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U.Va.-Based Research Consortium Receives Grant To Study Environmental Outcomes Of Collaboration

March 3, 2004 -- Communities are increasingly turning to local collaborative processes to solve complex environmental problems, such as grazing land disputes, forest management plans or conflicts over fisheries management. The University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation has received a $300,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for its Community-Based Collaboratives Research Consortium (CBCRC) to study the processes and environmental outcomes of community-based collaboration. “The idea to fund research concerning the outcomes of collaborative processes arose in response to the controversy surrounding their use and the lack of clear, objective and defensible research about their appropriateness and impacts,” said E. Franklin Dukes, director of U.Va.’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation.

What is a community-based collaborative (CBC) project?

According to the consortium, a CBC is a community-based group made up of multiple stakeholders that has been formed by the local community to focus on public resource management issues, such as national forests or rivers. These CBCs are initiated by communities to influence the protection and use of the environment through recommendations or direct actions. The Hewlett Foundation grant will allow the consortium to evaluate environmental outcomes and impacts of these multi-stakeholder processes. The findings from this research will be of use to agencies, communities and policy makers who are seeking to learn whether and how to use CBC processes.

“A community may reach agreement on a plan to manage a river and may have used good data in setting goals for reaching intended objectives, but factors outside the group’s control may change the plan’s outcomes,” Karen Firehock, consortium coordinator, stated. For instance, unanticipated natural events such as a drought, or a political decision, such as a plan to build a large shopping mall in the river’s headwaters, may change the environmental outcomes of the plan.

For example, the Friends of the Rockfish River in Nelson County, Va., was formed as an outcome of a multi-stakeholder process involving the chamber of commerce, the Virginia Farm Bureau, local environmental groups, residents, educators and county staff to better manage the Rockfish River Valley. The group established an action plan that includes clear goals and objectives and implementation of projects, such as replanting streamside forests and water quality monitoring. However, the county is rapidly developing as a bedroom community of Charlottesville. Other amenities, such as the ski resort, draw people looking to build vacation and retirement homes. These development pressures, occurring largely from outside the community, impact the group’s ability to protect the watershed from being overdeveloped. Environmental factors also play a role. A severe drought impacted the watershed in 2002 while flooding ensued in 2003. Determining how to account for and incorporate environmental, social and political changes into a watershed management plan is a complex undertaking. As part of its research, the consortium will examine existing and field test existing theories, such as the Complexity hypothesis, to understand these factors.

In addition to forces outside the group’s direct control, there are other factors to consider, such the time it takes for environmental change to be measurable. For example, a management strategy may take 20 years to show improvement due to the time it takes for the ecosystem to recover from past damages. Conversely, change may happen quickly and effects of those changes may go undetected or be catastrophic. Change also happens at multiple scales, making it difficult to differentiate between local systems and regional effects, such as the recent drought that plagued the eastern United States.

With this new grant, the consortium will review the many emerging theories of environmental change and evaluate various approaches to measuring environmental, social and economic outcomes of community-based collaborative processes. Case studies will be conducted to field-test different approaches to evaluating outcomes. Information collected through research and field-testing will be evaluated and synthesized by consortium work groups. A key goal is to translate the findings of this synthesis into improving the design, practice and implementation of collaborative processes. Workshops, publications, a national conference and the consortium’s Web site, www.cbcrc.org, will provide venues for sharing research findings.

Founded in 1999, the consortium serves as a forum for researchers, agencies, community and environmental groups, tribes and facilitators to share and learn from research concerning collaborative approaches to environmental management. The consortium provides an online venue for sharing research, resources and ideas through its free Web site, www.cbcrc.org, which includes searchable databases of literature and collaborative projects, discussion rooms, guidance for ethical research and an online journal. In 2002-03, the consortium funded nine projects researching the design, methods, uses, applications and outcomes of collaborative processes. These projects and other research were presented at the consortium’s national research conference in September 2003. The full set of papers and presentations are available on the consortium’s Web site.

The Institute for Environmental Negotiation, founded in 1980, is part of the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in U.Va.’s School of Architecture. The institute provides mediation and consensus-building services to the public and private sectors concerning conflicts and policy choices about land use and the environment.

Contacts: Franklin Dukes or Karen Firebock, (434) 924-2041

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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