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The Feds take on Marine Spatial Planning

Believe it or not, there actually is environmental news beyond Copenhagen.  Yesterday the Council on Environmental Quality took an important first step on the road to ocean governance reform.  The President’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force issued its Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning for 60-day public review and comment.  The idea of marine planning or zoning – an effort to separate incompatible uses of the ocean environment in order to protect ecological values and reduce user conflicts – has been bubbling up for some time among academics and state policymakers in places like Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Now the federal government has dipped its toe into the water in a significant way.

The concept of marine spatial planning (MSP) has been defined in as many different ways as there are people trying to define it.  The Interim Framework synthesizes many of these definitions into one broadly inclusive one: “a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes areas.”  CEQ’s hope is that MSP will provide better public policy, and a better public process, for making decisions about the use and protection of ocean resources.

Earlier this decade, two major state-of-the-ocean reports painted a pretty grim picture of the health of our marine resources and identified governance reform as a critical component for reversing course.  Yet little has happened on the national ocean policy front since then.  At both the federal and state levels, we continue to manage oceans largely on a single resource or single use basis.  All too often the result of such fragmented decisionmaking is user conflict and long-term, accumulating ecological degradation.  Death by a thousand cuts, or something like that.

MSP is an attempt to break out of our historic sector-by-sector approach to management of the marine public commons.  The theory is that MSP can help integrate decisions across agencies, resources, and uses.  But mere integration is not enough to protect ecological values; many resource atrocities have occurred under terrestrial planning regimes.  The marine spatial planning process must be based on what the best science is telling us about ecosystem function and resilience.  In essence, MSP provides one potentially promising way to implement the much-discussed, but still elusive concept of ecosystem-based management in the marine environment.  Whether this promise can be fulfilled, of course, remains to be seen.

There are many tricky issues to work through.  At what scale should planning proceed?  What institutional structures will facilitate effective interagency coordination?  How should planners interface with scientific data and technical experts?  How should stakeholder participation be structured?  What are the possible outcomes of the process?  How should the outcome be implemented?  By what metrics should its efficacy be measured?  Etc.

The Interim Framework only begins to answer these challenging questions.  It proposes the formation of regional planning bodies, organized at the scale of large marine ecosystems (e.g., the California current), to develop coastal and marine spatial plans consistent with a set of national objectives and regional priorities.  As envisioned in the Framework, MSP would not displace any agency’s current jurisdiction.  Each agency would continue to operate under its existing statutory authority, but ideally its actions would be governed by the principles and goals articulated in whatever plan is developed.

CEQ’s proposal is exactly what it says it is – a general framework.  It leaves many details undetermined and provides substantial flexibility to the new regional bodies to define the contours of any particular plan.  But at least it’s a start.  And it signals this Administration’s desire to catch up with the rest of us.

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