Enhancing the Potential for Sustainability through Participatory Environmental Assessment

2012 Annual Report for GW12-064

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

Enhancing the Potential for Sustainability through Participatory Environmental Assessment


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, which may capture their opinion, but not their 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 focuses on the development and testing of such a participatory evaluation protocol in the San Simon Watershed in southeastern Arizona.

Objectives/Performance Targets

NB: During our initial development and testing of the qualitative research methods for the proposal, we learned that a combination of climate patterns and vegetation phenology warranted rearranging our research schedule. Originally we had scheduled the physical fieldwork after the stakeholder interviews. Recognizing we needed to get into the field in the summer and fall of 2012, we delayed the interviewing and spent much of the past eight months in the field collecting the biophysical data needed for the study. However, to ensure we could still complete all activities on time, we also tested the qualitative research methods as part three different meetings of a Cooperative Extension “Master Watershed Stewards” class. This has led to improvements to the research protocol and instrument design and an associated revision of our submission for IRB approval.

  • Complete the assessment protocol, obtain IRB approval and conduct preliminary tests(by October – December 2011). Assessment protocol completed; IRB review will be completed in February. Identify and engage a representative of stakeholders(by January – March 2012. Preliminary list of stakeholders ready: i) Met with local watershed group (Gila Watershed Partnership), the Safford BLM Field Office and a number of other stakeholders; ii)Prepared a preliminary list of 44 potential stakeholders, reviewed the list with project collaborators and obtained contact information and began forming a schedule for meeting. Obtain a baseline assessment of the mitigation and restoration actions from each stakeholder (~25 baseline assessments completed by April – June 2012). Interviews will start after IRB approval (March 2013): i)Tested the participatory evaluation baseline assessment portion of the research protocol in a Cooperative Extension “Master Watershed Stewards” course; ii) Revised the protocol based on what was learned; iii) Revised the IRB submission to incorporate changes. Elicit stakeholder-identified indicators of assessment and have them ranked (List of stakeholder identified and ranked indicators by June- August 2012). Live semi-structured interviews, indicator identification and ranking procedure and photovoice will start after IRB approval (March 2013): i)Tested the process (ranking procedure known as “Pack of Cards”) in a stakeholder workshop (part of the Cooperative Extension watershed course); ii)Tested an associated method known as “Photovoice” where stakeholders visited the watershed, made observations of impact of the management actions under study and then communicated what they observed back to the group; iii) These stakeholders were highly engaged, and so added this procedure to the IRB submission. Incorporate changes in perspectives through exchange of perspectives on the indicators (Final individual and group rankings obtained by September 2012). Task will take place after interviews (June 2013) Obtain (secondary) or collect (primary) data for indicators for each action (Data sets assembled by October 2012 – February 2013). i)Primary biophysical information for each action has been collected during June-September 2012: soil carbon content, landscape function analysis, plant diversity, above-ground biomass; ii) Data sets will be assembled in the following months (March 2013).


