Managing for Change: New Insights on Practitioner Challenges & Needs

 MAY 6, 2013    by PATRICIA TILLMANN

Dynamic and beautiful coastal temperate rainforests traverse the Pacific coastline from southern Alaska to northwest California. Left: Cape Flattery, WA. Right: Auke Bay, AK. Photo credit: Patricia Tillmann

North America’s resource managers and conservation practitioners protect and preserve lands, waters, and wildlife in the face of land use change, development pressure, and now, climate change. To help ensure resource managers and conservationists will be able to protect and preserve  cherished places and wildlife in an era of climate change, National Wildlife Federation worked with the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC) and University of Washington Climate Impacts Group to identify climate change-related challenges, needs, and opportunities for conservation in North America’s coastal temperate rainforests and coasts.

Download the full report: Advancing Landscape-Scale Conservation: An Assessment of Climate Change-Related Challenges, Needs, and Opportunities for the NPLCC (pdf).

A less technical version of this blog is also available: Advancing Landscape-Scale Conservation in North America’s Coastal Temperate Rainforests.

Study Area & Methology

The geographic focus of the assessment is the NPLCC region, which contains some of the last remaining, intact temperate rainforests in the world. These forests are among the most carbon-dense on earth, and are home to such iconic species as salmon, orca, grizzly bear, and bald eagles. They are also critical to the Way of Life for many Tribes, First Nations, and Native Alaskans.

USGS
Omernik Level 3 Ecoregions (USGS)

Nearly 200 (195 to be exact) natural and cultural resource managers, conservation practitioners, and researchers working at the nexus of climate change and ecosystem response in the NPLCC region participated in this project. Project participants were selected using purposive and network sampling methods to identify the network of staff from federal, state and tribal agencies, conservation and climate change NGOs, and university scientists addressing climate change in their ecosystem, habitat, and species-related work in the NPLCC region. Of the 396 prospective project participants, 195 participated through one or more methods, including a series of surveys, web-based focus groups, semi-structured interviews and in-person workshops (response rate: 49%).

Project participants were well-distributed across the NPLCC region, ranging from twenty-six participants from British Columbia (13.3%) to 36 participants from California (18.5%). Project participation was dominated by those employed with U.S. federal agencies (~38%, or 74 participants), followed by non-governmental organizations (45 participants, 23.1%) and Tribes, First Nations, and Alaska Native communities (29 participants, 14.9%).

The results of this assessment were obtained by analyzing the survey responses, input during thirteen focus groups, and worksheets completed during three workshops by the 195 project participants. Specifically, these data were analyzed using the grounded theory approach to qualitative data analysis, which is an iterative process of data collection and analysis through which participants’ input is collected, assessed, and synthesized to generate research results. For more information on the Methodology, please see Chapter III and Appendix 3 in the report.

Findings: Challenges to Addressing Climate Change in Participants’ Work

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Focus group participants from Alaska discussed climate change effects and related management opportunities for sea lions. Credit: Patricia Tillmann

Project participants described a number of specific challenges in response to questions about managing ecosystems, habitats, species, and indigenous resources in light of current and projected climate change effects. Through the analysis of survey responses, web-based focus group input, and in-person workshop results, several themes emerged as representative categories for the specific challenges described by participants:

  • Information on climate change effects is difficult to find, not available at an appropriate scale, or is not available in a format accessible, comprehensible, and useful in project participants’ diverse areas of expertise.
  • Despite significant interest in addressing climate change, insufficient human, financial, technical, political, and institutionalcapacity prevents planning, action, or acquisition of knowledge to adequately address climate change issues.
  • There is inadequate coordination, collaboration, and communication among people, projects, institutions, and funding. Project participants indicated non-technical barriers such as international boundaries, institutional silos, and political, cultural, and social differences most hinder coordination, collaboration, and communication.
  • Project participants find it difficult to address uncertainty in climate projections or in the response of ecosystems to current and projected climate change effects. The effectiveness of conservation and management actions in a changing climate and the ability of institutions to respond to climate change are additional sources of uncertainty. Climate-related uncertainties are in some cases novel or are unfamiliar in an area of expertise.
  • Climate-related priorities compete with other priorities and climate change has not been mainstreamed sufficiently into current environmental priorities.

