Fellow Highlight: Designing Sustainable Landscapes in Partnership with Stakeholders

Friday, March 20, 2015

With the inevitability of climate change and an evolving public perspective on its severity, it is reassuring to see scientists providing critical information to aid decision makers. Usually there are two major roadblocks obstructing the scientific community’s impact

: lack of funding and the disconnect between scientific findings and real-world application. These dilemmas are tackled by the Northeast Climate Science Center (NE CSC), a federal-academic partnership that provides scientific information, tools and techniques that natural resource managers can use to anticipate, monitor and adapt to climate change. When such relationships develop, important, actionable science results.

A primary partner of the NE CSC is the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NA LCC). The NA LCC is a coalition of 9 federal agencies (including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), 14 northeast state agencies in the NA LCC region, 8 non-profit organizations, Canadian partners and tribal representatives. A goal of the NA LCC is to encourage efficient conservation actions by gathering relevant information and tools at landscape scales to inform decision makers. Recognizing the need for climate science research to inform conservation planning, the NA LCC sought to identify lands that should receive priority for future conservation efforts in the NA LCC region.

In response, the Designing Sustainable Landscapes (DSL) project was born, led by University of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation faculty member Kevin McGarigal and funded by both the NE CSC and the NA LCC. Among its core group of researchers is Bill DeLuca, NE CSC Postdoctoral Fellow. DeLuca’s passion for understanding the spectrum of impacts that climate change has on landscapes stems from his dissertation research focusing on climate impacts on mountain bird communities.

The core group of DSL researchers works as a team, collaborating to piece together a complicated puzzle. The DSL team is developing land use change models that project future urban growth and collaborating with the NE CSC to obtain downscaled global climate change projections for the NA LCC region. To assess the impact of the projected urban growth and climate change, the DSL team develops a baseline model, essentially a starting point, of the current distributions of 30 focal species, each representative of a specific habitat and a community of interacting species. After developing this baseline, they use the land use and climate change models to determine how the distributions of these representative species will be affected.

DSL team leader McGarigal meets with NA LCC stakeholders, including the NA LCC’s Science Coordinator, Scott Schwenk, once per month; DeLuca is often part of these meetings. “During initial meetings, we identified how we would use our tools to identify core areas for them to target for conservation”, DeLuca explained. These monthly meetings are crucial to the process of the DSL project because often through the modelling practice there are “forks in the road”, as DeLuca refers to them. At these decision points the researchers identify that there are multiple possible pathways and the decision is made in collaboration with stakeholders. “Almost every month we’re altering our course; sometimes significantly, sometimes not so significantly, based on their feedback”, reflects DeLuca. According to Schwenk, the DSL team’s recommendations are typically accepted by the stakeholder group, although there are occasional rejections as the NA LCC partners make collective decisions based on what would be most helpful to the resources they are charged with protecting.

For example, there was a point when the NA LCC stakeholders were interested in isolating the effects of climate change from habitat loss due to urban growth and vice versa.  Exercising their advisory role, the NA LCC asked the DSL team to develop indices that concentrated on the effects of climate change independent from habitat loss and habitat loss independent from climate change “because what you can do about them differs”, reminds Schwenk.  “Urban growth is something that we have more control over.” By isolating the effects of urban growth, NA LCC stakeholders are better able to define areas with high risk of development and plan to focus their resources in those areas for conservation of critical wildlife habitat. One possible action is to reduce future development in specific key wildlife areas.

Schwenk agrees that the meetings are a highly interactive process between the NA LCC stakeholders and the DSL team. Schwenk is proud of this valuable collaboration and confident in its ability to tackle the question, “What are the conservation actions, and where should we take them that will best sustain populations of fish and wildlife over the long term?” As the DSL team specializes in generating and synthesizing analytical tools, the stakeholders direct their application to help produce the most efficient conservation strategies.

 Despite the adjustments inherent to a stakeholder-driven research process, DeLuca is appreciative of the impact of the DSL team’s research. When the stakeholders have a clear and unified need, such as isolating the effects of climate change and urban growth, the researchers are supportive. They understand the motive of the project and trust the purpose of the NA LCC’s role. DeLuca believes that the DSL team plays an important role in real world applications of vital science to ensure effective conservation decisions. This will ultimately contribute to more resilient human and ecological systems.

The primary NE CSC goal of stakeholder engagement, such as this example between the DSL project and the NA LCC, is a desirable arrangement for many research projects. This project highlights engagement throughout the research design and process, ensuring that the products are of utmost utility to the end user. The success of this collaborative partnership lies in the mutual understanding, trust, and respect between researchers and stakeholders, allowing members to stay focused on the common mission that neither could accomplish separately. “This is why you get into this, it is the kind of work that has the potential to make a real difference,” smiles DeLuca.

By Colton Ellison, NE CSC Communications Intern, UMass Amherst

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