Farming for Ecosystem Services: Visualization of Alternative Working Landscapes
The overall objective of this project is to gain a better understanding of the links between ecosystems services and agricultural land management in Central Iowa. To achieve this objective, I am used two survey techniques (the Delphi methodology and a photo elicitation and sorting survey) to assess the diverse perspectives of agricultural and conservation leaders in Central Iowa. In the photo elicitation survey I employ the tool of photorealistic visualization, wherein landscapes mapped in GIS can be modeled to provide a realistic photo-like image. This visualization technology has been used previously in the field of sustainable agriculture and it is expected to be a powerful communication tool , especially regarding spatial patterns and processes, such as associated with land cover and managing lands for ecosystems services. The final analysis involves triangulation of the data from both surveys and will provide us with a greater understanding of the perceived links between ecosystem services and land cover. It will also provide unique insight into a future of managing agricultural lands for multiple objectives.
The objectives of this project are to: 1) survey stakeholders to determine the suite of ecosystem services considered critical for Central Iowa, 2) use their input to design alternative agricultural land management scenarios, 3) investigate the ecosystem services associated with each scenario, and 4) examine the effectiveness of visualization as a tool for enhanced communication among agricultural decision makers.
Research was conducted in participation with the advisory board for the STRIPs project at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (www.nrem.iastate.edu/research/STRIPs). Briefly, the project investigates strategies for integrating perennial vegetation into Iowa’s agricultural matrix. The advisory board is composed of representatives from industry, government, the community, and conservation interests. I conducted a 3-round Delphi survey; this methodology is an iterative approach used to develop predictions of future actions, based on finding the common ground among diverse interests. The first round of the surveys generated rich lists of ecosystem services and land management techniques associated with Iowa’s agricultural lands. In the second and third rounds the group prioritized both the services and management techniques and also further detailing the links between services and land management.
The Delphi was completed in fall of 2010. Delphi revealed that the group strongly linked perennial vegetation with the delivery of ecosystem service. Given this, the scenario development associated with Objective 2 focused on integrating perennial vegetation into agricultural landscapes to maximize the delivery of ecosystem services. In spring and summer of 2010, six scenarios were created – first in ArcGIS and then in Virtual Nature Studio 3D – representing a gradient from 2% to 64% perennial cover in a hypothetical Iowa watershed. The latter step, the photorealistic visualization, represents a milestone in this project. The software was acquired using SARE funds and I had no previous experience with visualization techniques.
The photo elicitation survey was completed in spring of 2011. The survey was also been met with great enthusiasm. The visual nature of the models has prompted rich discussion. At the end of each survey, the participants have offered that they really enjoyed the process. For example, one participant stated, “It was refreshing to think about agricultural land as something more than corn and beans.”
Analysis suggest that some ecosystem services, such as healthy food, clean water and erosion control, in addition to land management tactics, such as riparian buffers and cover crops, offer points of consensus between diverse agricultural and environmental interests. The scenario-based survey reveals that even with imperfect understanding of the underlying ecological processes, stakeholders know ecosystem service provisioning when they see it. This implicit recognition of landscapes that provide multiple benefits is correlated with ecosystem services that are typically harder to quantify, such as aesthetic, spiritual, and intrinsic benefits.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
My project proposal pledged to initiate a discussion among diverse agricultural stakeholders on their relationship to ecosystem services. This is where the project has had the biggest impact. The feedback from participants in both the Delphi and visualization surveys has been wholly positive. In the process of prioritizing services, participants have revealed they had to wrestle with their decisions and it has led them to ponder the trade-offs inherent in land management decision making. The final contribution of this project will be a greater understanding of the perceived links between ecosystem services and land cover, and also insight into a future of managing agricultural lands for multiple objectives.
Manuscript preparation is now in progress. This research has been accepted for presentation at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management, to be held in Madison Wisconsin in June 2011. Expected oral defense date is July 2011, with manuscript submission for publication to follow immediately
Iowa State University
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Iowa State University
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