Why engagement matters: Fostering ecological success in aquatic restoration through iterative communication
Not all public engagement is created equal. Studies have warned that stakeholder presence alone in natural resource decision-making will not guarantee positive outcomes (Arnold et al. 2012, DeCaro and Stokes 2013). Still, based on the positive correlation Bernhardt et al. (2007) found between community involvement and ecological success, there is reason to believe that, done well, stakeholder involvement can support river restoration outcomes. But little research explores how to cultivate the sorts of quality public engagement experiences that might contribute to restoration success. Here we take a transdisciplinary approach, exploring the impact of communication and public engagement in all phases of the restoration process on restoration project success.
In summer 2013, we interviewed 27 local, state, federal, and non-profit managers in Rhode Island, U.S.A. as part of a team from the US Environmental Protection Agency developing an ecosystem services indicator approach for prioritizing freshwater restorations. We investigated three research questions: (1) How do managers characterize their interactions with the public in restoration efforts? (2) How do managers approach public communication in different phases of the restoration process? (3) How do iterative communication processes between managers and stakeholders encourage self-reported success?
The communication and public engagement employed by resource managers in all phases of the restoration process—in prioritization, implementation, and monitoring, and for garnering broad-based support—shape the quality of public engagement in natural resources management, which, in turn, can impact stakeholder, learning, and ecological success (Palmer et al. 2005).
Despite institutional constraints and the unpredictable nature of funding and collaboration, managers can use this work to design outcome-driven restoration projects that achieve ecological, stakeholder, and learning successes. We present a modified version of Nyberg’s (1999) framework for adaptive management that allows managers to embed a deliberate perspective on public communication in the practice of adaptive comanagement by working through a process that includes: setting social-ecological outcomes; co-prioritizing projects with stakeholders; co-designing both restoration projects and iterative engagement mechanisms; co-implementing; co-monitoring; co-evaluating ecological, stakeholder, and learning successes; communicating about successes and failures internally and externally; adjusting methods and priorities; assessing problems; and re-setting social-ecological outcomes. Despite possible tradeoffs and conflicts between social and ecological outcomes, managers need to consider desired social-ecological outcomes and work from the outset to deliberately design mechanisms for communication and public engagement that weave community stakeholders into all phases of restoration projects in sustained and consequential ways.