Blog Post

Developing Analysis with the Decisionmaking Scale in Mind

Apr 12, 2018 | Ann M. Bartuska

As environmental and resource challenges become more complex—think climate change—sensible land use policy will require sophisticated and integrated analyses, looking at the holistic level of the landscape, not just its individual components. This has important implications for the design of research efforts and the communication of their results. In February, I participated in a National Press Club event  on landscape strategies and climate challenges that provoked an interesting dialogue on these topics.

What lessons can be drawn from experience and practical application of a holistic approach? Having spent most of my career in natural resource science, I look at this question from an analytical perspective. I am also an ecosystem ecologist, so I naturally think in terms of watersheds, landscapes, and their interconnections.

Perhaps the most critical lesson for researchers as they encounter opportunities for research and policy innovation is that the scale of analysis should be commensurate with the scale of decisionmaking. Let me illustrate with two examples—one providing a lesson for what not to do, the other showing the ingredients for success.

Early in the 1990s, all the major US and management agencies started talking about ecosystem management as a policy, which led to resource assessments carried out at an ecosystem scale. In the case of the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Plan (ICBEMP) in the Pacific Northwest, hundreds of specialists were mobilized to consider the full array of natural resources (water, biodiversity, trees, insects, disease, etc.) for a very large piece of geography. The Interior Columbia Basin includes all or part of six states and originally in 1993 included 144 million acres (this area was subsequently reduced to 64 million acres). Unfortunately, the translation of some very complicated analyses and assessments did not transfer to the scale of decisionmaking. The problem was that the decisions ultimately were made at a smaller geographic scale—districts, forests, and parks—so the information was not always directly relevant to the decisionmakers. Additionally, it was a very top-down approach, where the local managers did not have sufficient input in terms of articulating their information needs.

We can look to the Southern Appalachian Assessment (SAA) as an instructive counterexample. The Southern Appalachians are well defined both in terms of ecology and a common social culture. The area of analysis included seven states and 37 million acres. Like ICBEMP, the analysis began in 1993 and was completed in 1996. A key differentiating feature is that an existing organization, the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere program, was identified to coordinate the effort; therefore, all the key decisionmakers—managers of the parks, the forests, the private land owners—were involved in defining the most important issues for the Southern Appalachians. When the analysis was done, it could be picked up by the managers and inform their decisions, including decisions on air quality, water resources, land management, and conservation practices. The SAA held extensive public meetings, but it also generated a survey instrument to ask members of the public about issues of concern, such that the SAA had more of a bottom-up utility.

Where can we find the landscape-scale science that must underpin realized integrated approaches? Two networks have developed that operate at a landscape scale. The first is the Experimental Forests and Rangelands of the US Forest Service. The initial site was established in 1908 in Arizona to address a specific problem around ponderosa pine productivity. There are now over 80 sites and they are functioning as a network—looking at problems across sites and gaining foundational knowledge.

The second network is more recent—the Long Term Agroecosystem Research network of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. It consists of approximately 20 sites that represent the major agricultural regions of the US and have been in place doing research for half a century, coming together as a network to address common problems.

Of course, the best, most well-targeted science will only influence policy to the extent that it is communicated and delivered effectively to decisionmakers. Neglecting this vital piece of the puzzle is a recipe for failure and the importance of science communications cannot be overstated.

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.