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.