Bridging the communication gap: researchers vs. residents in environmental science

In the far southwestern corner of Alberta, tucked up against the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains, is the Star Creek watershed. Seen from the road, its alpine heights blend seamlessly with the rest of the Flathead Range, which extends south down to Montana. Its forested lower elevations are hidden in the folds of the landscape, and connect it to the Crowsnest River and beyond to the Oldman River, and ultimately the South Saskatchewan River. Snow is a constant feature at high elevations, while groundwater springs and seeps maintain streamflow through the long winter months. The watershed is far from pristine: located in the historic Crowsnest Pass region, the area was subject to logging and coal mining in the early 1900s, and has been scarred by the periodic wildfires that characterize the lodgepole pine dominated ecosystems of the Eastern Slopes. The last of these – the Lost Creek fire – roared through in 2003 and scorched many adjacent watersheds, but not Star Creek itself. Despite these disturbances – both human and natural – grizzly are often spotted in Star Creek’s upper reaches, and a population of westslope cutthroat trout inhabit an isolated portion of the main creek.

The upper reaches of the Star Creek watershed (Photo: S. Boon)

My research in Star Creek was in the planning phases just prior to my departure from academia. As part of a group project, we were developing a research program that would apply different forest harvesting techniques to each of the three sub-watersheds within Star Creek, and examine the impacts on hydrologic processes and runoff generation. It was an exciting project, with many new and interesting research questions.
Last November, the logging for this research project was approved, with harvesting to be done by a BC company. As was to be expected, the local community and conservationists – including retired provincial biologist Lorne Fitch – are up in arms.
It’s not as though there isn’t a precedent for this type of work. In Colorado’s Fraser Experimental Forest, for example, the 1956 Fool Creek experiment applied a forest harvest of alternating clearcut and forested strips to examine the impacts on hydrology. Here in Canada, the Marmot Creek experiment, conducted west of Calgary in the Kananaskis region starting in 1965, aimed to manipulate the subalpine spruce-fir forest to improve water yield. But since that time, few studies have subjected the forest to direct manipulation for hydrologic purposes. Instead, researchers have largely conducted opportunistic research by studying sites after logging has occurred, to see what the effects might be.
Initially, Star Creek was little more to me than an outline on a map, a squiggly line encompassing a small watershed with three even smaller sub-watersheds. Dots and crosses indicated existing research installations, while hatching and shading indicated forest harvesting treatments. It fit well in the context of previous work I’d read from experimental watersheds, but the on-the-ground implications of such an undertaking weren’t at the forefront of my mind.
The more I thought about it, though, it hit home that the research is planned for a watershed to which the local community has a strong attachment, both for recreational and personal natural values. And since it’s not actually an experimental watershed set aside for research purposes, conflicts arise (Note: I’ve recently learned that the project was granted Protective Notation status by the Alberta government, though am not sure exactly what that means for these specific activities).
So who’s right – the researchers or the residents?
Rather than being right or wrong, the conflict lies in each side’s differing value systems and perspectives on risk versus reward. This gap between scientists and the public must be bridged in many instances – from climate change to water conservation. Even though I’m no longer part of the project, I find this case particularly difficult not only because I know the researchers involved, but spent a lot of time (both researching and recreating) in the region affected.
Perspectives and values
The researchers’ perspective focuses on longer timescales and across geographic regions: since the ecosystem has been subject to past disturbance, it’s no longer pristine and is thus considered less valuable in terms of preservation. Also, research results may have broader geographical impacts, as they could be applied to forest harvest strategies across the Eastern slopes. Researchers also place high value on research outcomes for the purposes of understanding the functioning of hydrologic systems, but also for future funding and publications.
The residents’ perspective, however, revolves around shorter timescales and local geography. Residents are less concerned with the past condition of the ecosystem, as it has significant cultural and ecological value to them in its current state. They are less invested in outcomes that have broader geographical implications. They place greater value on recreational and aesthetic considerations, which may be lower down on the researchers’ list of values.
Risk vs. reward
The researchers see the reward (research outcomes) as outweighing the risk to fish and grizzly populations, as they plan to manage risk by complying with Species at Risk (SAR) legislation and applying standard forestry practices to protecting riparian zones. There has also been no public mention of the potential risk of the project for downstream flooding, which suggests they think that risk is relatively low.
However, the residents feel that the risk outweighs the reward. They’re not confident that either the SAR Act or forest management plans will reduce risk, and are also concerned about cumulative impacts. This region has been subject to significant disturbance from logging, oil & gas development, and off road activities, and locals are concerned that this will result in more of the same. Given the research timing so soon after the 2013 Alberta floods, there are also concerns about the downstream impacts of deliberately changing water routing in a headwater system that could experience heavy spring rains in upcoming years.
Insiders vs. outsiders
Lorne Fitch’s comments about ‘ivy-shrouded academics’ suggests that residents perceive that outsiders (researchers/government) are able to come in and do as they please without regard for the people who live there. The divide between insiders and outsiders also stems from the fact that each group values completely different things in the watershed, as noted above. Comments from residents also indicate that they perceive that government support for the project is in direct conflict with the government’s stated aims of ecosystem management.

