Science communication lessons from developing a stakeholder-based conservation planning tool
Land use change, one of the primary drivers of biodiversity loss, results from frequent, independent actions by decision-makers. In order to develop integrated land use policies that foster conservation outcomes, scientists and practitioners must understand the specific biophysical, economic, and social drivers causing land use change across diverse land uses and ownerships. To address the common disconnect between economic and environmental land use planning, we partnered with more than 75 Maine stakeholders to develop a spatial planning framework that integrates specific factors driving economic development, environmental conservation, forest management, and agriculture activities.
We replicated a stakeholder engagement and modeling process in two large watersheds covering a total of 1.9 million hectares in Maine. First, we developed a suite of land use suitability models by using Bayesian networks to integrate stakeholder knowledge with empirical biophysical and socio-economic data for each of the four primary land uses. Second, we developed a series of alternative future land use scenarios based on input from the stakeholders. Third, we developed a web-based spatial planning tool—the Maine Futures Community Mapper (MFCM)—to communicate our results to general audiences and to enable the application of the scenarios for local-scale planning.
Applied tools that blend scientific rigor with stakeholder engagement are needed to bridge the divide between science and on-the-ground land use planning, yet crossing this boundary is difficult for communication, credibility, and commitment reasons. As researchers, we took several lessons from co-developing our stakeholder-driven spatial planning framework. First, integrating stakeholders throughout different phases of the modeling process provided not only a flexible framework, but also led to high credibility with non-scientific audiences. Second, the stakeholders interested in the model inputs were largely different from the stakeholders interested in the output. Realizing this early in the process ensures the models are credible and the information is useful. Third, engaging stakeholders in both the technical and non-technical aspects of the project was equally important to the relevance of the outcomes for decision-making. For instance, some stakeholders engaged directly with model parameterization, while others were more interested in qualitative scenario development. Stakeholders valued the project as much for the process facilitation, as for the planning tools themselves.
Our experiences working directly with stakeholders underscore the challenges of balancing a model’s scientific rigor with its value to decision-makers. These inherent trade-offs suggest an adaptive management approach both to modeling and stakeholder engagement is needed to produce robust and relevant conservation planning tools.