Interactions Between Human Perspectives and Natural System Dynamics in the Restoration of Riparian Forests in the Southwestern U.S.

This interdisciplinary research project will explore the factors associated with success in restoring forest ecosystems in river basins that have been degraded, including the reciprocal causality between people's attitudes and the dynamics of plant communities on land they are managing. The project will provide new insights and information about plant community dynamics before and after restoration and the attitudes, knowledge sources, and perspectives of land managers regarding restoration. The project will generate new knowledge about interactions between human and natural systems with respect to the influence of ecological variables on public and private land managers' perspectives as well as the influence of land managers' perspectives on the ecological variables. Project findings will inform land managers about the best practices for restoration and will provide much-needed feedback to restoration scientists about the degree to which their findings are being used and whether anticipated improvements to plant communities are occurring. Results will be disseminated through regional workshops and trade publications aimed at land managers as well as through scholarly presentations and publications directed toward the scientific community. The project also will provide education and training opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.

Billions of dollars are spent each year to restore degraded river systems around the world. Research on efforts to restore degraded riparian ecosystems have tended to focus on the interplay between engineering designs and the natural dynamics of water, vegetation, and other natural components of the ecosystem, but very little attention has been given to ascertaining how the knowledge, backgrounds, and motivations of people involved in restoration affect the ecological outcomes of such projects. The investigators will undertake this project by expanding on a database they previously assembled based on detailed vegetation surveys and environmental parameters for more than 400 sites along streams in the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. They will seek answers to four sets of questions using these natural-system data and data about human attitudes and behavior gathered through the conduct of online surveys and in-person interviews with land managers for each of the sites: (1) How does plant community structure change as a consequence of restoration? (2) What aspects of a land manager's background best explain variability in attitudes toward nature and science? (3) Do elements of the natural environment predict land manager attitudes about science or nature? (4) Do the attitudes of land managers toward science and/or nature affect the success of restoration projects? The impact of restoration activities will be measured with comparisons of vegetation over time within restoration sites as well as comparisons among restoration sites and non-restoration reference sites. The variability in restoration outcomes will be explored using the human-system data, including information about knowledge sources, perspectives on science and nature, and background information, such as education level and level of authority. Qualitative information from interviews will complement the quantitative data from the statistical analyses in order to ascertain which of many factors are important for describing overall patterns. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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