Visualizing Forest Futures Under Climate Uncertainty: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge into Decision-Support Tools for Collaborative Decision Making

This interdisciplinary research project will examine how human values and practices impact preferences about natural systems and influence the trade-offs made in decision making about forest resources and sustainability. The project will focus on two overarching themes: the importance of feedbacks in natural-human systems and the importance of value systems and customary practices that are not adequately captured by knowledge systems alone. It will provide new insights and information regarding how changes in forest ecosystem structure and function result in new relationships between humans and forest species and services as well as how forest-management practices influence ecosystems. The project also will advance understanding of the complex reciprocal relationships among values and practices, including traditional knowledge of indigenous people, and decision making by individuals and communities. Furthermore, the project will enhance understanding of the degree to which individuals and communities hold cultural, spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic values and engage in customary forests practices that are not adequately captured by conventional knowledge systems. Because the project's participants include the College of the Menominee Nation, the project will provide opportunities for Native American students to have education and training opportunities with respect to both basic research and to the use of innovative technologies, including virtual reality software and devices. Other education and training opportunities in the conduct of interdisciplinary science will be provided for graduate students and post-doctoral scholars. The project will promote collaborations among educators, scientists, and managers in the region and will inform ongoing environmental assessment activities focused on indigenous peoples and tribal knowledge. The project also will contribute to enhanced decision making for environmental change adaptation in tribal communities by providing clear routes by which values and relationships with forests can be embedded within state-of-the-art optimization procedures, and it will assist forest managers and community members in working together to evaluate trade-offs when making decisions.

Traditional knowledge from indigenous cultures is recognized as important in environmental assessments but has not been adequately captured in landscape-level planning. Forests managed by tribal communities are under threat from increasing insect damage, which is already the most spatially extensive forest disturbance in North America, affecting approximately 20 million hectares of forest per year with an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. Significant changes to forests could adversely impact the forest industries upon which many tribal communities depend and could alter tribal identity. The investigators will use state-of-the-art visualization and virtual reality experiences about future forest conditions to access a broader range of human values about scenarios of future forest conditions. These outcomes will be used to model preferences in forest-management activities and determine trade-offs and synergies among economic and other value-based decisions about forest management. The investigators will employ anthropological, ethical, process-based, and immersive means to explore the complex factors that influence how people and communities make decisions and evaluate trade-offs among diverse objectives when faced with considerable uncertainty. The investigators will test a set of hypotheses, include the propositions that immersive virtual reality can enhance emotive and cognitive perceptions of environmental changes and that current management activities can be refined through the incorporation of value structures into a robust decision making analysis. Values and practices will be incorporated into consensus mental models, which will inform information available via immersive virtual reality and ecosystem modeling, and the investigators will enhance a decision support algorithm to assess trade-offs in outcomes. The immersive virtual reality experiences will include interactive 2-D and 3-D landscape maps, 360-degree depictions of alternative forest structures, and interactive maps through time. The decision-analytics approach will facilitate analysis of trade-offs across a broad set of sustainability metrics and will help test the performance of alternative strategies under uncertain future conditions. The investigators will characterize and tradeoffs and synergies among competing values that reflect cultural, ecological, and economic well-being and assist in determination of what choices lead to sustainable solutions. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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