It seems imperative that the project have not only government support, but also the support of the community – a social license to operate, as it were. But how can that be achieved here? Is it a case of requiring better communication between researchers and the community? Greater input from the community? More clarity from the researchers and government?
At this point I could throw around science communication terms like the deficit model, where you provide people with more facts to help them understand better, but which some people think doesn’t work. I could say that many people think that the key is to connect with people on a more personal level – to link their concerns to tangible outcomes, to make an impression with personal stories (see Dan Kahan’s research at Yale University for more ideas).
But I’m not well-versed enough in these particular techniques to provide a solution to this problem. I don’t know what tangible approaches can be applied to address the issue.
So I’m opening it up to readers – particularly those of you steeped in science outreach and communication: how can this communication gap be solved? Or are the two groups too far apart on key issues to ever be brought closer together?

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14 thoughts on “Bridging the communication gap: researchers vs. residents in environmental science”

  1. We often discuss companies’ social contract (whether it be implicitly or explicitly stated by the company itself), and researchers are no different. When we do things to natural environments for research purposes, whether that’s catching birds, or implementing a harvest regime on a forest stand, we have to lay the groundwork for those activities in the communities. I don’t know what community consultation or local partners are involved in your particular case, but in my experience, bringing them in as fully fledged collaborators is hugely important.
    A big chunk of my job is working on Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the South Atlantic with a resident population of about 265 people. As an organization, the RSPB has spent years building the professional and social capital needed to work successfully with the community, and each new group of researchers has to do a little bit of that social capital building themselves. We have to bring the community (through the Conservation Department) on board with any proposed research, or it doesn’t happen. In some cases where we see limited community support for a particular line of research, we have to shelve it for now, and hope that we can come back to it in the future. But our relationship is such that we’re comfortable having the discussion of what the next research project should be, and both sides float ideas that they other may not necessarily endorse just yet.
    In your particular case, I’m slightly concerned that the horse may be out of the barn. If there’s a local contact organization who can help arrange a meeting between the researchers and the community (one where both sides come in prepared to compromise), that might be worth exploring. But if neither side will budge, I fear for the project’s success.

    • Thanks for the perspective from your research site, Alex. Since I’m no longer part of the project, I unfortunately have no insight into how the consultation process was conceived/implemented, or in what capacity the community was involved. David’s comment (below) is an interesting update that I’ll have to keep an eye on…

  2. I agree with Alex Bond. A local contact organization or an impartial third party that is respected by both sides may be able to get a dialogue going. Information on the use of dialogue to resolve conflcits can be found at The Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at Queensland University offers courses in dialogue techniques and a look at the course description may be helpful.While the horse may be out of the barn, I believe there is still time to work things out. Many years ago the Oxfam Australia ombudsman intervened in a conflict between BHP’s Tintaya mine in Peru and local communities, and the dialogue process established by the ombudsman managed to overcome a legacy of serious human rights abuses. Comparison of the Star Creek experiment situation with the Tintaya conflict makes me think that it should be possible to resolve the former. It would take time, patience, wisdom, good intentions and a willingness to seriously consider all options (including not to proceed with the experiment)..

  3. I just received the following message from David McIntyre, a Crowsnest-area resident and retired forest scientist. “I’ve just learned that Canfor, as of last Wednesday, Jan. 14th, has shut down road-bulidling and installation crews in the Star Creek drainage ‘until the issue could be sufficiently sorted out.'” I believe it was Canfor’s forest ecologist that announced this. I’m not sure what is meant by “the issue”, but it may be an attempt to resolve some neglected community concerns. Certainly an opportunity is now there to do so.

