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Decision Framework

Our Decision Framework to deal with the complexity and uncertainty inherent in interlinked social and ecological systems, as well as uncertainty associated with global and climate change, is adapted from that originally proposed by James Wyant and colleagues (Wyant et al. 1995) and encompasses key elements of both the SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration, the MERI framework recommended under Caring for Our Country processes of the Australian Federal Government, and new thinking on network governance and social learning.

It is diagnostic in approach and encompasses the three critical processes of importance — governance, management and risk assessment for resilience.
It is of intermediate complexity, not so simple as to be unable to address real issues at a site, and not too specific and detailed to prevent systemic generalisations that would benefit any site.

Governance failures are seen to be responsible for most problems relating to “common pool” natural resources (including biodiversity) (Pahl-Wostl 2009). We take a broad view of governance as discussed by Pahl-Wostl (2009) and include network governance (Newig et al. 2010) as a vital element for achieving our defined outcomes including a paradigm shift to embracing World Heritage support and protection.

All environmental problems result from human behavior which governance systems (rules) attempt to control in order to achieve the greater public good. Social learning is integral to concepts of governance and paradigm shifts.

Because ecological systems are complex and potentially unpredictable, the framework explores novel governance options for optimizing learning and adaptive management. There is a fine line between being able to adapt to changing circumstances and retaining enough certainty to avoid haphazardness. In reality, all ecological restoration projects are an experiment with implicit potential for failure or breaking new ground.
Iterative feedback loops in the framework allow adaptive management in an integrated and effective manner aimed at resilience to unexpected shocks or surprises. There is a debate as to whether “efficiency” aids or hinders adaptive management and whether it is a concept that belongs to old restoration paradigms. Redundancy is also being increasingly seen as important for achieving long term resilience in governance. The framework allows us to analyse historical drivers of land-use change, address knowledge gaps, review the conceptual base and underlying assumptions used in the light of practice. It allows for learning that may result in paradigm shifts in ecological restoration and social learning. By systematically documenting each of the stages in the framework and sharing this knowledge, the project stands to provide useful information for others to evaluate in a global quest for repairing our damaged world. The hope is that insights gleaned will be able to be generalized to be of use beyond individual case studies.

Context analysis
Defining the context is one of the first steps before being able to set measurable, time-bound objectives

All decisions or choices affecting the environment, irrespective of the situation, are made, either explicitly or implicitly, in a social, economic and ecological (biophysical) context at many scales.

By “governance” we mean the range of political, social, economic and administrative systems in place that regulate resource use, and the actors and networks that help formulate and implement environmental policy and/or policy instruments

This part of the framework involves five steps leading to clearly stated and achievable long-term and interim goals and outcomes. Everything is stated more precisely so that management options and activities can efficiently lead to achieving our goals. It considers the interactions at various levels between linked social and ecological systems. Details are available in our foundation report but in summary:

1. Socioeconomic context

In this section we address relevant aspects of governance and social learning within a historical context, together with demographic trends with the view to resolving potential social conflict over restoration goals and gaining support for related World Heritage Convention’s goals and obligations.

We focus on understanding the changes in governance systems over time that have shaped land-use decisions and resulted in the current state of the environment. We chose to be guided by advice from Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues (most recently updated in McGinnis and Ostrom 2011) in order to focus systematically on the most important or relevant social and economic influences or causes of “the problem” and its solutions under any given circumstances.

Developing a communications strategy that addresses social learning issues (Reed et al. 2010, Newig et al. 2010) is an essential part of the “Context analysis. It focuses on learning through engagement: sharing and widely transmitting learnings, enhancing visitor experiences, and celebrating successes in ways that enrich and transforms personal and community values.

2. Ecological context

“Ecological context” addresses the known historical, contemporary and likely future drivers of ecological change. An ecological conceptual model helps us understand why the environment is as it is today, how to refine our goals according to nature’s needs, and determine the steps needed to achieve those goals in a learning environment that may lead to a paradigm shift in community attitudes towards .

3. The problem

The problem is formally defined, based on the social and ecological contexts, in terms of its scale, magnitude and duration, its causes (both direct and underlying), the desirability and feasibility of recovery, the type of recovery desired (from amongst a range of options) and the likely costs.

