Monday, December 20, 2010

Limits of Acceptable Change and Judgments about Impacts

I recently completed a draft manuscript of a handbook on tourism and the environment. I was asked to write a chapter on Limits of Acceptable Change and Tourism. In writing that chapter, I decided it was important that readers not only have the opportunity to read about the steps to the LAC framework, but also be exposed to certain issues which have arisen in the literature including carrying capacity. Now I cannot reveal all that I wrote, but I thought I would raise the question of a couple of strengths of LAC in relation to some of the criticism I sometimes see.

Now if you don’t know what LAC is, it is a process designed in the mid-1980s to help Wilderness managers in the U.S. grapple with the question of managing visitors and their impacts, both social and biophysical. Since then, it has become widely known and practiced both in the U.S. and abroad. Several variants exist, including the US National Park Service designed Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) process, but LAC remains a very visible process.

One of the criticisms that LAC and similar frameworks receive is that they allow degradation of biophysical conditions to occur, that by allowing some change to occur, impacts are deemed socially acceptable, thus leading to a gradual, inevitable loss of the qualities for which the area was designated. The criticism goes on to often include a statement along the lines that if managers would establish a carrying capacity, such degradation would not occur. Of course, I believe that this criticism is based on a mis-understanding of the relationships between use levels and impact and a miscasting of the standard setting process that is a part of LAC.

First, in a nature-dominated setting, such as a designated Wilderness, national park backcountry or similar area, any level of human use leads to some changes in the natural environment. When a hiker, for example, walks along a previously unused area, there is an impact—however slight, even if not measurable with current technology. Impacts occur relatively quickly, disproportionate to use levels. This conclusion has been well established in the recreation ecology literature for decades. So, if visitors are allowed to use an area, then some impact will occur. The question then becomes not one of preventing impacts but one of determining how much impact would be acceptable given the natural heritage present, demand for the area and objectives established for it. Whether an impact is one that can be described as “degradation” is another decision. The LAC process makes the determination of acceptable change explicit, subject to debate and part of the social discourse around protected area management.

Second, the practical implication of carrying capacity, as it has been applied in the literature, shows that visitor use is often permitted, thus impacts occur, and as a result, degradation of natural heritage might happen. However, in establishing such carrying capacities, the judgments about the acceptability of such impacts are often hidden, not subject to review, debate and discourse. Those judgments reflect not a healthy public engagement process but rather an elite that has been privileged to make such decisions. The unfortunate thing about this is that the people making such decisions may not even understand that they are making decisions about acceptability of impacts. These decisions may be hidden in an illusion of scientific objectivity, they may buried in assumptions, often only implicit, that are never revealed because the research is never subject to debate because of the overall elitist stature of science.

Now, I am not opposed to science. We absolutely need science and the knowledge it generates to help us move forward and strengthen our protected area management capabilities. But, science helps inform decisions, not direct them. The process of protected area management is filled with value judgments, such as the ones involved in setting standards. What we want to do is to explicate that process so it is transparent and so that decision makers can be held accountable. LAC does this, carrying capacity does not.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Nature of Sharing Benefits from Ecosystem-based Services

In its historic report on the state of ecosystems on our planet (Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis), the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) links the condition of ecosystems and the services they provide to the quality of life for the world’s human population. The report goes on to project In the preface to the report, the authors provide a provisional definition of services: Ecosystem services are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems (p 5.). The report goes on to address five key, salient questions to the future of human life on this planet:

 What are the current condition and trends of ecosystems, ecosystem services, and human well-being?

 What are plausible future changes in ecosystems and their ecosystem services and the consequent changes in human well-being?

 What can be done to enhance well-being and conserve ecosystems? What are the strengths and weaknesses of response options that can be considered to realize or avoid specific futures?

 What are the key uncertainties that hinder effective decision-making concerning ecosystems?

 What tools and methodologies developed and used in the MA can strengthen capacity to assess ecosystems, the services they provide, their impacts on human well-being, and the strengths and weaknesses of response options?

Key components of the report are frameworks linking various biotic, abiotic, cultural, demographic and political processes that affect ecosystem services and how they impact human well-being.

The Millenium Assessment has triggered quite a bit of dialogue, and enhanced the argument that protected areas have saliency for all humans, for they contain the natural capital that sustains the variety of services that ecosystems provide. The Assessment identified several different kinds of services:

 provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fiber;

 regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality;

 cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and

 supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.

At the same time that the MEA suggested these four kinds of services, and defined benefits as services, it also provided a bit of confusion. Later in the report (specifically beginning on page 5 and in a number of instances thereafter, the MEA differentiated between services and benefits. For example, on page 7 at the bottom of Table 1 the report states: For regulating and supporting services, enhancement refers to a change in the service that leads to greater benefits for people. Later, the text returns to a definition of services as benefits.

This change in the use of terms has been, I believe, a foundation for some confusion for scientists who are interested in doing work on enhancing the quality of life for people, researching how services are impacted (positively or negatively), activists pressuring for protection of the natural capital that provides these services and local people who depend directly on their adjacent natural capital. This confusion raises a lot of questions: Are benefits and services the same things? Is an ecosystem service simply a synonym for benefit? If services are benefits, what produces the benefits? What is a benefit if it is not a service? So, I prepared this short essay to share some of the questions in my mind about the relationship between ecosystem services, the benefits they provide and how they possibly could be distributed. For me, this was a necessary exercise to clarify things, although I do not anticipate any universal consensus on what is stated here.

What are ecosystem services?

Natural capital—nature made things along with abiotic and biotic processes that interact with these—is fundamental to human life. Without such services as nutrient cycling, climatic and weather variation, interspecific and intraspecific competition, carbon storage, water cleansing and photosynthesis, there would simply be no life on this planet. These services are services only in the sense that we as humans use that word to describe them. The first figure in the MEA clearly shows that services are important to and distinct from human well-being:

The figure clearly differentiates services from human well-being. I will return the question of benefits just below.

But in my mind a service is some kind of biotic or abiotic process applied to natural capital that can be exploited for human benefit.

What is a benefit?

Benefits from ecosystem services do not just occur, with perhaps a couple of exceptions. Human capital—in the form of technology, ideas, money, institutions and leadership—is required to transform those services into benefits which can be defined as “improved condition” or “human well-being”. So, for humans to exploit the naturally occurring ecosystem service of cleansing water, they must divert that water for domestic purposes (sometimes this diversion requires just a small amount of human capital, other times, much more). Potable water is the result of the human capital applied to the service.

Other improved conditions may include production of protein, vitamins, calories and so on for human food, or the view of a beautiful scene resulting from erosional processes. They may be more indirect such as money income accruing to an entrepreneur from exploiting access to pure water in a river by selling river rafting trips. The money income may be used to purchase other benefits or access to other ecosystem-based benefits.

Here I do depart from the MEA a bit. I do not see cultural, aesthetic or recreational values as a service, but as a benefit resulting from certain ecosystem services, such as erosion, plant growth, and so on once human capital has been applied.

Incidentally, benefits may also be direct, such as potable water, or indirect, such as a guide employed by tourists interested in seeing native fauna. In fact, in my experience in dealing with tourism occurring in protected areas, benefits are almost exclusively defined in practice as money income resulting from tourist expenditures. This money income can then be used to enhance human well-being.

So, in sum benefits, in terms of improved conditions result from the application of human capital to the services any given ecosystem provides. This differentiation in no way degrades the importance of ecosystem services in providing the sustaining conditions for human life. Indeed, when such services are degraded, the investments in human capital to restore them are much higher than exploiting them sustainably. We have to invent all kinds of substitutes to ecosystem services, which are likely not so efficient as nature. For example, when water is subject to pollution, that water must be treated through the application of very expensive human capital and technology before it can be used for domestic purposes.

How are benefits from ecosystem-services accessed and distributed to humans?

When ecosystem services result in benefits, there is a question of who receives the benefits, as well as who gets to make this decision. This decision is of incredible political and economic significance. The sharing of benefits from genetic resources has been the subject of debate and discussion for nearly 20 years. An international convention on this issue was one of the primary focal points of the recent Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan. The announced agreement was contentious. The agreement was posed as one on Access and Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources. We will see if the parties to the agreement actually ratify it. The decision on how to distribute benefits has two components: (1) one general dealing with what distribution mechanisms are appropriate and acceptable to any given society; and (2) one more specific dealing with the notion of “sharing” benefits. I will address each component in turn.