Findings: Needs & Opportunities to Address Climate Change in Participants’ Work

The majority of needs and opportunities identified in this assessment respond directly to the non-technical challenges described by project participants. They also emphasize cross-ecosystem approaches to conservation delivery and applied science. Visualization emerged as a common and dominant theme in the analysis. Whether visualizing impacts, developing models, scenarios and other decision-support tools, generating synthesis products, or utilizing web-based resources, information is preferred in a visual and interactive format.

Four core needs were identified through the assessment and analysis:

  • Decision-support systems and tools: Decision-support systems and tools aid decision making by gathering decision-relevant documents, data, and other resources in a single platform and enabling managers and decision makers to use those resources to inform decisions. Specific examples of requested systems and tools include vulnerability assessments (Chapters III.1, VI.1, VII.2, VIII.1), maps and characterizations of the marine and nearshore environment (Chapter VI.1), and a decision-support tool to assess short- and long-term management options and tradeoffs for focal species and indicators (Chapter VIII.3).
  • Collaboration and other capacity-building activities: Project participants emphasized the need for projects and plans that meet multiple objectives of multiple partners in locations vulnerable to climate change effects. They also emphasized the need to build long-term landscape-level resilience to climate change effects and related stressors in a way that enhances current resilience and responds to short-term needs and constraints. Frequently requested needs and activities include convening researchers and managers from across ecosystems to respond to climate change at the landscape scale (Chapter III.2), providing “actionable-level” information and tangible examples of progress or success with climate change adaptation (Chapter III.2), and developing a data portal or  “climate clearinghouse” with a brief description of people, their projects, and how to contact them (Chapter III.2).
  • New or different science, data and information: Some data gaps and information needs identified by project participants are shared throughout the NPLCC region, while others are particular to a specific location or ecosystem. Participants requested assistance ensuring compatibility between existing data and information sources in addition to filling the data and information gaps themselves. Examples of requested science, data, and information include fundamental or baseline data such as hydrologic data in Alaska and British Columbia (Chapter V.1), models and downscaling efforts such as regional and local models of ocean conditions (Chapter VI.2), and climate and socioeconomic scenarios that capture a range of possible futures, developed in collaboration with decision makers and stakeholders (Chapter III.3).
  • Science communication and outreach: Project participants identified three audiences for targeted communication and outreach: resource managers, conservation practitioners, and researchers; the public and educators; and, decision makers. Project participants frequently stated it is important to provide “good, consistent language” for communicating with policymakers and the public and to translate scientific information into a language understood by the target audience. Examples of requested communication and outreach needs and activities include the use of visualization tools to communicate climate change effects and examine potentially vulnerable areas (Chapter VI.4 and VI.3, respectively), and connecting ecological impacts with social and economic impacts, especially when communicating with decision makers and the public (Chapter III.4).

In addition to the four core needs, seventeen activity areas were identified through the qualitative data analysis as possible targets for additional work specific to ecosystems, habitats, species, and/or indigenous resources. Increasing the resilience of the hydrologic network to climate change effects and related stressors is the dominant activity area. This is a cross-ecosystem activity area. Other key activity areas for ecosystems, habitats, species, and indigenous resources are: (1) assessing the vulnerability and resilience of marine nearshore systems, the estuarine environment, and Pacific salmon; (2) supporting efforts to identify and address climate priorities related to indigenous natural and cultural resources and, (3) a focus on the NPLCC as a migration and dispersal corridor for wanted and unwanted species movements, especially along the north-south gradient. These are cross-ecosystem activity areas.

Conclusion

This assessment contributes to the understanding of challenges, needs, and opportunities associated with advancing climate change adaptation, conservation, and sustainable resource management in at least three ways. First, this assessment is the first of its kind to focus specifically on the NPLCC region and its unique cross-boundary roles within the international and multi-jurisdictional geography covered by the region. Second, within this context, this assessment takes a multi-ecosystem approach, identifying practitioner challenges, needs, and opportunities within marine, coastal, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems. Information on freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems is provided for the first time, while information on marine and coastal ecosystems is supported by similar practitioner needs assessments focusing on coastal ecosystems. Third, the assessment includes specific requests made by tribal members and representatives that would address challenges, needs, and opportunities for responding to climate change impacts on the Indigenous Way of Life.

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