"If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what we do and how to do it.." Abraham Lincoln

Imagine that we knew nothing about the size, direction, and composition of our economy. We would each know a little, i.e., what was happening to us directly, but none of us would know much about the broader trends in the economythe level or rate of housing starts, interest rates, retail sales, trade deficits, or unemployment rates. We might react to things that happened to us directly, or react to events that we had heard aboutevents that may or may not have actually occurred.

Fortunately, the information base on economic trends is extensive, is updated regularly, and is easily accessible. Designed to describe the condition of the economy and how it is changing, the information base provides the foundation for both economic policy and personal finance decisions. Typical economic decisions are all framed by empirical knowledge about what is happening in the general economy. Without it, we would have no rational way of timing these decisions and no way of judging whether or not they were correct relative to trends in the general economy.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with regard to changes in environmental conditions. Environmental data has generally been collected for its regulatory and management purposes, using information systems designed to answer very site-, pollutant-, or species-specific questions. This effort has been essential in achieving the many pollution control successes of the last generation. However, it does not provide a systematic, empirical database, similar to the economic database, which describes trends in the general environment and provides a foundation for both environmental policy and, perhaps more importantly, personal decisions. The Critical Trends Assessment Project (CTAP) is designed to begin developing such a database.

As a first step, CTAP investigators inventoried existing data to determine what is known and not known about historical ecological conditions and to identify meaningful trends. The analysis was published in a seven-volume technical report and is summarized in the present volume.

Three general conclusions can be drawn from CTAP's initial investigations:

Conclusion No. 1: The emission and discharge of regulated pollutants over the past 20 years has declined, in some cases dramatically. Among the findings:

Conclusion No. 2: Existing data suggest that the condition of natural ecosystems in Illinois is rapidly declining as a result of fragmentation and continual stress. Among the findings:

Conclusion No. 3: Data designed to monitor compliance with environmental regulations or the status of specific species are not sufficient to assess ecosystem health statewide. Among the findings:

CTAP is designed to begin to help address the complex problems Illinois faces in making environmental policy on a sound ecosystem basis. The next edition of the Critical Trends Assessment Project, two years hence, should have more answers about trends in Illinois' environmental and ecological conditions to help determine an effective and economical environmental policy for Illinois.

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