In any given society, there are mechanisms for distributing benefits among that particular population. There are always mechanisms, even if those mechanisms result in what some would criticize as being unfair. The notion of fairness underlies many contemporary discussions of benefit distribution. Of course, what is a fair distribution mechanism is often the subject of considerable, and often, acrimonious social discourse.

I believe there are four basic mechanisms. My belief is based on experience in addressing the issue of access to river recreation opportunities in the western United States. In the early 1970s, the managers of many of these rivers (e.g., the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, the Selway and Salmon Rivers in Idaho, the Green and Yampa Rivers in Utah, etc.) began to limit visitor use of those rivers to either protect their biophysical character or to provide an opportunity for certain recreational experiences. Because the demand for these experiences was significantly higher than the use limits implemented, rationing of the limited use was imposed. At the time, I started, with several graduate students, and examination of these use limit policies, rationing and allocation mechanisms, and the various consequences. Other academic colleagues, such as Rich Schreyer, David Lime and Bo Shelby were also involved in parallel lines of inquiry. We quickly found that there is no universally accepted definition of what “fair” is. One river manager may have used one type of rationing mechanism (e.g., a lottery) while another may have used a reservation system.

Our research community found that each mechanism, which in effect was a benefit or access distribution mechanism, affected various groups (the young, the old, those who could plan ahead, those who could not, those who were wealthy, those who had a lot of time) differently and thus definitions of faired varied.

It quickly came to us that there were four methods or approaches of allocation scarce resources, or in this case, benefits based on ecosystem-services. Those mechanisms may be based on equality—every member of the population receives the same portion of the benefits; they may be based on need—members of the population, the disadvantaged for example, may receive larger portions in order to assist in overcoming the disadvantages; they may be based on equity—members of the populations are apportioned benefits based on some measure of their contribution or investment in that population; or they may be based on efficiency—the willingness of members to pay money for access to the benefits (just a note, this is based on some reading I did a long time ago, and I cannot now find the reference). Now at some point, there are decisions made by someone or a group in a society as to which mechanism or set of mechanism will be used. In the case of river recreation in the US West, such decisions were generally made by individual river managers, but were subject to an enormous amount of polemical activity.

Often, we found managers using combinations: a certain portion of the use limit may be rationed through a lottery while another portion would be allocated based on need for example.

Now the same kind of question faces distribution of benefits from ecosystem-based services. Which one, or more realistically, combination, of approaches will be used? How will we make these decisions? Who will make these decisions? Why them? These are important political and social questions that a research program, in total, will need to address.

So, we need to think about the consequences of different decision-making modes, and we need to be specific about those modes. Understanding the consequences, even if it is simply descriptive, without being normative will help us all better assess the costs and benefits of various benefit-sharing approaches.

In my mind, neo-classical economics was focused principally on understanding the social efficiency, narrowly defined as market value, of various decision alternatives. That focus was a major contributor to the evolution of sustainable development as a response, because the focus on efficiency led in many cases to classes of people being marginalized in terms of their access to ecosystem-based benefits. The response developed in a number of fields, including economics, which appears to not only have broadened the its definition of efficiency, but also developed ecological economics as a way of dealing with the focus on efficiency. A focus on efficiency also led to the accumulation of capital which then led to an accumulation of political power, reinforcing the importance of efficiency as a method of distributing benefits.

What is meant by benefit-sharing?

Dominating much of the discussion about ecosystem-based benefits and their distribution has been the notion of sharing. Sharing of benefits is rarely mentioned in the MEA (at least in the synthesis). Page 126 criticizes large dams because the benefits “are rarely shared equitably” with the poor and vulnerable. But what is meant by sharing? Actually, I see two parts to this question: (1) the notion of sharing something; and (2) the notion of equitable sharing, as mentioned in the MEA.

So, lets go through the four mechanisms of distribution as a start. If people receive equal portions, then is this a synonym for “sharing”? It would be, at least for me, if two conditions are met: First, the current system of portioning benefits favors some and not others, that is, some people receive larger portions of a benefit than others. Second, the decision to share is not done coercively, that is those who currently receive larger portions voluntarily relinquish the “extra” to those who currently receive less than others.

If benefits are allocated based on need, would this qualify as sharing? I would think so, as providing assistance to people in need is an important human quality. One person is willing to give up something for those in need or who are vulnerable to shocks. We give something up because simply, this is something we do. We “share” are limited resources so other people can benefit.

If benefits are allocated based on equity, would this be sharing. Here, I think this would not be a definition of sharing, at least as I have defined equity above. The distribution is, one could argue, a return on one’s investment, if measured in terms of human capital inputs. The decision allocated based on inputs, of course, is still a political one. Now the MEA on page 126 refers to sharing as some kind of equity proposition. Perhaps, this term was not used accurately, or perhaps there is an assumption (which does often prove out) that poor and vulnerable people have more investment in ecosystem services. I don’t know which. But, it would be good to find out what is meant by an equitable distribution in the sense of benefit sharing.

If benefit distributions are based on efficiency, then I would think that this is not sharing. Efficiency is fundamentally defined as the highest and best value, as measured by the marketplace. Here, those who have the highest capability/willingness to pay, receive the benefits. This is not sharing in my mind.

These comments imply that sharing is an ethical, voluntary decision in which some people give up something without an expectation of return. Or it may be done in an altruistic belief that society will be better off by sharing benefits equally or to those in need. So, I have just purchased a slice of apple pie, but my friend cannot because there are none left. With little or no expectation that at some point in the future this will be repaid, I voluntarily suggest to him I will share the pie and give him some of the one I purchase. I do this not with an expectation that I will receive some direct return, but in a belief that this is what friends do, that our friendship will be strengthened by this sharing.

Thus, people, who would normally receive larger portions, under an equal distribution system would then be “sharing” with others who formerly did not receive the same amount if they were not coerced to do so. The same could be said about need being a basis for distribution of benefits. So, is coercion a component of the notion of sharing? In other words, if some people are forced to give up some benefits so others can receive larger portions, are they really sharing?

Coercion occurs in many forms, and the hierarchal and distributive approaches described in the Nkhata and others paper could be viewed as forms of coercion. But coercion might also be a characteristic of egalitarian approaches. So, I give up some of my income to pay taxes so others’ children can go to school. These taxes are not voluntary; they are a result of governance processes in which majority rules. People who vote against such taxes are coerced into paying them because if they do not, they will incur severe penalties. The coercion is based on an ethical framework that suggests different mechanisms of benefit distribution are needed to counterbalance the negative consequences of a focus on efficiency.

So here I am with this bit of a discourse trying to sort out in my mind what is meant by services, benefits and benefit sharing. Of course, these are important, and contested, concepts, so a full resolution is not anticipated. But a good discourse and debate on their meanings would help all of us.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What Way Forward for Protected Area Planning?

Given the complexities, wickedness and messiness of contemporary protected area planning that I have described over the past several weeks, and, given the character of a new style of planning that I described, what can we do to forge an effective path to the future? What do we need to do to get there, to implement a holistic style of planning.There are three specific actions we can take that to implement holistic planning. I note here that I am referring to academics and agency personnel—there are other actions, such as dealing with institutional structures, policies and laws, that may also be required.

First, we must frame parks and protected areas as integral components of the social-ecological systems in which they are embedded. We must acknowledge that these very special places are influenced by a variety of processes, trends, stresses and events most of which occur outside their boundaries. But we do not consider those variables as exogenous—they are part of the system that affects parks. By applying systems thinking, we come to a better understanding of the leverage points that influence parks and we apply resources to those points. And by thinking in systems terms we make parks and protected areas more relevant to people at large, for those parks contain natural capital that lead to certain services (such as water purification) that ultimately provide benefits to people. This is a major re-framing of the role of parks and protected areas in society—something I will discuss in future blogs.

Second, we develop a focus on learning in our protected area practice. By this, I mean we treat management as experiments, monitor outcomes, reflect on those outcomes and change management as needed. This is not a new suggestion, many others in the field of natural resources have made similar suggestions. But to practice management as learning, we need to do more than add a checkbox on the management or planning form, we need to cultivate a culture of curiosity, reflection and critical thinking. These are values that must be deeply embedded in protected area organizations, not just used as slogans on brochures and letterheads. Embedding these values will both a while and good leadership.

