A Sense of Place: A Place-Based Approach to Science for Land Management

Natural resource managers entrusted with the stewardship of our public lands have long known that decision-making related to restoring, managing, and protecting these ecosystems in a sustainable way is complex. They need relevant, up-to-date information to understand and manage specific landscapes. Much research on public wildlands, however, is conducted by scientists based out of university or urban research centers distant from the land and its local managers. Although these research efforts result in valuable findings, the information may not address site-specific management needs.

Adaptive, science-based land management—in which information on status and trends in an ecosystem is continually collected, analyzed, and communicated—is generally accepted as the desired approach for managing ecosystems on public lands (Johnson et al. 1998). Such ecological knowledge is often time- and place-specific. If there are substantial knowledge gaps in this realm, land managers struggle to make sound science-based decisions. On the other hand, when scientists can interact onsite with managers on a daily basis, effective communication, application, and follow-through of relevant science are greatly facilitated. This is where a place-based approach to science can help.

In its role as the scientific resource and advisor for Department of the Interior land management agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is fostering a place-based approach that collocates USGS researchers onsite and long-term with public land managers. One of them, USGS scientist Craig D. Allen, is collocated at Bandelier National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service. Dr. Allen is director of the Fort Collins Science Center's Jemez Mountains Field Station, which is based at Bandelier. As a place-based scientist, Dr. Allen is responsible for proposing, conducting, arranging, overseeing, facilitating, and communicating about the needed local research and monitoring. He is also helping to develop a place-based science program at the nearby Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The advantages of place-based scientists to land managers are many. Scientists like Dr. Allen act as a bridge between research and management, working to identify the information needs of management problems, secure external research funding, foster collaborations with outside institutions to conduct needed research, and communicate research findings quickly and effectively to local managers and the public. Place-based scientists develop substantial expertise in the ecology of their particular landscape. Eventually this allows them to become information brokers of the deep-rooted institutional knowledge that comes from being in a place long enough to learn its lessons and grow familiar with its natural and cultural rhythms and history. (See Applications.)

While location in the same office and inclusion on the same working team with land managers is essential for integrating science and management, maintaining scientific impartiality and a degree of independence is also important. This is the unique opportunity afforded to USGS scientists, who are outside of the land-management agency’s direct supervisory hierarchy but located near or within national parks and monuments. These scientists can serve in the needed scientific advisory and coordination role, maintain scientific impartiality and independence, and also have access to the full range of science expertise and support services of the USGS. The result is a team effort that balances scientific objectivity with commitment and responsibility to management.

In addition, on-site science programs generate unique opportunities to conduct high-quality ecological research. The spectacular landscapes and special ecological circumstances of Department of the Interior land management units are a natural attraction for collaborative research with top-notch scientists and graduate students from academia and federal research centers—with place-based scientists present on-site to initiate, coordinate, and lead the research efforts. Indeed the long-term, integrative, multidisciplinary datasets and research approaches that tend to emerge from place-focused research programs are increasingly recognized to be scientifically valuable at national and international scales. This impact occurs in part because such programs remain relatively scarce, and because the scientific work has demonstrable relevance to both local situations and pressing environmental issues of much broader application. In this way, place-based science can complement the valuable efforts of scientists in off-site research centers, where other opportunities exist and are better realized.

Good examples of on-site, place-focused research programs are found at a number of National Park Service units, where individual USGS scientists have devoted major portions of their careers to working in particular landscapes. Other agencies have also experimented with the idea, including the U.S. Forest Service. Such examples suggest that developing long-term, landscape-scale, on-site science programs could be a cost-effective way to meet critical information needs for many public land managers. Establishing additional place-based scientists could foster the development of land management organizations that institutionalize scientific approaches to learning, collaboration, open dialogue, and continual improvement—agencies that truly implement science-based adaptive management.

Place-Based Science Collaborators

National Park Service

Dennis A. Vásquez, Superintendent, Bandelier National Monument 

Stephen Fettig, Wildlife Biologist, Bandelier National Monument stephen_fettig@nps.gov

Kay Beeley, Information Specialist, Bandelier National Monument 

John Mack, Chief of the Division of Resources Management, Bandelier National Monument

Brian Jacobs, Vegetation Specialist, Bandelier National Monumentbrian_jacobs@nps.gov

Los Alamos National Laboratory

David D. Breshears, Environmental Dynamics and Spatial Analysis GroupEarth and Environmental Sciences DivisionLos Alamos National Laboratorydaveb@lanl.gov

Northern Arizona University

R. Scott AndersonSchool of Earth Sciences and Environmental SustainabilityEnvironmental Programs Northern Arizona Universityscott.anderson@nau.edu

University of Arizona: Tucson Arizona

Thomas W. SwetnamLaboratory of Tree-Ring ResearchThe University of Arizonatswetnam@ltrr.arizona.edu

USDA Forest Service: Valles Caldera National Preserve

Gary K. Ziehe, Executive Director, Valles Caldera National Preserve gziehe@vallescaldera.gov

Dennis Trujillo, Preserve Manager, Valles Caldera National Preservedtrujillo@vallescaldera.gov

Landsat image of the Jemez Mountains, showing Valles Caldera at center and Bandelier National Monument on the southeast flank.
Landsat image of the Jemez Mountains, showing Valles Caldera at center and Bandelier National Monument on the southeast flank.