Enhancing the Potential for Sustainability through Participatory Environmental Assessment

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2012: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Grant Recipient: University of Arizona
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
Barron Orr
University of Arizona

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: native plants


  • Animal Production: free-range, grazing management, grazing - continuous, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, focus group, networking, participatory research, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, indicators, riverbank protection, soil stabilization
  • Sustainable Communities: public participation, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    One of the greatest challenges to agricultural sustainability on western rangelands is the risk of land degradation. A combination of scientific discovery and good mitigation and restoration practices provide the means to reduce this risk. Effective implementation of these requires environmental assessment, which traditionally is conducted by a team of technical experts who make recommendations to land managers and producers. Unfortunately, the adoption track record of traditional assessments, unless mandated by law or regulations, is poor, largely because local perspectives, interests, needs and knowledge are rarely considered. Science has some of the answers, but our failure to effectively engage stakeholders stands in the way of successful land degradation mitigation and ecological restoration, compromising the long-term sustainability of western rangelands. A potential solution is to begin with the assumption that all stakeholders have knowledge essential to a useful environmental assessment, and then make each a member of the evaluation team. This would transform the assessment process from one that is largely expert-driven and deterministic to one that is more democratic and capable of synthesis (the weighing of sometimes competing or incommensurate factors used in decision making). Such an approach sounds attractive but would only be practical with a clear structure and guidelines. This project proposes to help develop and then test a participatory approach to environmental evaluation based on integrating local and expert knowledge in a formative and collaborative manner, where local perspectives and priorities drive a process that encourages social learning, setting up the opportunity for collective action. To do this effectively, an appropriate setting is necessary, such as a watershed that has a) experienced severe land degradation in the past, b) undergone efforts to mitigate the degradation and restore the landscape, c) collected long-term monitoring data, and d) formed an active multi-stakeholder platform (e.g., a watershed group). The San Simon Watershed, a major tributary to the Gila River, provides all of these elements. Spanning portions of three counties along the southern portion of the Arizona-New Mexico border, this watershed has undergone significant environmental changes since the late 1880s that have led to damaging floods to downstream private lands in the Safford Valley. The San Simon is an ephemeral stream with tremendous capacity for sedimentation, flowing into the central portion of the overall Gila River watershed that includes ~94,000 people and a projected growth rate of 90% in the next 50 years. Interests range from public land management, ranching, farming, tourism, a number of small municipalities and the San Carlos Apache tribe. The main resource concerns in the watershed include soil erosion, rangeland site stability, rangeland hydrologic cycle, excessive runoff (causing flooding or ponding), inefficient water use on irrigated land and aquifer overdraft. Like in many watersheds in western U.S., land degradation and its consequences have been addressed over much of the past century by watershed plans and significant rehabilitation efforts (minor erosion control structures, vegetation conversion efforts and rotational grazing). These interventions are aging, raising questions about their impact and concerns about the risks associated with action or inaction in the future. This has gotten the particular attention of a multi-stakeholder platform called the Gila Watershed Partnership (http://gilawatershedpartnership.com/). Members, including farmers, ranchers, as well as representatives from federal, state and local government agencies, municipalities and other concerned associations, have agreed to work with the University of Arizona research team to develop and test the participatory assessment approach outlined in this overview. The proposed research will exploit recent advances on participatory assessment and evaluation methodologies in four major stakeholder engagement steps. Step 1: ensure a representative and comprehensive mix of stakeholders participating in the process, Step 2: obtain a baseline assessment of the mitigation and restoration actions, Step 3: elicit stakeholder-identified criteria/indicators of assessment and a ranking/weighting, Step 4: facilitate a reassessment of the mitigation and restoration actions by the stakeholders after the monitoring data on the selected and ranked indicators are applied. Research methods include chain referral sampling techniques (Step 1), semi-structured interviews (Step 2)and Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) (Steps 3 & 4). The impact of the approach will be measured by a benchmarking approach (e.g., a pre- and post-process survey designed to capture changes in knowledge, attitudes and at least an indication of the potential for changes in behavior). The collaborative assessment approach has the added benefit of encouraging stakeholder-driven “High Tech, High Touch” dissemination of outcomes (good practices and lessons learned) facilitated by a combination of online collaborative tools (e.g., Google Site, Google Maps) and direct interaction with stakeholders at each research step. The process will result in a collaborative evaluation of the mitigation and restoration actions in support of decision making in the San Simon watershed. Expected outcomes include raised public awareness, social learning and knowledge transfer among all the stakeholders, and the inclusion of all the actors’ voices in environmental assessment. Sustainable agriculture in San Simon will be supported by focusing attention on past practices with collaboratively obtained insights on appropriate future efforts. The social learning and collaboration has longer term potential to increase participation and reduce conflict. This research will provide a model for similar processes throughout the western U.S.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The measurable objectives and performance targets and timeline for the outputs of the participatory environmental assessment and the desired outcomes in the target population in the document attached:

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.