Case Study: Engaging Forest Managers on Climate Impacts

Case Study: Engaging Forest Managers on Climate Impacts

How can researchers empower managers and planners with new information on climate change impacts that helps inform how natural spaces are managed? What types of communications tools are most effective at conveying this information? These are questions Jarod Blades and his team are addressing in their project, Multi-scale Climate Change Research and Communication in the U.S. Northern Rockies. And they’ve found that through careful planning and the use of visualizations, their interactive workshops have changed participants’ opinions about the utility and credibility of climate change science, potentially influencing how climate data is used in land management decisions.

Jarod shared his insights in a question-and-answer session with Climate Access.

Who was your audience?

Forest managers and planners (e.g., fire management officers, district rangers, interdisciplinary team leaders, National Environmental Policy Act planners), forest ecologists (e.g., silviculturists, foresters, fire ecologists), and water resource specialists (e.g., hydrologists, fisheries biologists, riparian ecologists).  Although many of these professionals believe climate change science should be used in forest management, they are often constrained by time, funding and politics. This challenge is exacerbated by the overwhelming amount of complex and often conflicting messages about climate change.

What action did you want them to take?

We aimed to convey locally relevant information on shifts in forest ecosystems due to changing climate, and assess how participation in deliberative workshops influenced forest managers’ opinions, intentions and use of climate change science.

We wanted to understand how participants used the climate science presented during our workshops in their professional roles, for example by discussing the science with others, or using workshop materials for training and citing the material in a project. 

What was your approach?

We conducted four climate change workshops in the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains designed to facilitate the two-way exchange of climate change knowledge and understanding among academic researchers, land managers, and community leaders. Multiple methods of inquiry (i.e. pre-post interviews and questionnaires) were used to understand how the workshops influenced participants and ultimately forest management practices.

We incorporated ideas from social learning theory to develop activities that enhanced collective understanding in the application of climate science to practice, including visualization techniques and small group activities.
A number of tools were used to convey how climate change was impacting water resources, forest ecosystems and fire regimes at various spatial and temporal scales. This included historical data on changes in temperature, precipitation, snowpack, stream flow and stream temperature demonstrated evidence of observed change.

Models that explore the relationship between climate and species occurrence were used to display potential future biome and tree distributions in the northern Rocky Mountains. Wildfire-climate projections visualized increases in area burned, fire season length, and the number of high fire danger days. Simulations of various forest management scenarios and 3D animations illustrated how forests may continue to change, and provided managers with a tool for considering climate change adaptation strategies at the stand level. 

In what ways was your approach effective? What were the challenges?

We ensured that the audience started with the same fundamental understanding of global climate basics before reviewing regional climate change impacts and concluding with local-scale impacts and adaptation options.

It was important to establish credibility by using historical data first to empirically show climate change before transitioning into future projections and simulations. A values-based approach (i.e., focusing on water resources, forest distributions, and fire) made the workshop salient to our audience.

Our findings suggest that workshops that carefully progress through spatial and temporal scales, are transparent, explain model uncertainty and use visualizations can be effective for the quickly delivering climate change science.

The visualization and animated aspects of the workshops were important for simplifying complex climate science and focusing attention on geographic areas that participants managed and were familiar with. The use of direct measures of climate (i.e. temperature and precipitation) at regional scales were found to be more useful and credible than using models that were more complex, and used indirect measures to estimate local-scale climate impacts that cannot account for high landscape variability and uncertainty.

What was the outcome of the workshops?

As a result of the workshops, perceptions of the usefulness and credibility of climate change science significantly increased, and were found to be significant predictors of intention to use climate science in land management decisions.

One workshop participant reflected that “being able to look at the models and see the trend was really useful, and something I can share with others to get them thinking.” Many participants felt that the regional hydrological modeling was more credible than the vegetation and fire modeling because it relied on a smaller number of simple variables (temperature and precipitation) that were easy to comprehend and had less uncertainty than local-scale models that were more complex.

Many people do not have the time or ability to collect, interpret, and summarize the vast amount of climate change science that exists.

Nearly all of our participants agreed that the workshops translated climate change science for practical use and overcame the barriers of time and funding that would be necessary to gather and synthesize climate change information independently. A large majority of participants who responded to the follow-up survey had used the information discussed during the workshops, with nearly 20 percent reporting that they had cited the workshop materials in a forest management document.

What advice would you give to others in the field who are trying to communicate climate impacts and motivate behavior change?

Often times scientists struggle to get useful information out to land managers on-the-ground and are not able to conduct comprehensive, long-term, collaborative partnerships. We found that interactive workshops can be very effective for the rapid transmission of complex climate change science, but only with careful consideration of scale, model complexity, uncertainty and visualization options when designing, implementing, and evaluating climate change communication tools.

The need for ongoing research-management partnerships that synthesize and translate climate change science, such as our workshops, are imperative in the face of increasing organizational barriers that constrain agency specialists from adequately addressing climate change in natural resource management decisions.  

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image via (cc) Amy Huva