Third, we develop learning platforms that enhance the technical and professional competencies needed for protected area stewardship. A learning platform would involve at least three components (1) academic instructional and research programs focusing on protected area planning and management at the undergraduate and graduate level; (2) continuing education in contemporary topics confronting protected areas based on adult learning principles; and (3) implementation of a community of practice to provide opportunities for dialogue, raise questions, construct management approaches and most importantly build confidence among managers.

With protected areas subject to a wide variety of stresses and with important recognition of their role in protecting the globe’s remaining biodiversity, we need (1) new approaches to planning and management, (2) cadres of managers holding the professional competencies required for 21st century stewardship, (3) universities providing new knowledge about how these systems operate, and (4) respect for the traditional forms of knowledge that have in large part got us here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Third Wave of Protected Area Planning

Over the last couple of weeks I have built a case for rethinking the way planning for protected areas moves forward. In those weeks, I suggested that not only are protected areas confronted with the hurricane like forces of global change but also that planners and managers are ill-prepared to deal with them. I noted that our current dominant paradigm of planning, based on rational-comprehensive planning, is both inadequate and inappropriate in this environment. I mentioned that in two previous “waves” of planning, certain assumptions about the character of the world dominated, but now a new and third wave of planning is required with a different set of assumptions.

In the Third Wave of protected area planning, planners assume the world to be significantly different: it is one that is dynamic, impossible to completely understand, complex, and ever-changing. These characteristics mean that the challenges confronting protected areas are messy more than they are tame. In these situations, planning serves as a means of communication, linking governance and management systems, transferring and translating societal preferences to managers and providing feedback to governance as to the experience of management (Nkhata and McCool, in press). These authors argue that planning facilitates

“… development of social competencies needed to adapt to the complex, ever-changing and uncertain conditions of protected areas. It does this by providing a mid-scale process that affords venues for transmitting and interpreting information developed at the governance level to the management level. Such a process identifies the various interests the public holds in a protected area, the trade-offs involved in managing for those values, and the actions needed to protect desired values and futures. In so doing, planning establishes direction and provides for the creation of the shared understandings required for responding to societal demands.”

In the world of the 21st century, the basic aim of planning remains the same as it has always been—changing the future. However, beyond that, the Third Wave of protected area planning is not simply the application of knowledge, the production of a plan, or an assessment of threats, risks and opportunities confronting protected areas. Planning in an age of turbulence requires integration of four fundamental tasks in order to maintain this original aim.

Building Technical Proficiencies

Conventional planning for protected areas has often been conducted by consultants or specialized planning bureaucracies within an organization. In this approach to planning, experts arrive on a planning scene, conduct their analyses, write a plan, send it off and receive a paycheck. In many cases, there is little interaction with protected area staff. These plans tend to be grandiose, comprehensive and expensive. They frequently assume the organization holds the legal, financial and technical capacity to implement them. They largely ignore the complex set of forces that stress protected areas. Plans developed in central bureaus and by consultants play lip service to the notion of community engagement, managerial participation, and implementation.

As a result, managers not only have little ownership in the plan, they probably also hold a barely modest understanding of how the plan was developed, why it contains the actions it does, and less even of how it should be implemented. The overwhelming result is that plans sit on the shelf, managers are frustrated as well as lacking the technical proficiencies and confidence needed for implementation, affected publics are disappointed and the agency or its donor is poorer. Compartmentalization of planning and management builds divides that cannot easily be bridged.

At the same time, the lack of technical proficiencies in protected area management is generally recognized as a significant obstacle to biodiversity protection and to providing high quality opportunities for visitor experiences . Planning can be viewed as an exercise in developing expertise through carefully crafted processes where competent planners and consultants play the roles of coach and facilitator. By involving managers and staff directly in the process, technical competencies are built, learning occurs, ownership is created and a more realistic, if modest, plan is developed and implemented.

Constructing Public Interests

Protected area managers have responsibilities to ensure that the public interests in protected areas are sustained; however, constructing such interests in contentious, complex settings often require negotiation among multiple voices expressing goals that are simultaneously both shared and conflicting. Conflicting goals are not only characteristic of many protected area planning situations, but also form the core of the arguments about constructing management that sustains the values, services and benefits for which these areas were designated.

At one level, it would seem that resolving conflicts in goals requires simply identifying and clarifying the public interest in protected areas. Although the language contained in the legislation or administrative decree establishing the protected area offers clues to this interest, its suitability for providing guidance to management is limited by two factors. First, such language typically is vague and abstract, lacking detail and explicit definition about the conditions deemed appropriate or the values protected in the area. For example, the U.S. National Park Act of 1916 requires national parks to be administered in part for the “benefit of future generations”. What specific benefits to be secured for which generations are questions that are not addressed in this legislation, and thus left for site managers to resolve. But managerial resolution alone privileges expertise and disciplinary biases and perspectives at the cost of other viewpoints and value systems which may be more consistent with the notions behind the legislation.

Second, the idea that such legislative language provides insight into the public interest is flawed because there is no single, unitary voice in societies that are as pluralistic as those of today (Pierce, Steger, Steel, & Lovrich, 1992; Rothman, 1979; Schubert, 1960). Management is left with the question of determining which voice represents the authoritative directive. Indeed, such legislative language itself often represents the results of societal deliberation and a compromise among competing interests. In reality, the “public interest” is a transitory phenomenon, shifting in response to changes in the power and importance of contending interests (Schubert, 1960). In other words, there is no single public interest; this proposition thus requires a search for planning direction driven by the need to frame a working approximation of consensus not only among plural interests, but among multiple, often dissenting, scientific perspectives as well.

Planning can then be viewed as a process of identifying and constructing the public interests in a particular protected area. Such processes, to be truly legitimate, credible and useful, must then involve a variety of publics working in partnership (McCool 2009) to explicate interests, find common grounds and address their incompatibilities. Often it is said that competing interests must be balanced—as in balancing the local and national interests, balancing conservation and development, and so on. However, in my judgment what is required is integration of interests rather than balancing. Balancing assumes that interests are competing, conflicting and incompatible.

Integrating interests means finding ways to accommodate each interest—as long as it is legitimate under the area’s organic legislation—in some way. In many cases, this may require identifying primary and secondary objectives, compromising on one to a point, then compromising on another. This process is at the heart of the Limits of Acceptable Change process which is used in many protected areas to manage visitor use.

Focus on Learning

For protected areas embedded in complex, dynamic and contentious situations, cause-effect relationships are typified by temporal and spatial discontinuities, and linkages frequently demonstrate a probabilistic rather than a deterministic character. In these situations, the system is termed “loosely-coupled.” Tightly coupled systems are those with linkages that are highly time dependent and invariant in terms of sequences of actions (Perrow 1999). They lack capacity to tolerate delays and are rigidly structured in terms of how objectives are achieved. The social-ecological systems embedding protected areas tend to be of the former type: there are a variety of means of achieving objectives, there are often temporal delays between actions and consequences (such as, tourism promotion and increases in visitation), and sequences for actions are often unknown or make little difference in outcomes. In loosely coupled systems, relationships between causes and effects, for example, recreation-setting attributes and visitor experiences, are only probabilistic. That is, managers provide only the opportunity (through manipulation of settings) for visitors to experience certain outcomes; they do not determine what those outcomes will be. The delays and the second- and third-order effects make understanding system processes and implementing effective management actions difficult, simply because of the complex relationships existing between causes and effects. Thus, loosely coupled systems are not only difficult to understand, but challenging to manage.

Normally, learning is characterized as understanding links between causes and effects, evaluating them and responding accordingly. Because protected area planning is a “messy” problem, the mental models (Senge 1990) used to organize learning and behavior in the real world not only have to change, but must remain adaptive in response to social change and new knowledge.

As Argyris and Schon (1978) argue, there are two results here: (1) the linkages between causes and effects can be confirmed and/or (2) there are unintended consequences (surprises). . To Argyris and Schon (1978), learning involves the “detection and correction of error”, normally understood as making connections between actions and their consequences. However, because of the loosely coupled character of protected areas this “single-loop” learning is not adequate. Argyris (1976) contends that learning must be “double-looped”, focused not only on understanding cause-effect relationships but also the variables that govern the operation of the system:

Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.

