The University of Arizona

Scenario Planning and the National Park Service

By Katherine Waser | The University of Arizona | August 12, 2009

Why Scenario Planning for the NPS?

In order to make sure that our national parks are prepared for making ecosystems more resilient to the effects of climate change, the National Park Service (NPS) has made scenario planning one of its major goals for the next 10 years (Jarvis 2009). There are good reasons for this new focus.

Read about the Joshua Tree National Park climate change scenario planning effort.

Natural parks are complex systems that exist within a complex landscape. Managers can choose from a portfolio of different management strategies, largely depending on the degree of uncertainty in the system and the degree to which major ecological processes can be controlled.

Climate change brings high uncertainty about ecological processes that are difficult to control. For example, we still know relatively little about precise climate change effects and how well we will be able to ameliorate them. There are also major questions about any organization’s cultural and organizational capacity to respond to climate change. Scenario planning is an appropriate tool for long-term strategic planning in precisely this kind of situation.

In the NPS context, scenario planning brings together diverse stakeholders to develop a small number of structured, internally consistent and believable narratives, based on the best available science, about possible futures for the system of interest. Each scenario is developed to capture key ingredients of the uncertainty about the system’s future, and to provide insight into drivers of change and implications of current trends within the system. Decision makers can then analyze how robustly alternative management strategies might perform across these different story lines. The most robust strategies are those that will help ecosystems maintain their resilience in the face of climate change over the next several decades.

process for assessment

Figure 1. Traditional planning focuses on arriving at the “best” future; scenario planning helps managers plan flexibly for an array of plausible futures.
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In this way, scenario planning helps managers and other stakeholders challenge their own assumptions and think flexibly about an array of plausible futures, rather than trying to predict or arrive at the “most likely” future. This increases their ability to design and implement management plans that will be effective even under conditions of uncertainty and helps minimize the frustration and anxiety that comes from having to deal with that uncertainty.

Although models, trends, and expert predictions are important parts of the scenario-building process, they are not scenarios themselves. Useful scenarios are based on qualitative information and imaginative speculation as well as data about what is currently known; scenarios that only consider “what is known” are useless because they do not help managers plan for the unexpected.

What is the Process?

Because this strategy is relatively new in conservation management, the NPS approach to scenario planning is still being developed. A test case of the process, culminating in a two-day workshop at Joshua Tree National Park in November 2007, provided a chance to introduce the process to top NPS managers from across the country and test its viability as a tool for the NPS overall.

The five-step process followed by the NPS for scenario planning at Joshua Tree National Park is based on a scenario planning model proposed for conservation management in a seminal article by Peterson et al. (2003). This model proposes the following general steps:

1. Identify context/focal question

Given the complexity of the real world and the infinite number of possible futures, scenario planning must be focused to be effective. Involving diverse stakeholders in identifying a focal question allows the group to define the problem broadly, separating aspects of the future that are knowable from those that are not, and distinguishing which of these aspects can be influenced by the scenario makers.

2. Assess the situation

This step involves two key activities. First, the scenario builders must identify key external drivers, either ecological or social, that have a major impact on the dynamics of the system in question. Second, builders must determine the linkages among the people, institutions, and ecosystems that define the system.

3. Identify alternatives

In this step, scenario builders identify plausible alternative ways that the system could evolve. Each of these alternatives should represent a path influenced by the way existing system dynamics and possible future events might interact. Such alternatives can be defined by key uncertainties that are different from each other in ways that relate directly to the focal question. They should challenge commonplace assumptions about the future in ways that are plausible. These alternatives provide a framework for constructing scenarios.

4. Build and test scenarios

In general, three or four scenarios are developed in this step. Limiting the number to this range allows the scenario builders to challenge and expand current thinking while avoiding the possibility of confusing the issue with too many scenarios, which can constrain their ability to explore uncertainty. The scenarios build on the alternatives previously identified by adding credible details about external forces and the way system components will react to them. The scenarios build plausible story lines that link past and present events to possible future events. Each scenario should track the key variables that have previously been identified as important to the focal question.

Once developed, the scenarios need to be tested for internal consistency. Testing can be done by quantification, by expert opinion, against other scenarios, or—last but not least—against stakeholder and actor behavior. The plausibility of any given scenario is likely to rest most crucially on the behavior of actors and stakeholders in the system. For example, the scenario builders might take the viewpoint of all such actors to explore the plausibility of their predicted behavior in a given scenario. This works especially well when these various actors and stakeholders themselves are involved in the scenario planning process.

5. Screen policies

Once a suite of plausible scenarios has been developed, it can be used to test, analyze, and create management policies. First, scenarios can be used to assess the effectiveness of current policies under the different scenario conditions. Another approach is to identify elements of current policies that would perform well across all scenarios. Scenarios can also be used to identify policies that will help make the system in question more resilient to climate change effects. This may lead to the implementation of entirely new policies.

The initial testing of scenario planning for the NPS, with a focus on Joshua Tree National Park, was deemed a success. Further refinements of the process are currently being developed, and more parks are beginning the process of scenario planning for their own individual situations. Thus, while the uncertainties that face our national parks due to climate change impacts are no less challenging, NPS managers and specialists now have a powerful new tool to help them prepare for whatever these impacts may be.