Integrated Regional Planning

Each of the ecosystem approaches we have discussed contributes to the maintenance of biodiversity, but these approaches do not constitute a comprehensive system. Much falls through the cracks. Environmental impact assessments help us make decisions about large development projects, but smaller projects, which can transform landscapes over time, are ignored. The natural disturbance model is a useful tool for managing activities like forest harvesting; however, it is ineffective for disturbances that have no natural analog, like roads and oil wells. Zonation separates incompatible land uses but provides no insight into the appropriate level of activity within individual zones. And while mitigation efforts reduce the ecological impact of human activities, they do not address the pace and intensity of development—the ultimate drivers of most environmental decline.

What is needed to address these gaps is an integrated system of planning that manages land use at the regional scale, rather than sector by sector. Regional planning provides the greatest leverage for managing development and ensuring that ecological limits are respected. The catch is that regional planning is also the most complex form of planning and is difficult to apply successfully.

Three approaches to integrated regional planning have been developed by different groups with different mandates (Fig. 7.19). Ecosystem management (or ecosystem-based management) is a product of the conservation community that combines a suite of ecological planning concepts into an integrated planning framework. Strategic environmental assessment is an approach advanced by the regulatory community for managing cumulative effects. And regional land-use planning is a government-led process for making political decisions about conflicting land-use objectives.

Diagram of planning systems. Fig. 7.19. Ecosystem management, strategic environmental assessment, and regional land-use planning represent three complementary approaches to integrated planning. The core constituency, focus of interest, and planning boundary of each approach is shown in this diagram. To achieve ecological outcomes, concepts and tools from each approach need to be integrated into a comprehensive system of regional planning.

Each approach contributes concepts and tools necessary for maintaining biodiversity and we will examine each in turn. Unfortunately, a comprehensive system that incorporates all of the essential concepts has yet to be implemented outside of a few specialized cases. In the final section, we discuss why this is so.

Ecosystem Management

Ecosystem management finds its origins in conservation science, emerging as part of the shift to ecosystem-level conservation in the late 1980s. Unlike most of the other approaches we have discussed, it is not a method to solve a particular conservation problem. It is a systems approach to land management built on ecological principles (Grumbine 1994).

We will focus here on the biocentric interpretation of ecosystem management, which predominated when the concept was initially developed (Grumbine 1994; Yaffee 1999). In this interpretation, ecosystem management is advanced as a planning framework with embedded conservation goals. Rather than maximizing the flow of ecosystem benefits to humans, the overriding aim is to maintain the integrity of the ecological systems that provide those benefits (Christensen et al. 1996). In practical terms, this means keeping all ecosystem components within NRV.

A consensus definition of ecosystem management does not exist, but there are several core themes included in most descriptions (Grumbine 1994; Christensen et al. 1996; Long et al. 2015). These themes, listed below, constitute a working definition:

  • Holistic. Management should be systems based, incorporating the hierarchical structure of ecosystems and the interconnections among elements and scales. Protecting the parts demands protecting the whole.
  • Place-based. Management should be focused on a specific planning area instead of specific issues or land uses. Planning boundaries should be ecologically meaningful rather than administrative (see Box 7.3).
  • Long-term. Planning should be conducted over time horizons that are ecologically relevant, and not dictated by political cycles.
  • Scientifically rigorous. The development and assessment of management options should be based on scientific understanding of ecological processes. The complexity and dynamic nature of ecosystems should be acknowledged.
  • Adaptive. Current knowledge of ecosystem function should be seen as provisional and incomplete. Because of this uncertainty, management approaches should be viewed as hypotheses to be tested and refined through monitoring programs and applied research.
  • Participatory. Human activities lie at the root of most conservation problems; therefore, humans must be part of the solution. The development and successful implementation of conservation programs requires input and support from stakeholders and the public.
  • Collaborative. Given that ecosystems do not respect jurisdictional boundaries, management requires coordination and cooperation among agencies. Collaboration is also needed across scientific disciplines.

The term “ecosystem management” is today widely encountered in resource management. But very few applications adhere to the original framework described above (PM 2009). For example, the forestry sector, which was an early adopter of ecosystem management under the rubric of sustainable forest management, excluded several core elements of the concept. Critically, harvest rates are still based on mill requirements, indicating that the commitment to “nature first” is missing. Furthermore, planning is not truly holistic, in that forest harvesting is the only human disturbance considered, and planning boundaries are not ecologically based.