Single-loop learning is acceptable and appropriate in situations where there is agreement on goals and policies, but where disagreement or uncertainty exists, planning must focus on understanding how the larger system functions. Creating an environment for encouraging double-loop learning then becomes an enormous challenge, but can be facilitated by sharing control of learning processes and by participation in design and implementation of actions (Argyris1976).

Moreover, learning has a strategic dimension: anticipating alternative futures and building strategies to deal with them. An important approach in dealing with the messy situations confronting protected area managers is to think about possible future scenarios and develop strategies that will facilitate achieving goals across scenarios.

While protected area organizations incorporate new biological knowledge into management plans (e.g., U.S. Forest Service moving from fire suppression to fire management once it was understood that fire was a natural process in western U.S. situations), they typically have had more difficulty in sensing and responding to changes in the social and political environment. In the past, this occurred because systems thinking has progressed further in the biophysical domain than it has in the social domain

Without learning, organizations are unable to effectively anticipate and respond to the changing demands expressed by development of new constituencies and emerging alliances with varying preferences. These environments require management strategies focused on learning.

Application of knowledge

Managers and planners bring to a planning situation their technical and procedural expertise. Scientists contribute specialized knowledge about ecological or sociological processes and conditions, the effects of management actions, and the presence of unique or valuable species or values. Members of the public demand that socially important questions be addressed, force higher quality research, and provide emotional, anecdotal, and political knowledge that defines the acceptable decision space. These forms of knowledge, both formal and informal, are all need to address protected area issues, for as Freidmann (1973) acknowledged action in society requires multiple actors in a variety of roles.

The deliberation that results from the integration of different forms of knowledge and perspectives leads to an enhanced understanding of the protected area system. The dialogue resulting from the intersection of multiple forms of knowledge forms the basis for the learning mentioned earlier and eventually a consensus on a way forward. Learning in the context of planning thus is a complex endeavor itself and requires attention to secure it. This learning is based on dialogue among the diverse interests and perspectives involved, and thus at a more operational level, venues and agendas need to be designed to encourage dialogue and active involvement in learning (Walker and Daniels 1996).

Because in messy situations goals are in conflict, competing, or ambiguous, knowledge cannot be applied to change the future. Planning must then be focused on building a consensus about how to apply knowledge in implementing an appropriate direction. By consensus, I mean a grudging agreement exists among constituencies, a willingness to accept a plan of action even if there is not a preference for it. Building consensus is a fundamental condition to mobilizing societal resources to protect values or secure goals of public interest. In addition, since there is considerable uncertainty in cause-effect relationships, partnerships must be focused on creating venues that encourage dialogue and learning.

Next week, I will talk about some ways forward to reach this new third wave of planning.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Global Forces Require New Thinking about Planning

Last week, I related how large scale globally significant forces are influencing protected areas and our ability to provide careful stewardship of them. I did not include two other forces that occasionally have affects on protected areas: (1) human disease; and (2) natural and human caused disasters. In both cases, these are serious issues demanding our both immediate and long-term attention. Diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria impact various regions of the world, and particularly affect the capacity of individuals to engage in their work, and in some cases have major affects on a conservation agency’s ability to meet its objectives. Likewise, disasters occur throughout the world, if we have learned anything, is that we need to build resilience into our systems at various scales, household, community, nation, in order to cope with the disaster and its immediate after affects.

As serious as these two things are, they play out on the landscape in a relatively patchy pattern, with varying intensities and causes. They are very dissimilar in their effects compared to the forces I mentioned in the previous blog. While we need to attend to them, and be prepared for them, we can do this best through attending these other processes which change the way in which we think, frame issues, and respond to them.

So to return to the discussion of last time. Let’s start about thinking about why we plan. The basic purpose of planning is to change the future. Briefly, planners must do three distinctive tasks: (1) frame the problem or issue they are confronted with; (2) develop and assess responses to these problems; and (3) implement actions. Conventional planning is simply no longer adequate for these three tasks . In terms of framing problems, conventional planning often views problems and issues as isolated events, when in actuality they derive from underlying trends, structures or even paradigms. In terms of developing and assessing responses to contemporary challenges, we often find that planning processes assume there is scientific agreement on relationships between causes and effects and assuming society agrees on goals. If such assumptions are true, then problems are tame. Unfortunately, as described last week, the world is complex, dynamic, contentious and changing; science often harbors disagreements about the relationships between causes and effects, and society, even for protected areas, frequently disagrees over goals, leading to wicked problems and messy situations. Planning processes appropriate for tame problems are not so for messy situations.

Finally, conventional planning views building plans and implementing them as distinctly separate activities performed by different actors. Essentially, conventional planning has separated thinking from action, knowledge from deeds, and assessment from performance. Compartmentalization cannot work in this new world.

Bardwell (1991) notes that often contemporary natural resource problems are defined in such a manner that they cannot be solved, solve the wrong problem, solve solutions, or define the problem in such a way it cannot be solved. Indeed, natural resource problems are so wicked and messy that describing and framing the problem at hand requires a substantial amount of resources and effort to understand them prior to taking any action, a difficult task in a society that values immediacy, sound bites, and instant gratification. Recognizing that many of these problems are wicked and messy is a first step in framing problems.

There have been numerous responses to the failures of plans and planning: increased public engagement has been a hallmark of many such responses; legislating procedures and environmental assessments have been others. But many of these responses, applied in planning’s second wave, were viewed and used as simply “add ons” to planning processes that were fatally flawed to begin with. Adding more check boxes to these processes did not necessarily make them better, more effective or even efficient; in fact, often they were viewed as procedures that simply made planning more labor intensive, cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive. The capacity of the planners themselves to conduct these new processes was often limited because of their backgrounds.

So what we need is a dramatic change in how we conceive of planning. We will discuss that next time.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Winds of Change Confront Protected Areas

After a long absence, I have returned to my blog. Travel, work, and a family death kept me away. I do hope to update the blog at least every other week from now. I have written a lot about how complex the situations are that confront protected area managers. In today’s blog, which is borrowed from a paper I was scheduled to give in Taiwan in early August, I outline the reasons for this complexity. In future blogs, I will more directly address how we can respond.

Protected areas like many other areas of human life are buffeted by the winds of change sweeping the globe. These winds, are not mere breezes, but approach hurricane strength, and like a hurricane, come in many directions with unanticipated effects. These changes were popularly described in Alvin Toffler’s bestselling book of 1980 “The Third Wave”. In it, he suggested that the dominant, industrial society characterizing the Second Wave of human development was being increasingly challenged by a Third Wave, triggered primarily by the development of electronic and digital technology and the development of an “information society”. The Third Wave meant new norms, paradigms and ways of doing things; these clashed with and would eventually supplant the industrial Second Wave just as surely as it had replaced the agrarian based First Wave.

We know now that Toffler’s commentary was accurate, if simplified. The winds of change are far more complex, turbulent and unpredictable than perhaps even he realized. There appear to be seven major directions of change, each interacting with the others to produce unknowing and often surprising consequences. Figure 1 shows these seven sources of change.

Climate change, and the uncertainty it brings with it is increasingly the subject of research and debate, if not action. Whether the globe is warming or cooling, whether the cause is natural or anthropogenic, climatic changes typify today’s world, in some cases potentially endangering the natural capital situated within protected areas. Assuming for the moment that the IPCC (2007) scientists are correct, we can expect some significant changes in the natural capital upon which life on earth as we know it depends. In some cases, such as rising sea levels, human life may be directly threatened; in other cases we may see the disappearance of some species and the relocation of others. Building an extensive system of protected areas can provide some measure of resilience for the human community.

A second source of change involves human population dynamics, of which several dimensions are critical to the future of protected areas. First, and most obvious, is population growth. The global population now stands at about 6.9 billion, and will likely top 9 billion by 2050. An increase of 28% in the human population will stretch, to understate, our ability to provide needed food, housing, medical care and education to say nothing of the demand on natural resources. While climate change may impact protected areas, simple growth of population and resulting needs for goods and services may endanger them. As the standard of living in large, heavily populated countries such as India and China rises, demand for resources to supply goods and services will increase, in many cases dramatically. The fight to conserve the values lying within protected areas will likely increase in intensity. In places such as the United States where components of its protected area system lie within areas classified as wilderness—where no resource extraction is allowed—one can only envision dramatic political, social and cultural conflict over access to those areas.