  4. Responsible science starts, and hopefully ends, with the truth. As a layman who divides his time between his liberal arts and science-based friends, I thought I may well be able to provide a little insight into your question Sara.
    To my way of thinking, the problem lies not within the realm of communication, but rather ethics. Unfortunately, there are times when a line of thinking can become so ensconced as to become “the truth” and the important questions are left on the side of the road in an effort to get to where we want to be. If one is not vigilant in attending to ethical considerations ( an area scientists ought to attend without prompt), and the “truth of the day” is presented as unassailable fact, a road to hell is created that can be maniacally difficult to recognize – never mind take exit from.
    Sara, I believe your own blogs may hold the keys of understanding. It’s not just about the fish… , alludes to many of the issues surrounding the recovery of Westslope Cutthroat Trout (WSCT), including linier density and forestry issues, yet Fish, Forests and Snow leaves the reader to believe global warming and Rainbow Trout to be the salient issues. Above you noted, “a population of westslope cutthroat trout inhabit an isolated portion of the main creek” which is the truth, but not the whole truth.
    I queried Lorne Babiuk, Vice-President Research, University of Alberta on the ethics of the Star Creek experiment in November before road construction began. He was provided with knowledge of the presence of WSCT in the study area, the resultant need for a Class “A” approach to the watershed should any cutting be done and asked a series of questions regarding ethics and law based on my concern the university had not done its due diligence. I was truly surprised by the response (salutations removed):
    “The University is not doing any forest harvesting, only monitoring the effects of different logging practices that are being done by third parties. If the University was not monitoring the effects we would not have any information on those impacts, but the harvesting would still occur. We have the appropriate regulatory approvals for all of our University activities.”
    A similar query was sent to the G of A which provided an equally unsatisfactory answer. Fortunately, Canfor has seen the folly for what it is and has ceased operations until certain concerns are addressed. Not surprisingly, the concerns centre around issues of legislation and policy, or more poignantly, why have both the university and the government turned a blind eye to matters of law and ethics leaving members of the public as the last filter in the process?
    I am the writer of Star Creek, its’ About Water which appeared in the November 26, 2014 edition of the Crowsnest Pass Herald. I believe it reflects many of the residents’ concerns. There are, in fact, many members of the public capable of thinking well beyond the end of their noses and understanding, perhaps a little too well for some, the underlying forces at work and their potential affects. If the crucible of science is fueled by implicature, government agendas and personal gain, I feel all hope is lost. I, however, remain hopeful that discussions of this nature will continue, and through them, we can get to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kevin.
      Regarding my two previous posts that you mentioned, they were written to examine different aspects of the fish/forests/water issue, but not to proclaim one thing (linear disturbance, forestry) over another (rainbow trout, climate change) as the definitive driver of WSCT decline. As with any natural system, this is a complex problem that spans climatology, hydrology, geomorphology and biology – thus there are a number of linked mechanisms that have contributed to the listing of the AB population of WSCT as threatened.
      I have no questions about the residents’ concerns, and think they’re completely valid. This is why I focused on the communication aspect. I know some people associate ‘communication’ with ‘whitewash’, but I was more interested in whether there was a way residents’ concerns could have been addressed if the academic/government side was more forthcoming and open. I also wondered whether more open dialogue would help academics/govt better understand – and work with – the values and risk/reward perspective of the residents.
      While I agree that this case also involves ethics, I focused on more concrete issues that could be interpreted from the public news coverage of the issue. The ethics are harder to get at without some of the additional information you included in your comment.
      I, too, hope that these issues can be resolved. It seems Canfor has taken a first step towards this by temporarily halting operations.

  5. Your article mentions, “a research program that would apply different forest harvesting techniques to each of the three sub-watersheds within Star Creek, and examine the impacts on hydrologic processes and runoff generation. It was an exciting project, with many new and interesting research questions.”
    Great but what were the new questions?
    You briefly describe earlier studies of the impacts of forest harvest from Marmot Creek basin (1965 – ?) but didn’t mention Dr. Swanson’s (Federal forest research) paper that compared the impacts of logging on water quantity & flow regimes on nine paired, logged & unlogged basins in the Upper Athabasca (1977) or the Tri Creeks project (1965 to 1985) that studied the benefits of riparian buffers to protect Athabasca rainbow trout in three small headwaters streams in the upper McLeod River.
    The Tri Creeks study monitored rainbow and bull trout populations from 1965 to 1985 including the impacts of 1:100 or larger flood events (1969 & 1980). Concurrent with the fisheries study, other agencies monitored stream flow, groundwater and water chemistry. The watershed was roaded for logging in 1974 & logged in 1978 -1982 . After 3 years of post logging the government cut funding for the project. Subsequent sporadic surveys monitored fish populations which showed steady decline (despite angling closures since 1965) that provided much of the long term data to justify the current ‘Threatened’ status of native Athabasca rainbow trout.
    Extensive published reports have documented the long term impacts of forest canopy removal on water quantity and flow regimes (flood events), logging and roads in riparian areas cause cumulative impacts of sediment on salmonids. Perhaps if you explained to the ‘locals’ (plus a few old fish biologists) what was new & exciting about the proposed logging at Starr Creek as being different from Hidden creek and numerous other watersheds; the project might gain some support.

