While there has been considerable research and development in management of specific natural resources and public lands containing multiple resources, relatively little progress has been made concerning management of privately-owned resources through land-use planning at the local level of government. This paper examines the issue of local government policies and capabilities in land-use planning for privately-owned, environmentally-sensitive areas (ESAs) in the Pacific Northwest of North America. ESAs are defined as landscape elements that are vital to long-term maintenance of biological diversity, soil, water, and other natural resources—especially as they relate to human health, safety, and welfare, both on-site and in a regional context.
A three-steps' approach of different geographical scales (i.e. watershed, state, and region) was used in a series of studies to facilitate examination of the relationship between political structure and ecological theory. When viewed collectively these studies showed that, while there is a political basis for regulating ESAs, attempts at regulation lack a theoretical and applied basis in systems-thinking and ecological science. To begin forging a stronger linkage between the political and scientific basis for ESA planning, two major ecological theories relevant to ESA management—hierarchy and subsidy–stress—were reviewed. These theories, when used in concert, were shown to be applicable in making objective choices concerning privately-held ESAs in the Pacific North-west. They can be used as a theoretical scientific basis for ESA planning, providing both qualitative and quantitative models. Hierarchy theory can provide guidelines for ESA planning by linking biophysical processes and patterns directly to appropriate scales of political jurisdiction. Subsidy–stress theory can be used to set specific performance standards that are needed in regulation of ESAs.
As a result of our three-steps' approach at different geographical scales, four requisites for improving ESA planning were found: (1) definitions for natural resources should be standardized between regional districts, countries, states, and provinces; (2) replicative methods for ESA inventories, including natural communities and ecosystem processes, should be used; (3) a common environmental information system should be available to land-use planners; and (4) the expertise to apply such information should be available. The basis for these four items is found in the ecological systems theories of hierarchy and subsidy–stress.