Case study 4: The manager’s perspective

Parks Victoria and SDM

It should come as no surprise that in seeking to effectively manage around four million hectares of parks (including national, state, wilderness, marine, historic and urban parks and waterways), Parks Victoria needs to make tough decisions about how it will allocate its limited resources.

Complementary to the question of how to allocate resources for best outcomes is the fact that, over many years, park managers have made many assumptions around ‘if I do x then y conservation outcomes will be achieved’. More and more we are realising that we are managing complex ecological and social processes led by complex drivers in which our assumptions need to be constantly tested and reviewed.

In recent years Parks Victoria has been moving from a ‘who-shouts-loudest’ decision making and resource-allocation model to a more systematic, transparent and evidence-based model. This includes much clearer definitions of the conservation assets and values that are important to the community.

 “More and more we are realising that we are managing complex ecological and social processes led by complex drivers in which our assumptions need to be constantly tested and reviewed.”

Decisions about setting priorities for park management need to be made at a range of different scales: from the entire parks network to the scale of the landscape and down to the level of individual sites. Likewise, we need to be more targeted in our monitoring and evaluation efforts. Monitoring is expensive so we need to make sure it is actually answering questions related to the effectiveness of our interventions and the extent to which we are meeting our desired conservation or social outcomes.

As part of Parks Victoria’s Research Partners Program, we have been working with partners such as the University of Melbourne to test and evaluate Structured Decision Making as a tool to assist park managers in being more objective about how they make decisions and allocate scarce resources.

Some of the benefits of SDM are self evident. By its very nature the SDM process requires a systematic, step-by-step process of options analysis and decision making which is transparent to senior decision makers, auditors and the community. It might be systematic and transparent but does it actually help park managers? Our experience is that it does.

Some of the other benefits of SDM are less tangible but equally valuable. First, the SDM process ‘forces’ collaborative decisions to be made about what is more or less important even in the face of uncertainty. Second, SDM facilitates active engagement and sharing of knowledge between experts and local park managers. Local park staff have felt more confident in implementing agreed interventions and, importantly, more confident in explaining why interventions are not being implemented in the face of stakeholder expectations. Finally, staff are more clearly able to see the ‘results chains’ between the local actions they are carrying out on the ground and the conservation outcomes they are seeking.

Parks Victoria’s experience in the application of SDM is evolving. While the process has been applied at the local scale (eg, minimising camping impacts in the Grampians NP, see case study 1) and at the landscape/program scale (eg, resource allocation in West Coast District see case study 3), we will be continuing to work with our partners to explore the application of SDM tools that have broader application. We are also exploring the opportunity to incorporate SDM into other conservation planning processes.

And we’ll be exploring ways of making the SDM process itself more streamlined and cost efficient for Parks Victoria. Bringing people together to discuss, frame and model management issues is always a nice thing to do but, at the same time, it’s resource intensive so we need to make sure we’re doing it in the most cost-effective way.

SDM has proved a valuable framework for Parks Victoria. It’s helped us take stock, introduced greater rigour into our decision making process and given us greater confidence in dealing with the uncertainty and complexity that confronts us daily.

More info: Tony Varcoe

*Tony Varcoe is the Manager of Parks Victoria’s Science and Management Effectiveness Branch.

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