This issue is about models and frameworks for making robust decisions. Sounds a bit dry? Well, not the way we tell it. The stories gathered here make a compelling case for the appropriate use of models and frameworks like structured decision making (SDM), and it’s not hard to see the passion that lies between our arguments.
SDM out of the box
Structured decision making (SDM) is the theme of this issue of Decision Point and in the following pages we show how it can be applied to a variety of resourcing issues from camping in the Grampians to trampling in the intertidal (see several related articles in this issue). In this research brief, SDM is applied to managing wildlife disease in Montana (with one of the researchers here being EDG’s Terry Walshe). Infectious diseases in wildlife are on the increase, and they pose significant threats to the health of wildlife, humans and biodiversity more generally. Wildlife managers are generally poorly prepared to manage disease outbreaks proactively, relying instead on reactive ‘crisis management’.
The quality of decision making by environmental managers may be enhanced by the use of formal decision frameworks to assist with the development and evaluation of prospective projects. Various decision tools and frameworks have been used in biodiversity conservation (Examples include Assets, Threats and Solvability (ATS); Conservation Action Planning (CAP); multicriteria andscape assessment and optimisation (MULBO); and benefit : cost analysis (BCA)). However, following extensive experience working with environmental organisations to help them assess their priorities, David Pannell and colleagues judged that none of the existing tools provided an ideal combination of usability, rigour and comprehensiveness.
The translocation of species for conservation involves both the restoration of historic populations (moving organisms to where they once occurred) to managing the relocation of imperiled species to new locations (moving organisms from a place where they are increasingly unable to survive to a place where they might be able to thrive, say in the face of climate change). It’s a challenging management strategy that usually comes with high risk and high cost, yet it is increasingly being considered.
Conservation managers often have to make decisions in uncertain and complex situations. This uncertainty can be paralysing: “Do I choose option A or option B? Both have so much uncertainty around them that I just can’t decide!” One way of dealing with this uncertainty is by modelling the different choices on offer to see what type of results they might yield. The correct use of the appropriate model not only helps in making robust, transparent and defensible conservation decisions, it often generates insights on the nature of the system being managed.
Managers of the environment are routinely faced with making complex decisions with little information and high levels of uncertainty. It’s a tough ask, but that’s their job. When decisions have to be made regardless of these constraints, structured decision making (often simply referred to as SDM) is a useful tool for guiding managers through the decision process.
National parks in Victoria are established with the twin aims of conserving environmental assets while also providing quality, sustainable recreational experiences. But what if the recreational experiences result in the trashing of the environmental assets? Activities of visitors can have significant negative impacts on the natural values of parks, both at the site and landscape scale. The marked increase in nature tourism over the last 20 years has meant that managers are increasingly challenged in finding the right balance between enabling recreation and ensuring conservation. Structured decision making (SDM) provides a useful framework for guiding decisions about the management of visitors and their associated environmental impacts.
In order to adaptively manage protected areas, conservation managers need to know when to implement management actions to prevent ecosystems trending towards an unfavourable condition. Whilst ecological research and monitoring can help define unfavourable ecosystem conditions; the question of when to implement a management action requires value judgements by decision-makers. Such judgements require decision-makers to subjectively trade-off competing objectives. For example, if visitors to a reserve are having an impact, there is a trade-off between environmental (eg, biodiversity benefits), social (eg, visitor satisfaction) and economic (eg, the cost of management actions) objectives.
The available resources of a conservation management agency are typically spread over many ecological values and multiple threats. Management plans guide the manner in which the allocation takes place and these plans are periodically reviewed in order to consider better ways that the available resources might be spread around. But the complexity of the problems being dealt with often mean the reviews don’t achieve much in the way of change.
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’.
Adaptive management is everywhere. Google it and you’ll get over five million hits, while academic search engines can return over 20,000 articles. These articles discuss a huge range of topics – from ecology and conservation biology through to epidemiology, medicine and even construction. And more are being written all the time.
The clearest and most succinct definition that we are aware of is given by Williams et al. (2009): ‘Adaptive management is a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.’ This general goal can be implemented using a range of methods, as appropriate to each study system.
Since 1994 I have given over 300 seminars to every manner of audience on how decision science can inform environmental management. In that time I’ve received a wide range of arguments about why decision theory tools should not be applied to conservation problems. Sometimes people reject the general message that anything could be wrong with current decision making. Sometimes they take exception to the details in specific case studies. Sometimes they just get a little angry.
I’d like to take a moment and review the most common objections and suggest that they are wrong. But I’m going to go further and say that natural resource management in Australia must embrace the tools of decision science, like every other rational profession, from medicine to engineering (and it needs to happen sooner than later).
The Australian Government has recently released a report on ‘the place of science policy development in the Public Service’. The study holds up NERP as an example of how science can effectively influence policy. The Place of Science in Policy Development in the Public Service systematically reviewed the ways in which scientific input is used to inform policy development in the Australian Public Service (APS). It provides departments and agencies with practical and useful strategies to maximise the use of science in policy development. Ultimately, the project has sought to arrive at an end-state where policy making within the APS draws on the best available scientific evidence on a routine and systematic basis.
Pictured below is an eastern yellow robin building its nest in a gum tree using thin strips of red stringybark. The nest also contains flakes of box gum, yellow box and long-leaf box delicately woven into the rim, or stitched to form a hanging skirt around the side of the nest. A beautiful bird building a work of art high in the bough of Australia’s iconic tree species. Climate change promises to have profound impacts on the distribution of gum trees right across Australia. And, of course (and as this image graphically demonstrates), those impacts will have consequences for the broud suite of organisms that depend on these trees. See the story on the climate change impacts on gum trees in Decision Point #72.