needs to be maintained. Empirical and scientific research can form the basis of an "ecosystem approach" to planning and management that should guide research and monitoring and facilitate their integration into effective, implemented, sustainable interventions.

Table 2. Advantages of an ecosystem approach to protected-area planning/management

· integrates socioeconomic and biophysical dimensions into research and management

· integrates research and planning and management

· considers whole, functional ecosystems and their characteristics

· facilitates goal-oriented process

· encourages participation and learning from all actors

· facilitates integration of scientific, actor, and institutional dimensions in to the design

Such an ecosystem approach can contribute a number of specific advantages to protected-area planning and management (Table 2). The importance of this approach is underscored by experience with biosphere reserves. Successful ones are successful not because of their designation, but because of the development of a multidisciplinary, multi-actor process for guiding and integrating research and management in a whole regional ecosystem.

At the same time as protected areas are coming to be seen as critical elements in efforts to protect the biosphere, they are increasingly under threat of change from internal and external causes. Ecosystem science and ecosystem approaches can contribute much to improved planning and management in this context (Slocombe, 1992b). In the long term, protected areas must do more than protect, biodiversity, and natural wonders. They must also help to integrate conservation and development and thus contribute to sustaining societies (McNeely and Miller, 1984).


Agee, J.K., and D.R. Johnson (eds.). 1988. Ecosystem Management for Parks and Wilderness. Seattle. University of Washington Press.

Anderson, Jay E. 1991. "A Conceptual Framework for Evaluating and Quantifying Naturalness." Conservation Biology, vol. 5, no. 3. pp. 347-352.

Beanlands, G.E., and P.N. Cuinker. 1983. An Ecological Framework for Environmental Impact Assessment in Canada. Ottawa. Federal Environmental Assessment and Review Office.

Brown, J., et al. 1980. An Arctic Ecosystem: The Coastal Tundra at Barrow, Alaska. Stroudsburg, Pa. Dowden, Hutchinson, and Ross.

Chase, Alston. 1987. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. New York. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Darrow, G.F., et al. 1990. "Crown of the Continent Project." Montana. Glacier National Park. (ms.)

den Ouden, S. 1992. CoManagement and Ecosystem Planning in the Mackenzie Delta Yukon North Slope Region. Waterloo, Ont. Wilfrid Laurier University. (B.A. thesis in Geography)

di Castri, F., and M. Hadley. 1988. "Enhancing the Credibility of Ecology: Interacting Along and Across Hierarchical Scales." GeoJournal, vol. 17, no. 1. pp. 535.

Dolan, R., B.P. Hayden, and G. Soucie. 1978. "Environmental Dynamics and Resource Management in the U.S. National Parks." Environmental Management, vol. 2, no. 3. pp. 249-258.

Forman, R.T.T., and M. Godron. 1986. Landscape Ecology. New York. Wiley.

Francis, G.R. 1988. "Institutions and Ecosystem Redevelopment in Great Lakes America with Reference to Baltic Europe." Ambio, vol. 17, no. 2. pp. 106-111.

Gardner, R.H., et al. 1987. "Neutral Models for the Analysis of Broadscale Landscape Pattern." Landscape Ecology, vol. 1, no. 1. pp. 19-28.

GEMS Monitoring and Assessment Research Centre. 1989. Environmental Data Report, 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K. Basil Blackwell.

Good, Roger (ed.). 1989. The Scientific Significance of the Australian Alps. Canberra. Australian Alps National Parks Liaison Committee and Australian Academy of Science.

Jordan, W.R., III, M.E. Gilpin, and J.D. Aber (eds.). 1987. Restoration Ecology. Cambridge, U.K. Cambridge University Press.

Karr, J.R. 1991. "Biological Integrity: A Long Neglected Aspect of Water Resource Management." Ecological Applications, vol. 1, no. 1. pp. 66-84.

Kay, J.J. 1991. "A Nonequilibrium Thermodynamic Framework for Discussing Ecological Integrity." Environmental Management, vol. 15, no. 4. pp. 483-495.

Kothbauer, Maria. 1992. National and Provincial Park Management Responses to External Threats in Ontario. Waterloo, Ont. Wilfrid Laurier University. (M.A. thesis in Geography)

McNeely, J.A., and K.R. Miller (eds.). 1984. National Parks, Conservation and Development. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Moran, E.F. 1984. The Ecosystem Concept in Anthropology. Washington, D.C. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Newmark, W.D. 1987. "A Land-Bridge Island Perspective on Mammalian Extinctions in Western North American Parks." Nature, vol. 325, no. 6103, 29 January. pp. 430-432.

Odum, H.T. 1983. Systems Ecology: An Introduction. New York. Wiley.

Parks Service [Canada]. 1988. Northern Yukon National Park: Interim Management Guidelines. Winnipeg. Prairie and Northern Region.

Rapport, D.J., H.A. Regier, and T.C. Hutchinson. 1985. "Ecosystem Behavior Under Stress." American Naturalist, vol. 125, no. 5. pp. 617-640.

Sadler, Barry. 1989. "National Parks, Wilderness Preservation, and Native Peoples in Northern Canada." Natural Resources Journal, vol. 29, no. 1. pp. 185-204.

Slocombe, D.S. 1990. "Assessing Transformation and Sustainability in the Great Lakes Basin." GeoJournal, vol. 21, pp. 251-272.

Slocombe, D.S. 1991. An Annotated, Multidisciplinary Bibliography of Ecosystem Approaches. Waterloo, Ont., and Sacramento, Cal. Wilfrid Laurier University Cold Regions Research Centre and IUCN/CESP.

Slocombe, D.S. 1992a. "Environmental Monitoring for Protected Areas: Review and Prospect." Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, vol. 21, no. 1. pp. 49-78.

Slocombe, D.S. 1992b. "The Kluane/Wrangell St. Elias National Parks, Yukon and Alaska: Seeking Sustainability through Biosphere Reserves." Mountain Research and Development, vol. 12, no. 1. pp. 63-70.

Slocombe, D.S. 1993. "Environmental Planning, Ecosystem Science, and Ecosystem Approaches for Integrating Environment and Development." Environmental Management, vol. 17, no. 3. pp. 289-303.

Soulé, M.E. (ed.). 1986. Conservation Biology: The Science of Scarcity and Diversity. Sunderland, Mass. Sinauer Associates.

Turner, M.G. 1989. "Landscape Ecology: the Effect of Pattern on Process." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 20. pp. 171-197.

Worboys, G.L., et al. 1991. "Protected Area Management in the Australian Alps: A Case Study: Kosciusko National Park." In L.S. Hamilton, D.P. Bauer, and H.F. Takeuchi (eds.). Parks, Peaks, and People. Honolulu, Hawaii. East-West Center Program of Environment.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page