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:
Major Professor:
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


    There is a marked lack of environmental assessment in land degradation mitigation and ecological restoration programs. Where evaluation does occur, the human dimension is typically underrepresented. Moreover, the process tends to be producer- (technical experts) rather than recipient- (stakeholders) focused, limiting local relevance and usefulness. The most common alternative involves inviting stakeholders to participate in a discussion of assessment results. This may capture their opinion, but not the context of land degradation mitigation contribution to the actual evaluation. Overcoming this challenge may be possible by engaging all stakeholders (including scientific experts) in the identification and prioritization of the criteria used to assess conditions, followed by an evaluation of impacts supported by the criteria they have selected and ranked. This project was focused on the development and testing of such a participatory evaluation protocol in the San Simon Watershed in southeastern Arizona.


    Human interventions to manage and/or restore degraded lands are common in drylands worldwide, e.g., Pinus halepensis afforestation projects in the Mediterranean (Bautista et al. 2010) or livestock management designed to conserve soils and the vegetation of grasslands in the southwestern U.S. (Roundy and Jordan 1988, Allen 1995). What is also common of past land management and restoration actions in drylands is the lack of systematic monitoring and evaluation after they have been implemented (Aronson et al. 1993; Rey Benayas et al. 2009; Bautista et al. 2009) and the poor consideration of perceptions and knowledge of local populations who impact or are impacted by the mitigation and restoration actions in question (Bautista et al. 2010;Whitfield and Reed 2012). An integrated and participatory post-assessment that includes top-down and bottom-up worldviews through the involvement of different stakeholders throughout the entire process is essential for better decision-making and definition of policies (McDuff 2010; Hisschemöller et al. 2001; Estrella and Gaventa 1998). Integration of local knowledge in environmental management and assessment processes can be useful to inform science priorities (Tribbia and Moser 2008, Rice et al. 2009, Alexander et al. 2011), identify knowledge gaps (Ewing et al. 2010), contextualize problems and the array of solutions on a local-based scale (Blackstock et al. 2007, Krueger et al. 2012) and avoid time lost and costly future conflicts related with misreading local realities (Sinclair et al. 2008). Participatory processes that engage stakeholders (scientists, practitioners, land users, etc.) all the way through the environmental assessment process increase the potential of ensuring what is measured is relevant to most, if not all, stakeholders. These processes are more than a transfer of results but provide an opportunity for mutual learning and the integration of scientific and local knowledge, where the evaluation both informs and empowers all participants.

    The San Simon valley in southeastern Arizona was a key place to implement a participatory environmental assessment because it is one of the most dramatic examples in the southwest of extensive and severe erosion and also of intensive intervention. The San Simon valley is located in United States at the convergence of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The southern side of the drainage originates at 12 miles from the U.S. – Mexico border. The 2,250 square mile watershed is flanked on the east by the Chiricahua Mountains (highest peak in the valley 9,759 feet) and on the west by the Peloncillo Mountains (highest peak in the valley 4,990 feet). The valley takes its name from the ephemeral San Simon River that runs northwest and deposits its water in the Gila River. The Gila, which flows westward, joining the Colorado River near Yuma, is the primary source of water for one of the most important farming areas of Arizona. Over 41% percent of the San Simon valley is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 26% is Arizona State Trust Land, 19% is private land and 13% is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. There is agriculture in some areas of the watershed (USDA & WRRC 2007), but the major land use, especially in the area of interest for this research, is grazing and recreation under the supervision of the BLM (ADWR 2010).

