Crossing the Moat: Using Ecosystem Services to Communicate Ecological Ideas Beyond the Ivory Tower
This workshop was organized by Rhonda Kranz, The Ecological Society of America, and Nancy Cole, Union of Concerned Scientists and held on August 8, 1999 as part of ESA’s annual meeting in Spokane, WA. The goal of the workshop was to present and solicit feedback on the initial results of "The Ecosystem Services Communication Project", a joint project of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The goal of the ESA/UCS Ecosystem Services Communication Project is to use the concept of ecosystem services - especially those that provide tangible benefits to humans - to mobilize the scientific community in raising the public’s awareness of the importance of our biological resources. The specific objectives are: (1) to develop a set of outreach tools on specific ecosystem services designed for use by scientists and other professionals to inform the public and policymakers about the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and protecting biodiversity; (2) to develop strategies and put into action an outreach and distribution plan for disseminating this information. The materials presented at the workshop were the result of a two-step process: (1) identification of key ecosystem services and their scientific foundation; and (2) development of a set of materials on the topics that can be used by scientists and other professionals to develop presentations and written materials suitable for use in their communities and regions.
More than 40 academic scientists, students and environmental professionals participated in the workshop. The majority were ESA members but local and regional environmental groups, state and local agency, and the media were also represented. The workshop was organized around prototype materials developed on the ecosystem services of pollination and water purification. For each topic, the following items were provided: a fact sheet for public distribution; a topical summary that provides basic information from which to design a talk; a list of key points or "sound bites"; sample case studies; reference materials with a list of key papers and web sites and a who’s who regarding the topic; and, a policy fact sheet on related legislation and programs. Background materials on the concept of ecosystem services and a tip sheet on how to communicate with a variety of audiences were provided as samples of the types of materials that will be developed to support the topical materials.
The overall goal of the workshop was to garner feedback on the quality, content and appropriateness of the materials for various audiences, and to solicit interest and guidance in the overall direction of the project. The workshop format was composed of three parts: (1) presentations by ESA members on each of the two sets of prototype materials; (2) a panel discussion among three respondents who provided feedback on the information packets from the perspective of their roles within a local nongovernmental organization, a state policy agency and the international ecological community; (3) facilitated discussions among all workshop participants. In preparation for the workshop, registered participants received a set of materials on one of the two services and a series of thought provoking questions.
Rhonda Kranz of the Ecological Society of America provided the audience with an overview of the project. She explained that the project was premised upon the belief that scientists can play an important role in providing critical information to decision makers and have the credibility to change behavior and correct misconceptions about our natural environment and human impact upon it. The concept of "ecosystem services" is a good vehicle to make the connection between peoples' everyday lives and the ecosystem services upon which they depend. However, most scientists have little experience in presenting scientific concepts to non-academic audiences. The project materials are designed to provide basic information, language and guidance to an ecologist or other professional who is interested in communicating about these issues. A general background in ecology is assumed, but not an expertise in any particular field. The materials should be useful for development of a presentation or written material for a variety of audiences, including the local rotary club, county land use planners, the press, federal or state agencies, schools, legislators, and others.
Michael Mappin, University of Calgary, described ways in which the pollination materials could be used in a general audience talk. He emphasized showing the connections that can be made among issues that are important to a community, and the importance of using simple, but compelling visuals. Dr. Mappin felt that the materials could be very effective in explaining two very important concepts to a general audience: the importance of managing for ecosystems rather than single species, and the idea of process within an ecosystem and consequences of loss of process. Catherine Pringle, University of Georgia, was enthusiastic about the use of the water purification materials as a springboard for customizing a presentation for a particular audience. She gave an overview of how she would use the water quality materials in putting together a presentation for community stakeholders such as nongovernmental groups and county commissioners and planners. She suggested that these groups are often seeking help from scientists in developing planning options and that academics who would like to make themselves available to these groups should let their local extension agents know of their interest. As an example, she showed slides from a riparian conservation slide show she had prepared at the request of stakeholders from a local watershed. Workshop participants heartily agreed that access to slides such as these would be invaluable to them in putting together a presentation. Dr. Pringles’s riparian slide show is available to the public for a small fee and will be listed as a resource in project materials.
