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Making Decisions in Complex Landscapes: Deerfield Headwater Stream Workshop

Friday, March 13, 2015
Credit: Colton Ellison

Sipping coffee while meeting participants trickled in just before the Deerfield Headwater Stream Workshop, postdoctoral researcher Rachel Katz explained that the workshop is a “proactive approach” to making management decisions, as compared to the usual reactive management approaches following events or disasters. This workshop is an essential step of a Structured Decision-Making (SDM) project, led by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and funded by the Northeast Climate Science Center (NE CSC), to put a strategic framework in place that will increase preparedness and improve conservation decision-making in the face of numerous environmental uncertainties.

This initial workshop, held February 11th and 12th 2015, provided UMass and USGS researchers insights on shared and unique priorities and concerns among a diversity of professionals from various management agencies that make decisions affecting headwater stream ecosystems in the Deerfield watershed. To ensure the workshop’s relevance, there were preliminary “one-on-one conversations with the management agencies to begin to understand their perspectives”, says the workshop’s co-Principal Investigator Evan Grant of the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The insights gained from the workshop will help frame the construction of supplemental tools to guide effective decision-making for landscape-scale management of headwater streams. This framing is to be continually refined “to ensure [UMass and USGS are] solving the 'right' problems facing managers in the watershed,” says Grant.

There were representatives from 13 organizations at the workshop, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and Trout Unlimited. It was a room full of diverse agendas; therefore, a vital secondary benefit of the workshop was kindling trans-organizational relationships. This camaraderie is expected to boost cross-pollination of essential information and promote potential collaborative actions, such as sharing funds or resources for on-the-ground management or monitoring projects.

Most of these representatives had never formally partnered before, despite their mutual priorities and the valuable information they could share to collaborate on projects or make impactful decisions. One participant put this issue into context: “Problems are coming, we will all be impacting each other and discussing needs to come sooner rather than later...we need [collaboration in] an informal process and workshops such as this”; her peers nodded in agreement. Another remarked, “[local] towns are exhausted [from] the extent of recent conservation.” Focused, collaborative action and structured decision-making will produce better-integrated projects with a greater chance for success, making essential conservation action less taxing on local municipalities.

For Martha Naley of the USFWS, the SDM process promises “more efficient use of time and tax dollars,” such as prioritizing funds from the USFWS’s Fish Passage Program into other organizations’ projects when there is synergy with USFWS goals. For Karl Honkonen of the USDA Forest Service, this collaborative network will help define “hot spots,” areas to focus his corrective action on forestry practices to maintain water quality throughout New England and New York, which provides headway he would be unable to make without the support of this network. According to MassDOT representative Tim Dexter, the awareness raised in this workshop will increase the potential that external concerns can be taken into account before a MassDOT project has begun, rather than inquiring about them once the planning process is underway. Making adjustments on an ongoing project is very costly and sometimes impossible, especially when dealing with limited funding and an endless agenda. Hoping to bond professional priorities, Dexter attended the workshop to learn about the concerns and priorities of conservation organizations “to use them to make smart decisions [and focus statewide restoration projects] to have the greatest environmental improvements…when possible.”

Constructive stimulation of professional relationships, especially when there are potentially conflicting agendas afoot, takes strategic execution on the part of the facilitator. Joshua Morse, of Franklin Land Trust, applauded the structure of this workshop; he was specifically impressed with the clever and considerate approach to discussing the role of climate change. In his experience, the topic of climate change sets a defensive tone at seminars, demanding that practitioners change their management actions, rather than considering their suggestions and experience. Morse has seen this dynamic seize a group’s creativity and result in disruptive debate. However, in this workshop Mike Runge, co-PI with the USGS, allowed a thorough discussion of individual management concerns before deftly tying them to the potential impacts of climate change. This strategy was noticeably effective and fostered a creative and strategic discussion.

“Thoughout the process, we are looking for opportunities for collaboration, and seek to determine when collaboration may lead to more effective or efficient conservation outcomes,” reminds Grant, keeping the goal of management efficiency at the forefront. This workshop provided a chance for management professionals to collaboratively define their most pressing concerns. These concerns will guide the development of tools that will help make effective management decisions. These tools are developed with continuous feedback from participants and the collaborative management partners to ensure their utility in make better conservation decisions by practitioners. The informal, yet professional nature of the SDM process has gained generous and visible support from the participants; the collaborative network and relevant decision-making tools carry high promise for increasing organizational efficiency and for achieving individual and mutual management goals.

By Colton Ellison, NE CSC Communications Intern, UMass Amherst


In attendance: Deerfield River Watershed Association, Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, Franklin Land Trust, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife, Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration (within MA DFW), The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Trout Unlimited- Deerfield Chapter, United States Fish & Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service Northeast Area Watershed Team, USDA Green Mountain National Forest, Windham Regional Commission, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Photo: Workshop participants discuss Deerfield River Watershed management priorities (credit: Colton Ellison)


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