A report from the BioEarth project: What WSU Modelers learned from stakeholders with rangeland management expertise

By Liz Allen

An often-raised concern from environmental scientists is that policy decision makers and natural resource managers don’t fully incorporate state-of-the science climate change projections when making plans and policies for the future. At the same time, decision makers in the agriculture and natural resources world, including farmers and rangeland managers, may see a large gap between the information climate modelers produce and what would be useful and relevant to them. Significant questions remain about how researchers in academia can effectively work with decision makers to produce relevant and usable information about regional climate change impacts. The BioEarth research project, based at WSU is seeking to work more effectively with stakeholders. The first step in this effort has been a series of issue-based stakeholder advisory workshops to foster communication among scientists with modeling expertise and stakeholders with hands-on knowledge of regional environmental systems.

Five issue-based stakeholder advisory workshops have been held by BioEarth’s communication and extension working group thus far. One of those, held in Richland WA in February 2014, focused on regional rangeland management concerns. A small, but diverse and knowledgeable group of 7 stakeholders participated, including state and federal government agency representatives, small-scale ranchers and extension professionals, plus 7 BioEarth researchers.

The rangeland management workshop was designed to gain insight about three key questions: 1) what are stakeholders’ most pressing concerns about current issues and future changes, 2) what information would aid in making better decisions, and, 3) how can the modeling approach be refined and scenarios be developed to produce outputs that are relevant to stakeholders’ concerns?

Workshop participants reflected on dominant environmental, policy and economic concerns facing rangelands in the Pacific Northwest. Stakeholders’ environmental concerns were centered on the timing of precipitation and availability of water, including soil moisture (water storage), erosion, frequency of multi-year droughts and extreme precipitation events. Other critical environmental issues identified include invasive species (largely cheat grass and medusa head, and juniper and pinyon encroachment in grasslands), forage quality, fetch (spacing between plants), and frequency and severity of wildfires. Stakeholders’ policy-related and economic concerns include riparian fencing regulations, completing land uses (for example, oil and gas extraction on rangelands), winter feed prices and the impact of ethanol prices on hay prices.

Participating stakeholders were interested in regional environmental model scenarios that explore the impacts of various kinds of grazing (sheep, goats, different cattle breeds), application of Holistic Management principles, prescribed burning, and use of forested rangelands. One interesting insight that emerged was that modeling “worst management practices” might, in some respects, be more meaningful than the more-frequently attempted approach of modeling “best management practices”. Seeing the consequences of management decisions that are clearly destructive to rangeland systems could help clarify what practices to regulate against. However, for government agencies, using model projections to inform policy or regulatory decisions opens up a suite of ethical questions connected to how accurately those models represent different locations and specific processes.

While webinars and online resources are increasingly important tools for scientists and decision-makers to connect, in the course of planning and carrying out this series of stakeholder workshops for the BioEarth project we’ve heard time and time again the face-to-face format is greatly appreciated. This approach facilitates dialogue between groups who rarely get the chance to sit down together and talk and enables another level of mutual understanding. Environmental scientists involved in BioEarth increasingly recognize that there’s a need for proactive engagement with stakeholders. Researchers want to maintain relationships with the stakeholders who have participated in the rangeland management workshop and other issue-based workshops because having decision makers’ feedback on initial model scenarios and projections is key for them to be able to further refine the models and present outputs in a meaningful way.