    The earliest descriptions of the pre-cattle boom we have of the San Simon watershed are based on stories and anecdotes – sometimes very different from each other – from pioneers and explorers in the 1840s (e.g., Oscar Hutton, Lt. William H. Emory and John Russell Bartlett), soldiers from the California Column in 1862, stockmen in the 1880s and many others that crossed at some point or inhabited the San Simon valley before the 1890s. Even with these documented accounts of the whole watershed, it is not clear what the story might have been in a specific location or time of the year. This could account for the different descriptions found about this watershed. What is true is that the existence of some of those conditions attracted stockmen and farmers in the late 1880s and transformed this valley into a production-based landscape, especially for cattle raising (Jordan and Maynard 1970). By 1919 the San Simon had been transformed into a highly-eroded watershed needing extensive and immediate restoration (Olmstead 1919). It was after the Dustbowl and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 that the U.S. Grazing Service begun five decades of hydraulic control structures on the San Simon River and tributaries, followed by many other actions to combat land erosion, shrub encroachment and risk of flooding caused by the increase in bare soil and the arroyo-cutting. A first group of what were known as the “upstream measures” were initiated in the early 1940s and consisted of the implementation of large engineered structures like terraces and dams in the main channel and tributaries. There are now 19 major structures, including detention dams, several dikes and a large and still unknown number of relatively smaller earth structures. Other later phase interventions in the San Simon consisted of vegetation and livestock management methods aimed at recovering that grassland productivity. The existent grazing regimes are continuous, maintenance, intensive and custodial. On the vegetation management interventions, the common techniques are to remove shrubs and/or re-introduce species of grasses. To remove shrubs, the common techniques used are prescribed burning, mechanical removal by chaining (procedure where two crawler tractors drag an anchor chain to remove the shrub from the root) and chemical treatment with herbicides.

    The land management and restoration actions that were evaluated in this study are located between the Cochise and Graham Counties jurisdictions, north of Interstate Highway 10 (I-10). Baseline information used in the study was collected following implementation of the IAPro protocol, which is founded on an ecosystems services framework and provides guiding methodologies that can be tailored to fit local conditions (Bautista and Orr 2011). Participants were contacted based on an initial list of key stakeholders suggested by a local Stakeholder Platform (Gila Watershed Partnership), the local University of Arizona Extension Agency Service and the Bureau of Land Management and following a chain referral procedure. Results from this study will be useful for land management organizations/entities that are interested in the translation of science for society based on a stakeholder-engagement form of participation in the assessment of environmental actions in the context of strategies to combat degradation and desertification in arid and semi-arid lands.

    Project objectives:


    Performance and target date


    Date concluded

    Complete the assessment protocol, obtain IRB approval, and conduct preliminary tests

    Oct – Dec 2011

    Preliminary protocol ready

    May 1, 2013

    Identify and engage a representative of stakeholders

    ~25 stakeholders engaged (Jan – Mar 2012)

    35 stakeholders interviewed

    May- Sept, 2013

    Obtain a baseline assessment of the mitigation and restoration actions from each stakeholder

    ~25 baseline assessments completed (Apr – Jun 2012)

    34 stakeholders provided baseline assessment and one only contextual interview.

    July 2013

    Elicit stakeholder-identified indicators of assessment and have them ranked

    List of stakeholder identified & ranked indicators (Jun- Aug 2012)

    List of ten assessment indicator/criteria suggested and ranked by 33 of the 35 initial stakeholders.

    September 2013

    Incorporate changes in perspectives through exchange of perspectives on the indicators

    Final individual and group rankings obtained (Sep 2012)

    Perspectives on indicator were collected in step 3.a and later re-evaluated in 3.b. to obtain exchange of perspectives.

    September 2013 (3.a) and November 2013 (3.b.)

    Obtain (secondary) or collect (primary) data for indicators for each action

    Data sets assembled (Oct 2012 – Feb 2013)

    Primary biophysical information and remote sensing information for seven indicators and three expert-based evaluations for each action obtained.

    Collected during June-September 2012 and July-August 2013.

    Facilitate reassessment of the mitigation and restoration actions after the monitoring data on the selected and ranked indicators are applied

    ~25 reassessments completed for individual and group (Mar-Apr 2013)

    12 reassessments completed. Rest of the participants could not participate of the final group meeting.

    November 15, 2013

    Refine protocol for potential application beyond San Simon watershed.

    Final protocol completed (May-Jun 2013)

    The protocol was refined previous the application in the San Simon with a smaller group of stakeholder group participating in a Master Watershed Steward class. The testing of the protocol was also important for the refinement of the larger

    February 2012

    Produce “Guide of Good Practices” to increase public engagement in support of sustainable protection and restoration measures in drylands.

    Guide completed (Apr 2013).

    The San Simon protocol itself is the guide of good practices for participation in environmental assessment. Since this team also contributed with what we learned to the larger international PRACTICE team, a set of articles and guidelines using the San Simon success story along with other applications worldwide is in progress and will be available online.

    February 2014

    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.