The most rigorous application of ecosystem management is found in protected areas, particularly in national parks, where maintaining ecological integrity is legally mandated. Strong commitments to ecosystem management have also been made in some regional land-use plans. For example, planning for the Great Bear Rainforest in BC is being conducted using an ecosystem management framework (BCMOF 2012).

Box 7.3. Watersheds or Ecoregions?

A core theme of ecosystem management is that planning boundaries should be ecologically meaningful. Watersheds are commonly recommended for this purpose because they constitute functional systems that can be readily demarcated (Noble et al. 2011; Ball et al. 2013). Moreover, aquatic features in a watershed are intrinsically connected to each other and to the surrounding uplands. Therefore, watersheds provide an ideal foundation for the integrative management of aquatic biodiversity. Watersheds are also an appropriate planning unit for some important ecosystem services, such as drinking water and flood control.

An alternative approach for defining planning boundaries is to use an ecoregion classification scheme like the National Ecological Framework (Fig. 1.3). The ecosystems identified in these types of classifications are determined by physical factors such as climate, landforms, and soils. They match up better with the distributions of terrestrial biodiversity than watershed boundaries, which cut across habitat types. Ecoregion classifications also facilitate the systematic planning of protected area networks, which are intended to provide representation of distinct ecosystem types.

In practice, administrative boundaries are commonly used for planning simply because they facilitate decision making. Crossing jurisdictions, as ecological boundaries do, necessitates collaborative planning, which is difficult to achieve in practice. The upshot is that no single approach is ideal for all applications.

Strategic Environmental Assessment

Strategic environmental assessment was developed by the environmental impact assessment community to improve the management of cumulative effects. It has yet to be widely implemented but is being promoted by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME 2009).

Cumulative effects are changes in the environment caused by interacting human and natural processes that accumulate over space and time (CCME 2014). Of greatest concern to conservation are industrial disturbances that progressively alter ecosystem composition and structure, and industrial discharges that reduce air and water quality as they accumulate.

The assessment of cumulative effects has been mandatory under the federal Impact Assessment Act and its predecessors since 1995. However, as previously noted, cumulative effects cannot be adequately addressed through the keyhole perspective of project-level assessments (Duinker and Greig 2006; Connelly 2011). What is needed is an approach that is regional, government led, and intrinsically forward-looking. This is the role of strategic environmental assessment (CCME 2009). The aim is to help decision makers understand how the choices made today will affect landscapes of the future, providing the foundation for proactive management (see the example in Box 7.4).

Box 7.4. Setting and Achieving Cumulative Effects Limits

A cumulative effects limit, or threshold, is a type of management target. It represents the maximum amount of environmental change that is deemed ecologically and socially acceptable. Setting this target requires the consideration of trade-offs among environmental and resource development objectives and is best handled through a structured decision-making process (Gregory et al. 2012).

The management of cumulative effects is most effective when done proactively. The idea is to take steps early, while flexibility exists, to ensure that the limit is never actually reached (Kennett 2006a). In the absence of proactive management, a cumulative effects limit acts as an on/off switch that is highly disruptive once triggered—like running into a wall at full speed. When this happens, management options are limited, and land users, now facing dire consequences, are likely to lobby aggressively for a reprieve, diminishing the effectiveness of the whole process.

A well-known example of proactive cumulative effects management is the global effort to reduce CO2 emissions to a level that averts catastrophic climate change (Pacala and Socolow 2004). This example shows that multiple mitigation measures, acting in concert, and early implementation are needed to bend the business-as-usual trajectory toward the desired limit (Fig. 7.20).

Diagram of carbon reduction strategies
Fig. 7.20. Bending the cumulative effects curve for CO2 emissions. No single management lever can achieve the desired emissions limit on its own, but the collective contribution of multiple levers, listed at the right, is able to do so. Adapted from Pacala and Socolow 2004.

For biodiversity conservation, the relevant management levers include policy-level curbs on the pace of development (potentially favouring some uses over others), harmonization of infrastructure planning, regulations and incentives for implementing low-impact technologies, and accelerated reclamation, among others. These management approaches are often collectively referred to as integrated landscape management. Experience has shown that industry has considerable ability for innovation once motivated. Case Study 1 presents an example involving harmonized infrastructure planning that substantially reduced cumulative impacts while also providing cost savings for the companies involved.

There is a natural interplay between the setting of limits and the evolution of management approaches. Limits provide the motivation and focus for identifying mitigative actions. Creative mitigation strategies can, in turn, alter the cost of managing cumulative effects, changing the associated cost-benefit calculations. Thus, over time, planning innovations and technical advances may permit the achievement of cumulative effects limits that were initially considered impractical.