Tony Grover from the Washington Department of Ecology, provided input from a state policy perspective. He opened the panel discussion by emphasizing the need to talk about specifics and focus on local examples. A discussion of timber sales for example should describe "this timber sale in this watershed, not all timber sales in all watersheds". He insisted that generic statements do not resonate with out local context. He also warned against turning people off by referring to socially charged terms such as global warming, ecosystem health, or biodiversity, or of using examples from places such as New York City which everyone knows is "not like here". He also recommended avoiding national statistics, as big numbers don’t seem real to most people. "Global problems and big numbers leave people feeling helpless." The emphasis should be on the positive, responding to good news, and focusing on how behavior can have a good outcome.
Chris De Forest from the Inland Northwest Land Trust, told the group that organizations like his rely on information from scientists but they don’t just want the facts, they also want to be given suggestions on what to do about the problem. "Scientific information and education are ammunition for local grassroots groups." He explained that they rely on the information from scientists to be accurate and they won’t look up references or resources. He suggested that information on the local angle is needed: "there is a lot of passion and credibility on the local level." Fun factoids, local examples, precise case studies are very useful. He also told the group that ecologists provide good perspective but must be careful to present themselves and what they have to say in a comprehensible manner. He also suggested that better communication is needed between ecologists and NGOs.
Gerardo Ceballos of the Instituto de Ecologia, UNAM, spoke from the perspective of an ESA member and an ecologist from outside of the U.S. Dr. Ceballos gave wholehearted support for the project and the need to get scientists involved in providing information about environmental problems. He stated that "you can read one year of Ecology and not know there is an environmental problem" and emphasized that ESA, as the largest society of ecologists, is a role model for what others can do. He agreed with the other panelists that the local angle is important but cautioned that it must be put in the global context. He gave the example of water, a critical issue between Mexico and the U.S. that may well lead to conflict. "Water is not just a local or national issue." He also emphasized the importance of relying on an understanding of the processes involved in ecosystem services. Although the initial focus of the project is national, he foresees the usefulness of such a project internationally and would like to see it eventually take that direction.
The final section of the workshop involved splitting the participants into two groups to discuss in detail the quality, content and organization of the materials. Major suggestions included: simplifying the organization of the material as much as possible; making it accessible on the web along with links to resources such as slides, local and state agencies, extension services and other resources; expanding the existing tip sheet for communicating with different audiences; tailoring specific fact sheets for different audiences; and, providing guidance on possible helpful techniques such as use of story telling and how to adapt materials to local audiences. It was also suggested that a sociologist review the materials, spatial data be incorporated, and that students and classrooms be used to gather information. The participants filled out a questionnaire that solicited comments on specific details about the workshop and materials.
The workshop generated useful feedback and suggestions that will be incorporated in the next iteration of the materials and in the overall development of the project. The revised water purification and pollination services materials will be available for distribution in early Spring 2000 and materials on three additional services are slated to be developed over the next year. The success of this project depends on involvement of members of the ESA and UCS communities to help develop, review and use the project materials. Local and regional examples, so heavily emphasized during the workshop, will continually be collected and made available for use and reference. To acquire these, ESA and UCS will have to receive ideas or information from those scientists or other people who live or work in various regions and communities. Students can be of particular help in this regard. For example, case studies on a local watershed could make a successful class or thesis project and have an application beyond the classroom. Over the next 12 months the Project will use a small grant it has obtained for graduate student support in the development of materials for the next set of topics, organization of policy briefings in Washington, DC, and a meeting of the Project Advisory Committee.
The Ecosystem Services Communication Project is part of ESA’s Sustainable Biosphere Initiative and Science Program Office "Initiative on Ecosystem Services." The Initiative will focus on projects that further our scientific understanding of ecosystem services and the functioning of the ecosystems that provide them, and the communication of this knowledge to the public, policymakers and other decision makers. Updates on the Initiative and the Communication Project can be found on the SBI page of the ESA website www.esa.org.
Dr. Elizabeth Stallman
Ecological Society of America
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