Pull weeds or spray; Restore wetlands or adapt, Invest in stakeholder engagement or regulatory policy change,... The practice of conservation requires decision making. As humans, we recognize that any decision, even something as simple as where to go to lunch, gets more difficult when the number of people goes up, goals become more divergent, or the cost of making a bad choice goes up. Conservation is replete with complex decisions fraught with uncertainty of outcomes and divergent stakeholder values. Support for making decisions in order to explain decisions to stakeholders is now recognized as essential to conservation practice.
A conservative estimate suggests that over 10,000 conservation projects are currently using some form of formal decision support to drive decisions on what actions to take on behalf of conservation. To spray or pull weeds, put in nest boxes or restore stream banks, develop citizen science / interpretative materials or
fund science: deciding how to invest limited resources to best achieve competing conservation objectives can be very daunting. The challenge is made doubly daunting when
Decision support frameworks are viewed by agencies and NGO’s as essential because of a need for stakeholder accountability and the desire to demonstrate that actions are resulting in favorable conservation outcomes. Decision support falls in the realm of planning, with the result of planning as a conservation profession. The need for stakeholder accountability driver is both broad and deep. The US Federal government requires accountability on everything from meeting travel expenditures to long-range forest plans. NGO’s are experiencing increased accountability from foundations as well as individual donors. Charity Navigator now exists as an organization to help you as a donor hold your organizations accountable for their expenditures.
Accountability begets decision documentation: what decision was made, what information was used to make that decision; what process was followed to make the decision, did stakeholders have a voice in the decision and how did they react to the decision? Much of this, for the US is codified through the NEPA1 decision process. Passed in 1970, the age of NEPA suggests that accountability is not all that new.
What is new, however, is that the well-established fields of decision science and project management are making their way into conservation planning as frameworks for addressing these accountability concerns. Conservation practitioners are increasingly using terms such as “theory of change”, “outcome evaluation”, and “participatory decision making” in their work.
The emergence of multiple decision support frameworks for conservation can be boggling to practitioners trying to practice, and scientists trying to conduct science that informs actual practices (connect knowledge to implementation). Structured Decision Making, Systematic Conservation Planning, the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, Evidence Based Conservation, Conservation Evidence, Management Strategy Evaluation, the list is mind boggling and keeps getting longer each year (Climate smart conservation, Strategic foresight, Conservation business planning,..). As the application of these tools has grown during the 21st century, so have the communities of people who practice them, the organizations that endorse them, and the venues through which to learn them. But where do you start?
Sticking a toe in the water to try and learn decision support frameworks is justifiably daunting. Is one better, or more versatile than another? As a scientist who invested in both WordPerfect and Quattro Pro as software packages, I am personally wary of making a choice that I will back out of down the road. I want certainty that I am choosing for the long run. But, will that happen with conservation decision support? Is there likely to be a best choice? Are decision frameworks even here to stay?
There are a variety of reasons why I think that decision support for accountability is here to stay and that it is generating better conservation actions on the ground. However, there are also grounds to think that tracks will not converge and that conservation will simply grow a larger and more confusing toolbox as time moves forward.
Frankly, I think that a big, possibly confusing, toolkit is the best solution: a diversity of tools for conservation decision support. Just as you can cut wood with numerous tools (hand saw, circular saw, table saw, mitre saw,...), I think that conservation practitioners should begin to get comfortable with a very diverse toolkit to support decisions. And just like cutting wood, many tools may work perfectly respectably in many cases, even though there are clearly cases where getting the tool choice exactly right can make all the difference in particular situations.
Having invested time in learning enough of many frameworks to feign passing knowledge, I can say that I think that these, in many ways, “represent dialects of the same language” as a proponent of one of these frameworks once told me. Once you learn one, it is relatively easy to grasp another; an attribute that one can also rightly use to describe my woodworking skills and my transition from Quattro Pro to Excel.
Claiming these to be dialects of the same language requires a commonality. That commonality can be found in some basic tenets of adaptive management. Each framework requires specific objectives, a theory for how a decision will move the needle toward achieving that objective, and an effort to evaluate progress (monitor, evaluate, learn, adapt).
A key thing I discovered, however, in learning these frameworks is that they carry a legacy based on unique histories. These histories link closely to the sorts of challenges that each is best at resolving. Systematic conservation planning originally focused on the challenge of where to conduct conservation action. Structured decision making, based on decision science, prioritizes choosing amongst a suite of potentially competing actions. Evidence-based Practice focuses on the learning component of adaptive management. Management Strategy Evaluation emerges from fisheries management and focuses on setting standards for exploitation. The Open Standards, as a project management framework, seeks to touch all steps of adaptive management, but by doing so, goes into each phase with less detail.
A primary challenge, as these decision support processes mature, is the idea that many consider themselves the base, with the others being able to augment that foundation. For example The Open Standards purport to be a framework for managing a complex conservation project. As such, tools from any of the other frameworks can be integrated within the Open Standards project management process. A critical example of using The Open Standards as the foundation from which everything else emerges is the Conservation Coaches Network . A network of over 400 practitioners that is explicitly an Open Standards-based organization.
On the other side of the fence, Structured Decision Making harkens to nearly a century long development of decision theory now being applied to conservation problems. Decision theory is an approach to problem solving that asks users to set objectives, outline alternative actions, and then examine the consequences and trade-offs among these choices. Similarly, Structured decision making, seeing itself as the foundation, can integrate the tools of the other frameworks within a structured decision context.
The problem with these alternative worldviews is that training and expansion has resulted in a large number of framework zealots. A zealot learns a framework, and through their enthusiasm for that framework, see no other worldview as legitimate. Of course science is no stranger to these problems (Mac/PC’s, Frequentist/Bayesian stats, R vs anything else, Linux,...). As scientists, we swim in a sea of process zealots. The challenge with decision support zealots is that they often fail to see the extent to which the champions of other frameworks may also be correct in claiming their framework to be the base. Multiple worldviews can work equally well. This unhelpful mess of people who see one true path to decision support drives something of the decision support pissing match going on amongst frameworks, augmented by the sometimes unhelpful need for innovation in academic scholarship. This most commonly manifests within the U.S. among Structured Decision Making and the Open Standards, but likely has parallels in different software support for systematic conservation planning, or the finer distinctions between conservation evidence and evidence based conservation.
I write this blog because a group of us that includes major proponents for many of these frameworks (Bob Pressey, Mike Runge, Nick Salafsky, Andrew Pullin, Bill Sutherland, Carly Cook, Matt Williamson) have just had a manuscript go through review at Conservation Letters. This was not the first rodeo for this manuscript and negotiating what we would and would not say about these various conservation frameworks has been a work in progress since the SCB meetings in Baltimore in 2013 . That is a long, long road, and we are not done yet.
Someday I will be able to point to this paper as a reference that exists to help scientists navigate these turbulent waters. Yet, we are still honing these arguments (see Brain Eddies / Loving Failure).
The way forward? That would be another essay, but in the meantime if you have any thoughts please comment away.
1. – National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.
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