Aging of the population will shift demand for the types of experiences expected when visitors engage protected areas, shifting from more active experiences to more passive, but appreciative ones. Aging populations will require increased, and expensive health care, leading to increased competition for government funds. Choices between funding for health care and stewardship of protected areas likely will become more frequent and competitive. Diseases—such as HIV/AIDS—attack younger members of the workforce, sapping protected area agencies of skilled workforces and requiring financial support for health care (Cash and McCool 2007).

Another trend of global significance involves powerful and continuing advances in technology. Technology does not change linearly but geometrically as machines created by older technology are used to develop new technology which is then used to create even newer technology (Kurzweil 2006). Technological advances have helped us better understand and map biodiversity values, develop comprehension of how human activity impacts the environment and manage the people who visit protected areas.

A fourth significant trend concerns changing models of governance. Democracy—in all its flavors—has become a global trend, with authoritarian, single party governments headed by “Big Men” falling in favor of multi-party open and inclusive governments. While this trend is countered in some regions by rising fundamentalism which views religion as the basis for governance, the world is more democratic than it has ever been. This tendency is mirrored in protected areas with growing interest and experimentation with management more inclusive—and community-influenced than ever before.

Our awareness of human impact on the environment has never been higher than now, and our willingness to do something about it—the greening of the economy, the strive for renewable energy sources, the rising concern about sustainability—has also increased dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century. This green dimension suggests enhanced political and social support for protected areas and conservation, growing interest in the services ecosystems provide and the benefits that result, and a willingness to commit funding to the sustainability of the biodiversity upon which we depend.

A sixth trend reflects a shift, closely associated with governance, toward public decision making that is more transparent and accountable. People want to understand how a decision was made—and its rationale—as well as desiring to hold governments and their bureaucracies accountable for these decisions. This suggests some major changes in the process of decision making that promote notions of inclusiveness, representativeness, a sense of responsibility or ownership.

A final trend concerns the ongoing restructuring of the economic foundations of particular countries. In developed nations, this restructuring involves a transition from an industrial based economy to one that is service and knowledge based. In more agrarian situations, the trend reflects a shift from agriculture to manufacturing. Both trends are associated with changes in the length of the work day and work week, number and distribution of holidays and amount of paid vacation time and other benefits that affect the amount and distribution of demand for nature-based recreation.

These trends, sometimes contradictory, sometimes synergistic, always compelling, lead to a number of implications for protected area stewardship. First, protected area decisions are far more complex and contentious than they have been, reflecting the higher economic stakes in the alternatives being considered. Alternatives represent pathways to a future, which we can refer to as a public interest, but there are many public interests, which are both overlapping and competing. In this era of complexity and contentiousness, each carries significant consequences, and thus the stakes are high.

Second, the demands and expectations society places on protected areas are accelerating and growing in diversity, reflecting multiple public interests and mounting pressures for both economic utilitization and biodiversity protection. Increasingly, the services ecosystems provide are recognized by contemporary society and combined with population dynamics indicate not only diversifying demands, but increasing and conflicting ones as well.

Third, the vulnerability of human populations directly dependent on the services the natural capital protected in parks, wilderness and wild landscapes is increasing. These populations are often among some of the poorest on earth; changes in the amount, temporal and spatial distribution and kind of ecosystem services exposes them to a variety of risks. Vulnerable populations will require attention to help build their resiliency in the face of change and surprise.

Finally, the collision of these various trends, operating at varying scales and paces means that we face increased volatility, making the delivery of services and benefits provided by protected areas increasingly unpredictable, dynamic, and changing.

These trends and implications demand that the conventional approaches to planning of the past be replaced by strategies and frameworks more appropriate to a complex, uncertain and contentious world. Conventional approaches to planning assumed that the world is predictable, linear, understandable and stable. But current events indicate otherwise:

• Volcanic ash shuts down airports in Europe, leading to the cancellation of 100,00 flights, with enormous financial and economic consequences

• The U.S. stock market on May 6 drops nearly 1000 points in a few minutes for apparently no reason (the “flash crash), then nearly completely recovers minutes later

• A small hole in a pipe 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean 50 miles from shore leads to the most devastating environmental disaster in U.S. history

• A bolt on a highway bridge fails. Leading to collapse of the structure and death to many

Protected areas are not immune to this situation:

• The U.S. Forest Service fire suppression policy for national forests, in effect for 75 years, leads to increased risk of catastrophic fires, in complete opposition to its intended effect

• The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992, has failed to prompt parties to the convention to achieve protection of biodiversity, goals agreed to by all state’s parties (Butchart and others 2010)

• Attempts to reduce impacts at backcountry campsites by closing them result in greater impacts.

• Limiting use to provide greater opportunities for solitude in wilderness, results in increased congestion and decreased visitor satisfaction in some areas.

All of these incidents, and many others, have been the subjects of many planning exercises, but in the words of Aaron Wildavsky, “Planning fails everywhere it is attempted” (1973). In many cases, the failures are not due to some operational defect, such as a lack of data, not enough information, an incorrect procedure, but rather to systemic or structural problems with the planning process itself. These problems have been detailed elsewhere by a variety of authors, but rise from fundamental views of planning as a predominantly scientific, technical exercise requiring the application of expertise.

Friday, April 23, 2010

If a Plan is a Document, then Planning must be Writing

Well, its been a bit of a hiatus as I have been pretty busy working on a few projects. I doing so, I started thinking about what our plans actually represent.

If you ask planners, whether city planners, highway planners, or protected area planners, what is meant by plan and planning, you will probably receive as many definitions as there are individuals you ask. Many of the responses will likely focus on planning as the application of science and technical expertise to solving a problem—a definition derived from the early 20th century development of progressive thought in America. In the progressive era, many attempted to separate policy from implementation to reduce graft, corruption and undue influence of politics on problem solving. As a result, solutions were felt to be the domain of scientists and experts, people neutral or disinterested in the outcome of the solution.

This attempt to separate politics from planning gave rise to two fundamental illusions: (1) that problems were primarily technical rather than social and political in character; and (2) scientists and other experts were objective, unbiased and neutral investigators. The former illusion lead to planning being perceived as something totally within the domain of experts—people holding specialized, and often quantitatively derived knowledge, about the subject, whether it was urban development, highways or parks. Normal people, those impacted by plans, were implicitly assumed incapable of understanding the complex equations, technical language, and modeling inherent of many planning projects. Such normal people, could at most, provide some insights into society’s preferences, which were often ignored because the conflicted with the mathematical models planners used.

At the same time, the second illusion gave scientists in particular a pre-eminent and priviledged position in society. By definition, if one held the title of scientist or had the initials Ph. D. after their name, it was assumed that their statements were objective assessments of the situation. The general public was not aware that to become a scientist or hold a Ph.D., that certain paradigms and protocols must be followed. If one followed protocols different than what was suggested by the dominant paradigm, then it would be difficult to attain doctoral status. Thus, scientists, when it comes to indicating a preference for one action over another for a socially important problem are no more qualified than the general public. They are qualified, in their narrow range of specialty to model the relationship between causes and effects.

But the assumption of homogeneity of scientists on social problems is one that is frequently revealed in contested issues, where each side hires scientists to promote a particular perspective, to indicate the evidence suggests one course of action is “better” than another. An example of the lack of objectivity and assumption of homogeneity occurred in the now forgotten EIS for re-establishment of grizzly bears in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness lying astride the Montana-Idaho border. In the EIS process, a group of wildlife scientists became dissatisfied with the various alternatives being proposed and developed a “science” alternative, as if the other alternatives were not based in science. The science alternative made that assumption and the assumption that all scientists agree on this proposed set of actions. Finally, the presence of a science alternative broke all presumptions of neutrality, objectivity and disinterest and demonstrated that science is as vested and exclusive as other interests.

But plans fail, as noted policy analyst Aaron Wildavsky once argued, everywhere they are tried. And one reason for these failures is simply plans that were developed from an emphasis on writing versus an emphasis on understanding.

