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A public engagement protocol: Social science in support of planning efforts

Date: September 10, 2019

Our protocol is a public engagement process that provides participants (e.g., attendees to public meetings and open houses) with a fun, thought-provoking exercise about their assigned importance to public land


Participants sit at tables in a meeting hall, completing fun, interactive exercise
During a public meeting in Las Cruces (NM), attendees interested in the Gila National Forest revision complete the protocol. (Photo: C. Armatas, June 2017)

Forest planning and management efforts, including both forest plan revision and comprehensive river management planning, require extensive public engagement. This is an acknowledgement of the complexity of planning and management decision-making, which includes the need to contribute to ecological, economic, and socio-cultural sustainability. It is also an acknowledgment that there is no ‘correct’ answer to be discovered only by experts; indeed, the public has varying and sometimes conflicting values. A major task is to understand and articulate peoples’ human-nature relationship in a way that can support both decision-making and public relations. However, social science approaches that are practically applied by practitioners within the public engagement process are limited.


Our ‘social vulnerability’ protocol is designed to engage the public about the importance of (and tradeoffs among) ecosystem services, as well as those drivers of change influential to such benefits. The protocol applies Q-methodology, a rigorous social science methodology, in a way that is flexible enough to meet the needs of a variety of decision contexts. Analysis yields a limited number of general archetypical human-nature relationships, which can aid management and planning by supporting both decision-making and public-relation benefits. Regarding decision-making, the protocol yields a tractable understanding of how the general public differ with regard to how human well-being is supported by public land, as well as potential tradeoffs between and within different perspectives. For public relations, the clear process demonstrates scientific rigor, and the resulting understanding can help members of the general public clearly see other, disparate perspectives. Our protocol has been applied in support of forest plan revision on the Shoshone National Forest and the Gila National Forest. The derived knowledge was used in direct support of the ‘ecosystem services’ component of the Gila’s revised forest plan. Currently, the protocol is being applied in support of comprehensive river management planning on the Flathead River system in Montana.

The photo shows a completed activity. It is a piece of paper with smaller pieces of text-covered papers that the participant sorted onto a grid.
Public input is captured for analysis with a picture. This participant’s perspective was one of fifty gathered at a public meeting about the Flathead CRMP in Kalispell, MT (Photo: C. Armatas, August 2019)

Key Findings

  • Our protocol has received praise by managers and the general public alike. The exercise is engaging and shows a clear process to understanding different human-nature relationships. 
  • The interactive exercise stimulates deep thinking about the broad range of ecosystem services supporting human well-being, as well as the various drivers of change influential to human-nature relationships.
  • The clear representation of a limited number of general perspectives provides a tractable representation of the differing perspectives within the general public for decision-making.
  • Better understanding of the various general public perspectives can facilitate empathy and social learning related to the daunting management task of contributing to ecological, social, and economic sustainability.  

Featured Publications

Armatas, C.A.; Venn, T.J.; Watson, A.E. 2017. Understanding social-ecological vulnerability with Q-methodology: a case study of water-based ecosystem services in Wyoming, USA. Sustainability Science 12 (1):105-121. DOI 10.1007/s11625-016-0369-1. 

Armatas, C.A.; Borrie, W.T.; Watson, A.E. 2017. Gila National Forest public planning meetings: Results of the Ecosystem Services Station. Prepared for the Gila National Forest Planning Team. Missoula, MT: The University of Montana, 43 pp.

Featured Publications

Principal Investigators: 
Principal Investigators - External: 
Christopher A. Armatas - ORISE Research Fellow
William T. Borrie - University of Montana - Deakin University
Forest Service Partners: 
Jimmy Gaudry (Region 1)
Chris Prew (Flathead National Forest)
Colter Pence (Flathead National Forest)
Matt Schultz (Gila National Forest)
Carrie Christman (Shoshone National Forest)
Research Location: 
Rocky Mountain West