4. Resources

Resources include details of material, financial, in-kind, informational and legal resources which fundamentally determine the viability or sustainability of project in the long-term. All costs (time spent on each type of activity and all associated costs) are detailed and recorded in a database. Budget estimates are over ten year cycles. The budget is detailed in our foundation report. A feed-back loop allows reevaluation of required resources in the light of experience. A significant contribution to the total budget derives from two ecotourism businesses owned by ARCS from which all profits are directed to this project to help ensure its long-term sustainability. License agreements between ARCS and our partner, the Queensland Government are designed to provide long-term security for the project to ensure sustainability of restoration activities.

5. Goals and Objectives

At an international policy level, given the unprecedented global biodiversity crisis, there are strong directives to reverse past over-clearing and recover ecosystems that have been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.

The Convention on Biological Diversity gives high priority to ecological restoration and its Strategic Plan for 2011–2020 sets clear targets for signatory countries to restore at least 15 per cent of degraded systems by 2020 (Aichi Biodiversity Target 15).

The World Heritage Convention goals include socio-economic well-being which includes direct economic benefits to local communities.

Management interventions for ecological restoration without time-bound, measurable goals and objectives become meaningless. Our goals and objectives are fundamentally allied to meeting the World Heritage Convention’s obligations as expressed in its Operational Guidelines and thus, of necessity, recovering to the greatest possible extent the “original” condition — a climatically buffered and resilient refugial area for ancient lineages of outstanding universal value. This is in contrast to a functional approach regardless of the exact identity of the species involved.

Risk assessment
Risk assessment in our framework involves systematic consideration of social, economic or ecological barriers that might prevent attainment of our goals and outcomes. We examine the level of risk that our assumptions on which the outcome statements depend might be invalid. We also consider the magnitude of the potential impact if the assumptions were found to be invalid. Broadly, the assumptions centre on governance, science and the biophysical constraints on natural processes. Our assessments are expressed in terms of standard criteria originally developed in the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology. However, these criteria apply equally to consideration of any system at any scale.

1. Exposure

We attempt to identify all significant barriers, impediments, and threats to ultimate achievement of our stated goals. Exposure and sensitivity parameters are integrally linked

2. Sensitivity

The degree to which any goal or outcome may be detrimentally affected by misjudging limitations of governance issues, knowledge, or resources is described and the probability rated as low, medium or high.

3. Potential impact

Potential impact of “getting things wrong” involves a subjective judgment of risks. The consequence of such misjudgments regarding achievability of our goals is rated as insignificant, minor, moderate, major or extreme.

4. Adaptive capacity

Adaptive capacity is normally interpreted as the potential or capacity of a system to adjust in order to moderate potential damage or loss from stresses or shocks. This criterion directs us to focus on possible mitigation strategies or re-evaluation of our conceptual models.

5. Risk or vulnerability

The potential risk to not achieving our goals or outcomes is explicitly evaluated. The Goals and/or outcomes are adjusted if the risk is unable to be mitigated and the consequences to the overall goal insignificant to moderate.

Management Interventions
We include within the adaptive “management” frame all activities relating to analyzing and monitoring, developing and implementing measures to restore and then maintain ecosystems within stable desirable bounds. It is fundamentally about learning by doing in a way that enables prevailing paradigms relating to governance, social learning and ecological restoration to change.

We have adopted the idea of multiple levels of learning or “triple-loop” learning as the most appropriate learning approach to complex systems (Pahl-Wostl 2009 and as subsequently clarified by Reed et al. 2010) where paradigm shifts appear necessary:

1. “Incremental” or single loop learning: (a) refining actions to improve performance without changing assumptions, i.e. incremental improvement in standard practices to improve attainment of goals, and/or capacity

2. “Reframing” or double loop learning: refining/questioning the frame of reference (problem framing, “The problem”, and goals and guiding assumptions. It may include changing priorities, considering new aspects, or changing the boundaries of system analysis (context definition). The question “what’s going on here?” is a good lead to possibly reframing the problem statement and Goals and Objectives.