Well, what has this extensive diversion got to do with plans and planning? If a plan is a technical scientific document then it is written, and the writing becomes paramount. Now this approach to plans and planning dominated, and continues to do so, protected area stewardship in the 20th century. As such, plans reflect science and technical expertise, which are not necessarily consonant with social preferences. There are good and sound reasons for incorporating science and expertise into plans—science does provide useful knowledge, builds awareness of alternative pathways to the future, helps society evaluate which pathways may best suit its needs, and warns of hidden dangers of selecting one pathway or another. But science is not the only form of knowledge useful to society. Personal and social experience is another way of knowing, and often fills the many gaps left by scientific investigation. Spiritual beliefs are another way of knowing, and along with moral and ethical frameworks helps people make choices among competing alternatives.

A plan built solely by technicians and scientists will be devoid of these sources of knowledge yet provides an illusion that the information contained within them is objective and “true”. So planning is more than writing. It involves debate about the future and what it might be like; it involves close and intimate discussion how different futures might affect different people, how alternative pathways might affect varying groups, and which pathway best meets concerns about equity, equality and efficiency. Planning involves constructing a shared vision of the future, building the skills to navigate difficult pathways to that future, assembling the resources—human, natural, social—required for following that pathway, and erecting governance and institutional systems and structures to monitor progress, overcome unanticipated obstacles and pass on messages to the future. So this is what planning involves, and it’s a different question as to what a plan is.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Protected Areas and Dynamic Complexity

Our house remodel is almost done. We have redone the dining room, kitchen and family room as well as the deck outside. Its been a major project, but it has fixed up our long-ignored house. That process has reinforced the notion of dynamic complexity, a characteristic of many systems we deal with on a day to day basis.

An example: the countertop fabricator forgets to drill a hole in the countertop for a code-required vent, a small mistake indeed, one that involves only about 15 minutes of time out of several hundred hours of work involved in the remodel. However, that forgetfulness leads to the plumber not being able to finish his job under the sink, and as a result, the electrician cannot complete the wiring needed for the garbage disposal. So, rather than come out for just the completion of the garbage disposal, the electrician waits, meaning that other electrical needs go unfinished. This in turn leads to further delays in completion of other jobs.

While a house remodel may indeed represent a dynamically complex system, it’s at a scale we can easily relate to. But think about a protected area, potentially comprising tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of hectares, rivers, forests, grasslands, animals, birds, insects, mountains, valleys, cliffs, lakes and swamps. That system most likely includes visitors, in some cases, hundreds of thousands, roads, trails, perhaps visitor centers, accommodation, a restaurant, or several, bathrooms, water supplies, administrative facilities, sewage disposal and so on. Many protected areas may also have farmers, pastoralists, vendors and people living within them. These are indeed complex systems, and changes in any one of these attributes may have tremendous, and unpredictable impacts throughout the system.

My friend and colleague Charles Breen has argued that the complexity of the systems we deal with today have grow dramatically, and non-linearly, from what we had to deal with in the past—the growing interconnectedness represented by geopolitics, economic globalization, international travel, climate change. However, many of our solutions come from the past, solutions that were both socially acceptable and effective in solving problems. These solutions while once working are neither acceptable nor effective for the complexity we live in today. One of the challenges, Charles has noted, is that we may not be willing to tackle the complexity of today with solutions that are effective—that is as complexity grows, so must our willingness to engage it.

So, the simple solutions required in the past to address visitor problems, carrying capacity for example, simply are not going to be effective in a much more complex system, where the relationship between causes and effects, largely unknown, are not linearly related. And, the notion of “solutions” may not be appropriate. Solutions imply answers—but answers only come about if we (1) understand the question and (2) understand the system. Our systems are simply too complex in many cases for a complete understanding.

Perhaps what we come up with are resolutions—which is agreement—on how to address a particular issue. Agreements imply that things can change, indeed will in a complex system, so a problem, as Russell Ackoff argued, never stays solved. So perhaps we engage people with a diversity of backgrounds, expertise, interest and experience in developing the resolutions to complex protected area challenges.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What can we do to secure sustainable sources of funding for protected area stewardship?

In my last blog, I began by discussing the impossible expectations now being thrust on protected areas—they are growing in size and diversity. I ended up by suggesting that depending upon tourism to finance protected area stewardship was unrealistic on both philosophical and practical grounds. Expecting one use to support the stewardship of areas that provide a diversity of services and benefits leads to unrealistically high entrance and user fees, empowers one economic use and limits a sense of ownership of the citizens who ultimately benefit from protected areas.

In one sense, this issue can be partly resolved through more comprehensive programs of conservation that extend beyond the boundaries of protected areas. Broader conservation efforts lead to greater citizen involvement and awareness of the importance of conservation, more equitable access to ecosystem services and benefits and a higher quality of life. This all means that we decrease our reliance on protected areas as the source of ecosystem services and benefits.

Of course, this is a long term strategy. What can we do in the short term to develop sustainable financing mechanisms. Well, one way is for governments to market services and benefits that flow from protected areas. Such services as production of clean water, for example, could be sold in a marketplace so that those who benefit from this service would pay for it. By taxing transactions in the marketplace, governments could secure funding that would help pay for stewardship. This might work, but for a large number of protected areas, the flow of services and benefits might be too small to generate significant revenue.

Another mechanism might be to tax natural resource consumption—say wood, fiber, minerals—and to place the revenues in a trust or fund for stewardship purposes. Stewardship would emphasize conservation and use of renewable resource commodities, reducing pressures on protected areas.

A third mechanism might be to charge fees directly to users, but this would probably end up being a fee on tourism and visitation, as it is the most significant economic activity taking place within most protected areas. Another approach to taxing touristic activity would be to place a sales tax on certain purchases—lodging, food, transportation—near the protected area. Revenues would go to stewardship. In Montana, where I live, there is no statewide sales tax, but tourism dependent communities are allowed under state law to tax “luxury” items. The revenues from these taxes go to improve community infrastructure or to property tax relief.

A fourth mechanism is to fund management from the government’s general fund, monies raised from taxes, fees and duties. This is the way funding now occurs in many places, but changes in priorities have tended to reduce this funding source over time.

As I write this, it seems to me that there is no easy way, no silver bullet, no magic pill for sustainable funding of protected areas. Now, I am sure that thousands of reports, studies, queries and audits have been written about this issue. But they seem to have been ineffective, as we are still confronted with this issue? Why? Why can’t we come up with some good alternatives for sustainable funding? Is it a matter of our own creativity? Is it a matter of not understanding the consequences? Or is it a matter of political will?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Growing and diversifying expectations for protected areas: Are they too high?

If there is one trend that has typified the relationship between society and its protected areas it is the growing demands and broadening expectations for the services and benefits based on the natural capital preserved within them. Originally established on a foundation of scenery protection, recovery of wildlife populations and preservation of landscapes from human development, the world’s storehouse of parks and other similar areas have experienced diversifying demands:

• they have become sources of genetic resources, potentially providing useful and effective medicines for human health,

• they are increasingly recognized as buffers against climate change,

• poverty stricken areas increasingly view them as engines of economic development and as ways of enhancing their quality of life,

• they are to serve as models of democratic governance, and

• they should provide opportunities to learn about the natural world and our impact upon it.

This partial list is quite significant. But are we up to meeting these expectations? The diversification of expectations has grown rapidly, far outpacing our ability—in terms of technical aspects and in terms of institutions—to competently address them. Government budgets for protection are generally declining; in the U.S., agencies such as the Forest Service, have lost a lot of their staffs as the federal government has changed its priorities for funding. This loss of staff has reduced the agency’s capabilities to manage publicly administered lands for these growing purposes.

In response to diversifying and growing demands in combination with declining funding, agencies have increasingly turned to tourism as a method of financing management. Tourism is probably the dominant economic use of protected areas. Revenues from visitors, such as fees, charges and taxes, can become sources of revenue directed toward management. Indirect revenue from taxes and fees on visitor expenditures outside of protected areas can also contribute to management. For example, in the state of Montana in the U.S., a portion of the taxes on use of overnight accommodations regardless of their location goes to fund management of state parks and to the state Historical Society for maintenance of local signs.

Now, I believe tourism should pay its way: the increased costs of management of a protected area for visitation, particularly for recreational purposes, should be borne by those inducing those costs. But many agencies are looking for tourism to pay for all management costs. This orientation is problematic for several reasons.

First, protected areas are designed to benefit all of society, not just particular segments. When only segment finances the management for all of society two things happen: (1) that segment will exercise more and more power over management decisions; and (2) the remaining components of society may lose a sense of “ownership” or responsibility for the area. The second consequence is dangerous in the long run as it will eventually lead to, I fear, a disassociation of society and environmental protection.

