Designing a DST to Answer the Right Questions

Decision support tool (or DST) is now a common phrase used throughout the conservation community. These tools—whether geospatial in nature or a simple flow diagram—are created in an effort to distill a large amount of information into one source to help inform a conservation decision. The lure of DSTs is easy to understand. Rendering complex decisions easier to make and easy to understand is enticing. However, care must be taken to not see every problem as a nail just because we have a hammer. We must understand the problem at hand and make sure we have the right tool to address it.

PLJV regularly produces geospatial decision support tools to guide a variety of conservation decisions in the region. One of those tools was designed to target CRP acres in a special Kansas SAFE program. What if we were trying to enroll landowners into an EQIP program? The same decision support tool should work, right? Probably not. The areas where CRP may be most useful could be areas where more grassland is needed to build out existing grassland. On the other hand, EQIP could be most needed in established grasslands whose condition can be improved for a specific conservation goal (e.g., woody vegetation removal).

For the past year, PLJV has been developing decision support tools for each state in our region as part of a larger playa decision support system. At first, we thought it would be a simple exercise to answer a simple question—what playas are most important for conservation? Simply put, we want to conserve the playas that are large, in high-density landscapes and are surrounded by grassland. But wait, what if we want to put a grass buffer around the playa? It doesn’t seem logical to prioritize a playa already surrounded by grass for enrollment in a grass buffer program. So, we want to prioritize large playas in high density landscapes that will benefit from a grass buffer. But don’t we want both?

What we discovered is that we need two different tools to answer two different questions. What playas are a priority for conservation? And what playas are a priority for restoration? Thus, when we began developing the playa decision support tools with our partners in each state, we emphasized the need for two products. The first identifies high quality playas that should be avoided by development and potentially enrolled in a wetland stewardship program. The second identifies playas that can be restored to a higher functioning status through planting a grass buffer or filling a pit.

Decision support tools can distill a lot of data, which facilitates decision making, but just because the product is easy to comprehend doesn’t mean the use of the product should be broadly interpreted. Lack of precision is the DST “boogieman” and using them broadly may actually do more harm than good. It’s important to understand the information being provided and to use it appropriately.

Learn more about designing and using decision support tools on the PLJV website.

Posted: March 27, 2014