  • Assembled the project team. PIs Ocampo and Orr formed a project team to execute part of the tasks of the first year. This included the participation of three students (one PhD, one Master student and one undergraduate). They all have taken and passed the CITI Social & Behavioral Research Investigators ethics in human subjects research training and obtained official certification. These project collaborators have experience in participatory processes, remote sensing analysis and/or biophysical monitoring. The team also includes the Graham County Cooperative Extension Director, Bill Brandau, who has been invaluable in helping organize field logistics and identify stakeholders. An indirect member of the team is Jan Holder, the Director of the Gila Watershed Partnership, a key multi-stakeholder platform that has agreed to participate in the participatory evaluation process. Conducted the preliminary appraisal of the research context. The team visited the San Simon watershed on five occasions to obtain information on the land management actions that will be evaluated. That included field visits and review of 1940-2010 project files from the Bureau of Land Management Archive in Safford, Arizona. The information collected includes vegetation monitoring data, paper maps, yearly reports and old photographs. This information was used to produce digital maps that show the location and complexity of the land management history in the San Simon watershed. Identified the land management actions to be evaluated by stakeholders. Based on the analysis of the information obtained from the field visits, five groups of land degradation management actions were identified: a) structures near and in the channel, b) rotational grazing with vegetation management, c) rotational grazing without vegetation management, d) long term resting from grazing with vegetation management and e) long term resting from grazing without vegetation management. Selected and mapped representative sites for each management action. This was an iterative process involving input from experienced land managers in the watershed and two watershed research scientists familiar with the climate, soils, vegetation and geomorphology represented by the San Simon watershed. Selected the common indicators associated measurement methods. The team selected a set of indicators and proxy metrics (in parenthesis) that represent common evaluation criteria based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and other long term monitoring sites, compared these with an international project that uses similar indicators and methods to draw from their experience and be in the position to join their global network of long-term monitoring sites (PRACTICE NetWeb) (desired outcome 5). These indicators will be evaluated along with those suggested by the stakeholders. (In a test of the research protocol, stakeholders actually proposed very similar indicators.) The final common indicators and metrics were: Goods (Productivity); Carbon sequestration (Soil organic carbon and above ground biomass); Water and soil conservation (plant cover and pattern and soil surface conditions); Biodiversity (biodiversity of vascular plants);Income (potential stocking rate); Landscape and cultural heritage (landscape visual aesthetic and cultural heritage) Tested the field methods. To execute the biophysical measurements and reduce error sources in the results due to the complexity of the watershed, an experiment with three replicates for each type of actions following specific criteria was designed by the research team and assisted by experts in vegetation monitoring. Conducted field measurements. During July – September 2012, the team conducted the first biophysical measurement campaign (Step 4 data collection) for the following indicators: a) carbon sequestration (above ground biomass and soil carbon content), b) water and soil conservation (method landscape function analysis) and c) biodiversity of vascular plants (point intercept method). For this work the team designed a set of protocols/guidelines and maps. The information collected will be analyzed in the following months. Designed and tested the qualitative research instruments. A set of semi-structured interview tools have been designed, based on ethnographic techniques and aided by the use of photographs and aerial images. In a formative process, the tools and maps have been systematically improved based on feedback of potential interviewees for a better use among the local stakeholders. The team has held two meetings with the collaborator Bill Brandau to contrast information and adjust the documents that will be used. These tools were pre-tested on February 23, 2012 with a pilot group of residents of the area participating in a Master Watershed Steward class. Prepared the IRB Submission. Completed all instruments, data collection/data entry forms, and guidelines for stakeholder engagement activities and University of Arizona IRB Human Subjects approval: Consent Form; PRACTICE factsheet;San Simon Actions factsheet; Potential-Stakeholder Discussion Guide (steps 1 and 2);Integrating and Weighting General and Site-specific Indicators (step 3); Scenic Beauty Estimation Method ;Integrating data and perspectives (Step 5); Discussion Guide and Interviewer Outline (Step 6).

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

We anticipated the following impacts resulting from the project:
  • Empower local stakeholders in collaborative environmental assessment Transfer and exchange knowledge among stakeholders concerning past mitigation/restoration actions Unify restoration priorities by sharing the different opinions and perceptions among all participants Increase and improve local involvement in the decision making of future restoration actions to combat degradation in the San Simon and then in the larger Gila Watershed Increase the potential for sharing the results of the San Simon participatory assessment in other sites through joining national and international networks

Though we are still conducting the research, the protocol tests actually achieved the outcomes we hope to see come out of the overall project. The following story illustrates this:

During the first year of the project we have worked in the design of the experimental scheme and the protocols/guidelines that will be used to collect the biophysical data and stakeholders’ knowledge and perception. We tested many of the research methods and instruments developed in three sessions of a Cooperative Extension “Master Watersheds Stewards Course.” The excitement generated by this got the attention of the Arizona State Director of the Bureau of Land Management. He invited some of the class participants and the research team to present our progress at a meeting he and the BLM staff in the Safford Field Office had arranged. After the presentations, he asked the participants what they took from the work thus far. The response of one stakeholder focused on how they felt like they were part of the evaluation team rather than simply reading the result of an evaluation report. Others commented on how they felt like they were learning more, from each other and from the scientists on the team, by doing rather than listening to lectures. The Director commented that this kind of approach might result in a more fundamental involvement of stakeholders in the forthcoming planning process. We are now in discussions about incorporating our work directly into that process, which will begin in 2013 in the San Simon Watershed.

This has led to further discussions and the BLM is now considering a larger watershed evaluation project that would include our work. This could lead to as much as $50,000 in additional funding.

Another outcome of interest: PI Ocampo entered a poster representing the project into the annual University of Arizona GIDP Poster contest, and it was awarded project (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=281180618614523&set=pb.265816443484274.-2207520000.1355924916&type=3&theater).


Dr. Barron J. Orr

Major Professor
University of Arizona
1955 East 6th Street
Tucson, AZ 85719
Office Phone: 5206036110
Bill Brandau

Graham County Extension Director
University of Arizona
P.O. Box 127
Solomon, AZ 85551
Office Phone: 9284282611
Jan Holder

Executive Director
Gila Watershed Partnership
711 S. 14th Avenue
Safford, AZ 85546
Office Phone: 5204190374