Second, as fees are raised to generate revenue to cover management costs, those unable to pay cannot visit the park. This is not an unfounded fear. In South Africa, entrance fees (termed a “conservation fee) to Kruger National Park range up to $20 US per day for international visitors, and average about $5 US per day per person for South African citizens. This fee structure has a tremendous influence on visitation patterns: the vast majority of visitors to Kruger are international visitors who can afford the entrance fee. The revenues from tourism, including profits from accommodation and food pay for the entire management costs of Kruger.

A typical South African family of 5 would thus pay $25 per day for entrance into the park in comparison to the U.S. average of about $20 per week per vehicle.

Third, structuring fees so that visitors subsidize management reflects a philosophy that only individuals benefit from the protected areas not society as a whole. Yet, the fundamental purpose of protection is to ensure a continuing, sustainable flow of services and benefits is provided to society.

So, finding money is a big problem, and finding it in a way that does not conflict with the goals of protection is also a big problem, one that is value laden in character. What is needed is a framework to structure our thinking about how we can solve these problems. More on this later.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Couple of Common Systems Underlying Protected Area Problems

Its been a couple of weeks since I have been able to post, as we have started on a significant remodel of our home. Basically, the family and dining rooms and kitchen have been gutted and will be replaced with a totally new design and interior. Our main outside deck is also being replaced. That work, and living upstairs has kept me occupied.

But last time, I spoke about systems thinking, and mentioned the idea of a ‘fixes that fail’ system. This is one of the systems that characterizes protected area planning and management. Basically, in a fixes that fails system, an action is implemented that has side effects occurring after a delay that were unintended. These side effects counterbalance the primary effect of the original “fix”. I had mentioned campsite closures in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as an example, which is graphically represented here. Such closures, based on an event-oriented perspective, resulted in more impact, not less. Another example, is the long established Forest Service fire suppression policy. That policy viewed each naturally occurring fire as an event, and not part of a larger, and dynamic, ecosystem process. As a result, fire suppression led to accumulated fuels, which in a drought increased risk of fire and thus led to larger, more intense fires, just the opposite of what was intended. Now that policy has been changed, but the fact remains that it took nearly 75 years for the delay between fire suppression and fuel accumulation to be recognized.

Another common system plaguing protected areas is a ‘shifting the burden’ system. In this system, a problem has several potential solutions. Decision makers select a symptomatic solution because it appears to be effective and has an apparent time frame advantage over a more fundamental solution. Upon implementation, the solution turns out to have a number of unintended side effects, one of which is to solve only symptoms, not the problem itself. One could say that problem displacement represents a shifting the burden solution—see figure. Numerous examples of this occur in protected areas, such as limiting visitor use (one group or type of visitor always is discriminated against, and thus shoulders the burden).

The lesson here is understanding that there is a system underlying the problem that one sees. Knee jerk reactive management can make things worse or lead to consequences neither intended nor desired.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More on Systems Thinking and Protected Areas

A couple of weeks ago, I noted the importance of thinking differently about the challenges and opportunities confronting protected areas. I noted that we address many park and protected area problems in a way that suppresses them in one place, but results in them moving somewhere else. This problem displacement process may lead to problems being moved from one park, protected area or wilderness to another which has less capacity—financial, legal, technical—to deal with the problem. In essence, the problem has not been solved, only moved around, much like the children’s game of Whac a Mole that I mentioned a while back. In some cases, the problem is made worse when it is moved.

The Whac a Mole approach to management and planning represents a view of the world driven primarily by responding to events, without diving deeper to better understand what drives those problems. Understanding where problems come from, our paradigms of the world, the structures and processes that result from them means that we need to look first at our organization. I was involved a number of years ago in a workshop on wilderness character, specifically what the phrase “primitive and unconfined character” could mean. This phrase, as many of you know, identifies a principal characteristic of wilderness visitor experiences. During the workshop, we went through an exercise to determine what factors in the managerial, social and biophysical setting would serve to reduce opportunities for visitors to experience these characteristics—things such as high use densities, regulations on visitors, presence of incompatible uses. Nearly all of the factors identified were a function of management! The conclusion was that if federal wilderness management agencies wanted to improve the quality of visitor experiences, they first needed to look at what management actions and policies they employed.

Thus, we, as managers, academics, even activists, are often the source of problems, challenges, as well as important and innovative opportunities. But we will never be able to successfully address these with an event-driven approach, an approach that excludes self-critical examination, or approaches that put the burden on others without understanding the underlying system, the important elements of it, the reinforcing or balancing nature of the relationships between these elements or the delays between causes and effects.

This was graphically illustrated for me when I prepared a presentation for a regional wilderness management workshop several years ago. In that workshop illustrated the negative consequences of event-oriented thinking at the basis for a common backcountry management technique. Wilderness and backcountry managers are frequently confronted with unacceptable levels of biophysical impacts at campsites. A commonly used response is to close campsites. This is exactly the strategy Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness managers used during the 1970s to control impacts in the Big Creek Lake basin. After several years of monitoring, researchers found an increase in impacts rather than the decrease they expected. Why?

The increase resulted from new campsites created by visitors obeying the closure and by other visitors continuing to use the closed campsites. This process is known as a “fixes that fail” type of system-management actions that result in unanticipated consequences leading to exactly the opposite effect than intended. Fixes that fail typify much our action, and occur because we don’t understand the system that is functioning in the particular situation. They are often the result of good faith, but event-oriented responses.

So, to implement systems thinking, and improve the efficacy of our management, we need to think at larger scales, to avoid moving problems around and implementing actions that make the situation worse. We need start thinking about what is the system operating, about the holism and about integrating different disciplines and forms of knowledge.

We will take this up next week.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Is conservation entering a new era?

I had planned this week to discuss in additional depth application of systems thinking to protected area management. But planning is simply a set of actions we intend to implement given certain assumptions, often only implicit in our plans.

Late last week came news that the British Columbia government had suspended all potential mining activities in the Flathead River Basin north of the Canada-US border. The Flathead River serves as the western boundary of Glacier National Park, along with Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada a World Heritage Site and an early international peace park. The North Fork basin—which it is termed on the US side—is a remote region, contains stunning scenery, harbors populations of grizzly bear and wolf, and has exceedingly high water quality (see map). Mining—both hard rock minerals and coal—would potentially threaten water quality and the outstanding universal value of the Waterton-Glacier World Heritage Site according to a recent monitoring mission sponsored by UNESCOs World Heritage Committee. An article summarizing these actions can be found here:

The British Columbia moratorium is significant on several fronts. First, it protects watersheds and values that lie primarily on the US side of the border, signifying an altruistic transboundary action. This action places the BC government firmly in the forefront of effective regional action to protect national and internationally recognized resources and values. The cost to the people of BC, in terms of lost jobs and tax revenues must be significant, while the benefits to people living in Montana will also be significant. Second, this action has now triggered protectionist legislation on the US side—both at the federal level (the feds manage much of the land in the North Fork watershed) and the state level, with the Montana’s governor Brian Schweitzer proposing limits and prohibitions on mining on state administered land in the watershed. So, rather than the action being led by the federal government, that level is now a follower, moving along only after it sees the popular support for the BC action. Third, these actions signify the need for action at all social-organizational scales. Only with such cooperative, coordinated and collaborative action can the values at risk in this watershed be sufficiently protected and maintained for the future.

These actions may represent a new era in large, landscape level conservation, at least in North America. This era will be characterized by citizen and locally led action followed by larger scale governments when they see that there are little political risks. Other precursors exist, most notably, the Steens Mountains in Oregon, where local citizens got together and proposed wilderness designation and other conservation land uses to help resolve some conflicts and protect the ranching culture during the Clinton administration.

Are there other regions in North America where these conditions exist? What implications might such actions hold for management once places are designated? Who pays the costs in terms of lost immediate revenue and jobs? To what extent are losses in these two areas viewed as legitimate concerns? What kind of oversight is needed once suspensions and moratoriums are implemented? These questions are important for those of us interested in management, but also for groups who are pressuring for similar actions.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Technical Proficiencies for Managing Tourism and Visitors in Protected Areas

Tourism has become one of the tools that many academics, activists, NGOs and governments see as providing income needed to fund management of protected areas. There is no question that for the vast majority of the over 112,000 national designated protected areas in the world, adequate funds for careful, sensitive and insightful stewardship are lacking. Tourism, and the economic activity it generates, can be an effective source of funds, generated through taxes, concession licenses, entrance and user fees, and cooperative agreements can provide for many of these protected areas additional funding.

