UNH Researcher Helping Assess
Ecological Impact Of Clean Air Act
Contact: David Sims
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
Dec. 13, 2004
DURHAM, N.H. – At a time when clean air and climate change
are becoming increasingly important topics, both scientifically
and politically, University of New Hampshire forest ecologist Scott
Ollinger is helping assess just how effective the federal Clean
Air Act (CAA) has been at protecting the nation’s natural
Ollinger was recently selected to serve on a panel of seven scientists
on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory
Board’s newly formed Ecological Effects Subcommittee.
The subcommittee is charged with helping to determine how effective
the CAA has been at protecting ecosystems. Such periodic self-review
is mandated by the sweeping legislation, which was passed in 1970
and amended in 1990.
“At this point, the EPA is gearing up to do its next major
assessment of the CAA, and we’re trying to create the recipe
for that analysis,” Ollinger says.
According to Ollinger, an assistant professor at UNH’s Institute
for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) and Department of
Natural Resources, the formation of the subcommittee is significant
because it represents the first time the EPA has focused exclusively
on the ecological impacts of complying with the CAA.
In the past, consideration of ecological impacts has been combined
with assessments that focused on human health or
economic consequences. Ollinger made an earlier contribution
to one such effort that involved a cost-benefit analysis
of CAA compliance on a variety of U.S. industries.
"That assessment focused primarily on economic
effects," Ollinger says of the analyses, "but ecological
effects are typically very difficult to quantify in purely economic
terms. My area of expertise, forest ecosystems, was one of the few
areas where you could do that, although to a very limited
extent by, for example, analyzing pollution effects on forest
growth and health vis-a-vis board feet of timber lost or gained.
The EPA subcommittee is “strictly advisory” and has
been charged with making recommendations at the end of a two-year
analysis. Says Ollinger, “What they want to know from us is,
‘What should we do?’”
At a recent meeting at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. ,the
subcommittee members agreed that one viable means of assessing how
well the CAA has protected natural resources would be for the EPA
to conduct several, detailed case studies of smaller regions of
"Ultimately, we'd like to be able to determine the full range
of ecological effect both direct and indirect—on all ecological
processes across the entire country. But given the enormity
of such a task, we felt that a series of smaller, more focused,
studies would be a useful step in the right direction."
Although the subcommittee has come up with a list of 12 possible
geographic regions, including the Chesapeake Bay region, Ollinger
notes that focusing on the New England region might provide the
biggest “bang for the buck” for a variety of reasons.
Nitrogen pollution in the coastal zones of the Gulf of Maine, for
example, comes primarily from air pollution, whereas in the Chesapeake
Bay nitrogen input comes more from fertilization of agricultural
In addition, the Northeast, often referred to as the “tailpipe”
of the U.S. with respect to pollution transport, has a wealth of
existing data from a large number of study sites (e.g., Long Term
Ecological Research sites at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest and
Harvard Forest) that could be synthesized for a case study.