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Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the technical complexity and jargon of environmental issues? If you have, you’re not alone. Environmental decision making today has become complicated and highly structured by legal requirements. It would sure be nice to be able to call someone like the Car Talk guys on public radio when you have environmental concerns. But maybe the next best thing is a book that will help answer your basic and more advanced questions.

Tools to Aid Environmental Decision Making, edited by Virginia Dale and Mary English, could be just what you’re looking for. It is both a handy reference and a useful textbook, explaining many of the latest developments in environmental and decision science. These are fields that have experienced rapid growth in response to environmental laws arising in the 1970s.

Keeping informed on new developments is a daunting challenge. This book, prepared under the auspices of the National Center for Environmental Decision-Making Research, was designed to address that challenge.

The focus of the book is on application, whether for broad-scale projects at the federal level or localized projects undertaken by municipal governments or private firms. Even the environmental spectator will find the case examples interesting, illustrating as they do, the conflicting forces of economic self interest, political and corporate power, legal intricacies and moral fervor.

The editors have assembled the opinions and advice of more than a dozen highly regarded experts on carefully selected subjects, with emphasis on the tools needed to arrive at an informed and defensible decision. Tools include data sources, data gathering techniques, and methods for organizing and analyzing information. In fact, organizing information and designing an effective decision making process are what give the book its structure.

It’s the nature of the scientific approach to classify and organize ideas, so this systematic inquiry is especially appropriate. Although the veteran environmental analyst might occasionally find the book somewhat basic, a systematic approach can sometimes provide new perspectives and insight. Moreover, new practitioners, who are often confronted with an expanding and bewildering body of esoteric information, are likely to be comforted by an explanation of even the obvious.

The chapters represent steps in the decision process, starting with "Identifying Environmental Values" and "Tools to Characterize the Environmental Setting" and progressing to "Post-Decision Assessment." The authors provide a comprehensive overview of their topics with emphasis on methods and techniques, key assumptions, and appropriate applications. Comments by a practicing environmental decision maker follow each chapter, reflecting on the use, misuse, and potential development of the tools in each category. Also of considerable value are the lists of key resources and references that follow each chapter. Some of these are in the form of internet addresses, a category of tools that will no doubt become increasingly useful.

The chapters on social and legal aspects of environmental decision making were especially interesting. They deal with environmental values, the socioeconomic and political setting, the regulatory and judicial setting, and the geographic setting. These are important topics and ones that the biological scientist is often inadequately prepared to address.

One dimension is curiously lacking: a discussion of environmental impact assessments. Since the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), environmental impact assessments have become the central framework under which most government environmental decisions must be made. NEPA applies to policies, plans, programs, and specific activities involving agricultural and natural resources projects and defense actions. It also applies to most federal economic development and grant funds.

Increasingly, NEPA has influenced state decision making; there are at least 15 state environmental policy acts plus similar acts for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Even local decision making is being shaped by city and tribal environmental policy acts.

A number of NEPA and environmental impact assessment principles and methods—such as mitigation and impact management, evaluation of significance, and interdisciplinary and public review of the report of findings—merit inclusion in this book. The omission of a separate chapter on NEPA may simply be because NEPA isn’t a separate discipline and, moreover, its requirements have become so pervasive that the editors may have assumed that no special emphasis is required. Nonetheless, if there are future editions of the book—which seems likely given the book’s potential application—a chapter on NEPA would be a worthwhile consideration.n

Virginia H. Dale and Mary R. English, Tools to Aid Environmental Decision Making (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1999); 342 pp.; paper, $34.95; cloth, $74.


Charles Van Sickle
Retired assistant station director
U.S. Forest Service
Candler, North Carolina
Harold Draper
NEPA Specialist
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

Recommending a
Resources Reader


One of the most helpful books I read when I returned to graduate school was a collection of public administration classics. The compilation of major articles reconnected me with my original academic training, and it had the practical advantage of having all the pieces in one place.

Wallace Oates, an environmental economics professor at the University of Maryland and a fellow at Resources for the Future, has followed this edited collection mode by compiling a set of seminal articles on environmental economics. The RFF Reader in Environmental and Resource Management contains 43 articles covering 10 environmental topics: science and environmental policy, benefit-cost analysis, environmental regulation, environmental federalism, resource management, biodiversity, environmental justice, global climate change, sustainable development, and environmental problems in developing and transitional countries. All but two of the pieces were previously published in Resources, the quarterly publication of Resources for the Future.

Oates begins the book by formulating three economic postulates for environmental protection: the market system can result in excessive pollution, economics as a discipline can help set standards for environmental quality, and economics can contribute to the design of policy instruments to achieve the standards. Despite these introductory comments on environmental economics, the edited articles are generally nontechnical and easily readable. In fact, a reader expecting economic rigor will be disappointed, as will those who prefer that environmental issues not be reduced to a discussion based on dollar values. Indeed, the strength of Oates’s edited work is his presentation of environmental economic issues in understandable language while allowing the reader to fully appreciate the importance of economics as a policy tool to solve environmental problems. For those of us who are noneconomists but understand the multidisciplinary nature necessary to solve environmental problems, this is a welcomed collection.

The RFF Reader is an excellent primer for an upper-level undergraduate public policy course on environmental issues. In addition to the full citation for the original work, each author has provided at least two or three additional cites of more recent studies in the topic area.

Although the book was written primarily for students, we should not define students in a narrow, academic sense. The general public can benefit from this work as well.

The next century will bring innumerable environmental situations that must be resolved if we are to have a sustainable future. Oates has set out background information that should help students, the general public, and policymakers make better environmental decisions for generations to come.n

Wallace E. Oates, ed., The RFF Reader in Environmental and Resource Management (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1999); 310 pp.; paper, $22.95.


Jean H. Peretz
Research Scientist
University of Tennessee
Energy, Environment
and Resources Center
Knoxville, Tennessee

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