  6. Hi Carl – thanks for your comment.
    I’ll start with something you note at the end of your note – “the ‘locals plus a few old fish biologists”. I specifically included fish biologists in the discussion because, too often, people say “oh those locals, they don’t know anything.” In this case, they do – plus they have the backing of scientists. This is important in the context of this story, which has scientists on the opposite side of the issue as well. Also ‘retired fish biologist’ is a descriptor, not a comment on the quality/validity of a person’s ideas or arguments.
    I’d heard of Swanson’s Athabasca work but – in the interest of brevity – included only two high-profile examples in my post, largely because they are ongoing today (Marmot Creek under John Pomeroy of UofS, Fool Creek as part of the US Experimental Forest Network). I didn’t know about the Tri Creeks riparian buffer program because – though I’ve worked with fisheries biologists – my focus has been snow hydrology.
    As a hydrologist, the new questions that I was referring to focus on snowmelt partitioning and water pathways in alpine watersheds, linkages between surface and groundwater (particularly during snowmelt runoff), and connections between hydrological processes in the high alpine vs forested portions of the watershed and whether/how these interactions are affected by harvest. All of these in a watershed located in a continental climate, but subject to winter chinook events that alter snowpack energy dynamics, with implications for both mid-winter and spring runoff hydrology.
    My goal wasn’t to convince the residents to support this project – particularly since I haven’t been part of the project in over 2 years, so there’s a lot I don’t know about the specifics of the research program as it currently stands.
    My goal was to look at it more from a science communication perspective. Would better communication have helped in this case? Can we learn something from this situation that would help with other projects? How does it support what we already know about scientists communicating with the public? (See Alex Bond’s comment above; also: don’t underestimate the public’s knowledge). As Kevin Turner noted in his comment above, there are also potential ethical considerations, which go well beyond just communication.

    • Hi Sarah, I agree with most of your comments and listed a few of the older studies to show that government and industry have been aware of the cumulative impacts of logging, petroleum & coal with associated roads, for over 30 years. These broad scale impacts haven’t been addressed by fairly simple solutions such as limiting canopy removal, which takes 30 or 40 years to regrow or road planning to limit fragmentation and the frequency of road/stream crossings or soil disturbance in riparian areas, including ephemeral watercourses that provide a secure supply of clean water.
      The ‘communication problem’ might not be between researchers and the public. Industries have not lived up to their ‘social contract’ on public land and government has failed to respect the ‘precautionary principle’ and failed to implement fairly basic protection to reduce the occurrence/severity of flood events or fish & wildlife habitat destruction. The E/S, 1940 to 1970s, was valued by Albertans as a secure source of clean water but these values have been sold out for resource exploitation. Albertans that are concerned about water conservation and renewable resources might see more research or public planning, communication or conversations, as further delays, because 30 years of science & experience have been ignored.

      • Hi Carl – I agree the Eastern Slopes have certainly been a hot button topic between government and residents for decades, that has never been fully addressed. I suspect that this particular project represents another flashpoint in that long-simmering debate.

  7. On January 29, 2015 at approximately 11:10 p.m. I noticed the lights on heavy equipment working in the Upper Star Creek area. It seems logging has once more resumed in this area but at a time when it is less likely to be noticed by the locals. This contradicts the lastest communications which stated work had been suspended. Sarah you questioned “whether there was a way residents’ concerns could have been addressed if the academic/government side was more forthcoming and open. As a local resident I would say yes indeed; it would help matters if the academics and government workers were more forthcoming and open.

    • Thanks for the info, Jim. What would you see as an appropriate way to be forthcoming/open? I understand that open houses were held, but am not sure if those did the trick. Are there other techniques/approaches in particular that you feel would create a better connection between the residents and the researchers/govt?


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