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.