But of course, tourism is one of those classical two edged swords, providing distinct and valuable benefits on one hand, but also serving as a potential threat to the values preserved in a park on the other. Exploiting potential benefits from tourism requires opportunities be carefully crafted, understanding markets and visitors preferences and seeing tourism development as part of a larger system. Responding to threats from tourism and visitors requires an equally sensitive and competent workforce, appropriate legal foundations and meticulously constructed public engagement.

In both cases, the technical and social proficiency of the stewardship agency are critical to successful stewardship. But what proficiencies are needed?

This question was addressed in a 2008 workshop sponsored by the U.S. National Park Service and The University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation. The workshop brought together about two dozen managers and academics from all over the world to discuss alternative models of visitor management. Rather than proposing one particular model to manage visitors and tourism, the workshop explored the ways different parks—from the Galapagos to Yellowstone, from Chaco Canyon to Jiuzhaigou—handled large numbers of visitors to not only reduce impacts but to improve the quality of experience.

The workshop also asked participants, through several small and large group processes, about the skills needed. A large variety of skills and proficiencies were identified, everything from understanding and doing park tourism marketing to facilitating meetings to monitoring the impacts of tourism and visitors. After identifying this large array of skills, participants ranked them on the “most important”. Below is the list of technical proficiencies ranked highest in importance.

Obviously, not all skills can be found in any given staff person, and not all parks will need all these skills on site. And, the skills as listed here are only brief statements, but the workshop report provides a detailed description of what workshop participants felt were key characteristics of each proficiency. What is really important here is constructing mechanisms so that protected area staff have access to these proficiencies, through regional and central staff, NGOs or consulting services. And what is also important is that protected area staff understand when these skills are needed to address a particular tourism opportunity or challenge.

If you would like a copy of the report, I would be happy to email it to you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Whac-a-mole Planning in Protected Areas

Last week, I remarked on the complexity, contentiousness, uncertainty and change that typifies protected areas in the 21st century. I noted that one of the ways that we can become more effective in planning and protecting these very special places is to start using systems thinking to help us develop new insights about the causes of the events (many managers would call them problems) that occur over and over.

This event-oriented thinking, in my judgment is the most fundamental barrier to advancing the practice of effective protected area planning. This may be a bit unclear. So …

We attack a management problem and it reappears elsewhere, perhaps in the park we administer, perhaps in another one someplace else. We attack the problem there, and guess what, it appears someplace else again. This is what I call “Whac-a-mole” planning, after the popular children’s game. In Whac a mole, a mole suddenly appears at one of several holes; it must be immediately whacked back into the hole to score points. As soon as it is whacked, another one appears in another hole. Please see

And just as there is a mechanical system underlying, and invisible, to the Whac-a-mole player, there are systems, patterns and structures underlying the events we see repeated everyday in protected areas. To understand these events, and what causes them, we need to switch our mind set, from responding to specific events to understanding the structures underlying them.

Using Senge’s example of an iceberg, which he developed in his book, The Necessary Revolution, we need to dive deeper alongside that iceberg. We all know that the vast majority of an iceberg’s mass is hidden from our eyes below the water’s surface. Protected area managers only see the visible top, the events, but not the structures, patterns and paradigms underlying the iceberg. When we see the world only as a series of events, all we can do is react. When we dive deeper, and see the underlying patterns and trends, then we can better anticipate events and respond ahead to prevent them from occurring. When we dive still deeper to understand the systemic structures giving rise to patterns and trends, we can then design structures to prevent underdesireable events from occurring. And diving deeper still, the murky waters at the bottom of the iceberg leads us to the mental models giving rise to how we perceive the world. With mental models in hand, we can transform management.—This in brief is Senge’s argument.

It plays well with my experience in dealing with protected area planning issues. Diving deeper, however, is not without its costs. A shallow dive, down to seeing patterns and trends, may require simply holding our breath or using a snorkel. Not a high cost, but lots of benefits. Diving deeper still requires more investment, such as in SCUBA gear and training, but again, benefits arise. Finally, diving into the deep realm of mental models may require hard sided diving gear, and lots of training.

The point here is that by diving deeper we can increase the leverage of our actions, but such deeper diving will require some training and continuing education. This training will involve systems thinking, as well as the content area, whether its tourism or landscape ecology.

Next time, I will share some results of needed capacities for managing tourism and visitation.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Some Notes about The Pasque Flower

When I decided to title this blog “The Pasque Flower”, little did I know. My friend and colleague Wayne Freimund sent me a piece last week by philosopher Holmes Rolston, published in the April 1979 issue of Natural History Magazine. In that essay, Rolston discusses the symbolic significance of the pasque flower as he sees it. I always look forward to seeing the first pasque flower of the year. Pasque flowers emerge in early spring on our small plot of land south of Missoula, and I have always looked forward to their presence. Rolston notes:

The pasqueflower symbolizes all that is missing in the wintry landscape, and should there come a spring without the regeneration it prefigures, the winter would have grown lethal. Wildness without its flora would be only the bleak and conquering storm, and it is this florescence that the pasqueflower helps us to celebrate because it dares to bloom when the winter of which we have wearied is not yet gone
As I weary of many tired arguments about how to manage protected areas (e.g., carrying capacity), the connections with society and the people who visit them, I always look forward to new ideas and approaches, such as the application of systems thinking to many of the challenges that confront us.

The pasque flower (and its equivalents around the globe) is important to me, and to all of us because it provides us with a sense of hope and celebration that Rolston spoke of. Providing stewardship for protected areas is difficult, and we need people and ideas who dare to bloom in a wintry landscape of gray.

Rolston is not the only philosopher to speak of the pasque flower. Naturalist and philosopher Aldo Leopold summed things up well when he stated:
“A chance to find one (pasque flower) is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Protected Areas in an Age of Complexity

Most of us recognize and appreciate that protected areas exist within a context of change, complexity, uncertainty and contentiousness. Our appreciation of this context demands that we approach both the challenges and opportunities presented by the various processes and forces acting on protected areas with a different problem-solving paradigm in mind. Recognizing that protected areas exist within a complex and dynamic milieu, is not enough for successful management in the 21st century; that complexity must be engaged, assertively and competently.

To do this, we must dispel our conventional event-oriented approach to management and planning; we must recognize and engage the messy problems and wicked situations with new, innovative and resourceful approaches. These approaches must not simply reform the conventional rational-comprehensive approach to planning that has dominated protected areas in the 20th and early 21st centuries; they must be complete reinventions of how we make decisions. That reinvention must develop planning processes that are (1) inclusive; (2) representative; (3) learning focused; (4) ownership building (in the sense of creating a sense of empowerment and responsibility); (5) that recognize that trust underlies the interpersonal relationships inherent in planning processes and (6) respect different forms of knowledge.

This is a tall order. Systems thinking will help. See Senge, The Fifth Discipline, for a good explanation of how organizations can apply systems thinking to overcome their “learning disabilities”. But systems thinking, while a necessary condition for stewardship, is not sufficient. Productive approaches to protected area stewardship will require not only an appreciation of complexity, but also a willingness, both politically and technically to engage it. We need competent, open-minded planners and managers possessing skills equal to the challenges of the 21st century.

Well, this all well and good, but can we be more specific? Protected areas are embedded within a complex social-ecological system. Exogenous variables, to paraphrase systems theorist John Sterman, don’t really exist. The organization with stewardship responsibilities is part of this system not separate from it. Solutions lie within the organization. While this system is both complex—nonlinear dynamics occurring here—it is also complicated—a large range of variables operating at different spatial, temporal and social-organizational scales and at different paces. Systems thinking helps us understand what kind of feedback loops operate, where the delays between cause-effects happen and what leverage points might be available. By diving deeper, we begin to understand the underlying structures and patterns that lead to, and even cause, the events we find so troubling.

In future blog entries, I will provide some examples to demonstrate the value of systems thinking in providing insights to the issues and challenges facing protected areas today.