by Sharon K. Collinge
A recent letter to the editor in the Daily Camera criticized the use of the precautionary principle in management of Boulder’s Open Space by stating that “This ‘precaution’ overrides science and data in favor of policies critical of all possible human impacts.”
Put simply, the precautionary principle is an approach that seeks to avoid unintended consequences of particular actions. Rather than ‘overriding’ science and data, this principle explicitly acknowledges the centrality of scientific data to decision-making. Most importantly, it suggests a guiding strategy for managers faced with the uncertainties and knowledge gaps that will always exist in our understanding of a situation.
We will manage Boulder’s Open Space most effectively with a similar approach. Although we do not know everything there is to know about human impacts on native grasslands, forests, and streams, there is ample scientific evidence showing that increased human activities lead to environmental degradation. This warrants a cautious approach to management of our local public lands.
To avoid unintended consequences we must clearly state our intended consequences by asking, “What do we want Open Space lands to look like in the future—say 5, 10, 20, 50 years from now?” “What condition of the natural environment is acceptable?” “How do we ensure that our actions are sustainable?” If we want the status of our Open Space to be the same as it is or even better 20 years from now, then we must avoid actions that fragment, degrade, and destroy the land and its species. That’s exactly why the precautionary principle is vital in managing our valuable Open Space.
Professor Collinge is a member of the Science Advisory Group and teaches at the University of Colorado