3. “Transformational” or triple-loop learning: this involves changes to the whole regime: the regulatory frameworks, practices, dominant values, i.e. a paradigm shift and change in underlying social norms and values in the wider community.

In summary, the “Management Interventions” frame includes the following:

1. Management options

The most desirable management option is to allow natural regeneration processes to proceed unassisted unless, on the basis of sound evidence and robust ecological conceptual models, assistance is necessary to overcome intractable abiotic or biotic barriers.

2. Interventions

All interventions are couched in language relating to key ecosystem processes identified in our adopted conceptual models.

Management plans are structured by catchments, describing the baseline condition in terms of all monitoring indicators at the beginning of the review period (or a granting body’s grant period), projected changes expected during the reporting period and methods whereby the those changes will be monitored. 

Wherever possible, interventions are guided by empirical evidence from our monitoring programs.

Active engagement of a diverse range of community networks (both scientific and lay) that maximizes social learning objectives is a key part of our program.

3. Monitoring outcomes

Interventions are actively and scientifically monitored in such a way as to fill information gaps and assess progress towards meeting our goals.

Monitoring indicators are selected in association with our chosen conceptual models. Monitoring is segmented into 35 discrete projects each accompanied by documentation including linkage to goals, objectives, methods, location, duration, resources, budget, progress assessment, and reports or publications.

Community networks (including citizen scientists) are involved in a wide range of monitoring tasks or projects.

4. Evaluating outcomes

Ongoing evaluation of monitoring outcomes allows timely adjustment of restoration practices in the light of surprises.

We would benefit from professional help in designing and evaluating our communication and social engagement strategies in order to be able to confirm that “triple-loop learning” has indeed occurred and permeated the broader community.

5. Review and reporting of outcomes and activities

Six- and twelve-monthly reviews of ongoing evaluations are in the form of formal reports to both our partner, the Queensland Government, and granting bodies. These are published on the Springbrook Rescue and other linked websites.

Progress reports are structured to detail the degree to which projected outcomes during the reporting period were achieved, including variations from outcomes projected on the basis of conceptual models. Photographs of on-ground works and photopoint monitoring are included.  The results of an updated risk assessment are included if warranted by changes in threat.

We aim to maximize web linkages to like-interested organisations in order to better engage and share learnings between ARCS and the local and international communities.

Our scientific studies will also continue to be published in peer-review journals and at conferences.

6. Improvement and adaption

In view of the nature of complex interlinked social and ecological systems, all ecological restoration projects are an experiment with implicit potential for failure or breaking new ground.

Iterative feedback loops in the framework allow adaptive management in an integrated and hopefully effective manner aimed at dealing with uncertainty and resilience to unexpected shocks or surprises.

Adaptive management approaches are vital in an environment of worsening human-caused climate change.

Jordan, R.C. Gray, S.A., Howe, D.V., Brooks, W.R. and Ehrenfeld, J.G. (2011). Knowledge gain and behavioural change in citizen-science programs. Conservation Biology 25, 1148-1154

McGinnis, M.D. and Ostrom, E. (2011). SES Framework: Initial changes and continuing challenges. Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Department of Political Science, and School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington. www.php.indiana.edu/~mcginnis/W11-6_SES%20Intro_McGinnis%20and%20Ostrom_Draft.pdf

Newig, J., Gunther, D. and Pahl-Wostl, C. (2010). Synapses in the Network: Learning in governance networks in the context of environmental management (2010). Ecology and Society 15(4): 24 [online] URL: www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art24/

Pahl-Wostl, C. (2009). A conceptual framework for analyzing adaptive capacity and multi-level learning processes in resource governance regimes. Global Environmental change 19, 354-365.

Reed, M., Evely, A.C., Cundill, G., Fazer, I., Glass, J., Laing, A., Newig, J., Parrish, B., Prell, C., Raymond, C. and Stringer, L. (2010). What is social learning? Ecology and Society 15(4), r1.[online] URL: www.ecologyand society.org/vol15/iss4/resp1/

Wyant, J.G., Meganck, R.A. and Ham, S.H. (1995). A planning and decision-making framework for ecological restoration. Environmental Management 19(6), 789-796.