Most environmental laws define a threshold between legal and illegal and thus could be very effective if ecosystems were widely characterized by ecological thresholds. For example, if the integrity of a stream ecosystem drops precipitously when the concentration of a contaminant exceeds 50 ppm, then it would be efficient to have a law that prohibits contamination above this level. Conversely, if the ecological impacts of a perturbation increase linearly across a wide range—an ecological continuum—then any particular regulatory limit creates an arbitrary threshold that is not well matched to the actual ecological impact. If the ecological impact at 55 ppm is only 20% greater than that at 45 ppm, is it logical to select 50 ppm as a legal threshold? If modest environmental impacts occur at 30 or 40 ppm, does it make sense to begin regulation only at 50 ppm? Given the imperfect relationship between legal and ecological thresholds, we argue that increased emphasis on positive incentives, as an addition to threshold‐based laws, would result in environmental management that is more attuned to the structure and function of ecosystems. Ecologists have long sought to understand ecological thresholds, defined here as the point at which an abrupt change
Conservation Biology – Wiley
Published: Aug 1, 2009
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