Descriptions of what strategic environmental assessment entails are varied, and there is overlap with other planning approaches (Harriman and Noble 2008). Here we will focus on the analytical tools that are central to its decision support role and which are highly relevant to biodiversity conservation. Similar concepts have been advanced under the labels “integrated landscape management” and “cumulative effects management.”

Strategic assessments incorporate three main inputs: (1) a comprehensive description of the current state of the landscape, including the legacy of past development; (2) an understanding of dynamic ecological processes, including ecological responses to human activities; and (3) a suite of management scenarios. Scenarios describe resource development trajectories under alternative management regimes and are chosen to foster learning (Duinker and Greig 2007). It is common to include a reference scenario, representing an unexploited system, as well as a business-as-usual scenario, and a range of other scenarios that emphasize certain values over others or creatively push the boundaries of conventional thinking.

The assessment of outcomes under the selected scenarios usually involves some form of computer modelling (Duinker et al. 2012). Typically, a landscape change model is used to track the state of the landscape under a given development scenario. This information is then fed into sub-models that predict the status of valued ecosystem components, as per the environmental impact assessment paradigm. When focal species are used as indicators, the sub-models are based on the impact hypothesis diagrams we discussed in Chapter 6. Simplified versions are often used because landscape change models can only track a limited set of environmental drivers.

A wide variety of modelling platforms exist. Some, like LANDIS (Scheller et al. 2007) and ALCES, provide the full architecture needed for modelling landscape change, which users can adapt to their specific circumstances. Others, like SELES (Fall and Fall 2001), provide users with the flexibility needed to create models of their own design. It is usually the experience and preference of a project’s technical team that determines which platform is used.

At the heart of all landscape change models lie a set of rules governing dynamic processes. For example, scenarios for a forested landscape might prescribe different rates of harvest. The model must be able to translate a prescribed rate into a sequence of harvest events, taking into account stand type, stand age, harvest block size, distance from the mill, and other relevant factors. Natural disturbances and vegetation succession must also be modelled, and the interactions between these processes must be accounted for. For example, stands that are burned must be removed from the harvest schedule.

Determining the appropriate level of complexity for landscape modelling is as much an art as it is a science. On the one hand, there are several reasons for adding as much detail as possible. For the model to be seen as legitimate, the simulated industrial practices and natural disturbances need to be realistically portrayed. Also, because the whole point of the exercise is to predict and understand cumulative effects, the model must be able to track small disturbances that add up over time, not just large developments. From an ecological perspective, there is a desire to capture as much detail as possible about changes in ecosystem composition and pattern, to provide a firm foundation for assessing the impacts of development on biodiversity.

The benefits of adding detail must be weighed against the associated costs (Addison et al. 2013). Even though computing power no longer constrains model complexity the way it once did, overall tractability is still a major issue. The time needed for model parameterization, testing, and analysis rises exponentially with model complexity. And in a planning context, time is always of the essence. Furthermore, the more processes and parameters in a model, the more potential points of contention there are. Planning may become bogged down in stakeholder debates over details with little practical relevance, rather than focusing on strategic management issues. Stakeholders and decision makers may also become overwhelmed by complexity, reducing their understanding of the modelling process (Gunn and Noble 2009). Once a model becomes a “black box,” that has to be taken on faith, users may become reluctant to trust the results.

In the end, a balance must be struck between realism and tractability (Duinker and Greig 2007). With the advent of powerful computing systems and detailed spatial datasets, the temptation to add detail “because we can” should be avoided. Instead, the level of detail should be determined by the demands of the decision at hand. Furthermore, we must accept that landscape models will never capture all aspects of a system, regardless of how much detail we manage to incorporate (Duinker et al. 2012). They are tools that structure what we know about dynamic processes and allow us to apply this knowledge to improve decision making (Addison et al. 2013).

Regional Land-Use Planning

Whereas strategic environmental assessment is a form of decision support, regional land-use planning is a form of decision making. The planning process is often conducted by a designated agency, such as a planning board, that operates with a variable degree of autonomy. However, the government is the ultimate decision maker and provides the legal authority for plan implementation.

A regional plan is a roadmap to a desired future. It describes where we are going and how we will get there. Some plans are proactive, outlining a sequence of actions designed to achieve a specific goal, like agricultural development. More commonly, planning occurs in response to conflicts over land use that are not sufficiently addressed by existing regulations (Rayner and Howlett 2009). In this case, the purpose of planning is to devise a solution to a widely perceived problem. This generally entails making trade-off decisions.

Regional plans are best developed using a structured decision-making framework. We will briefly review the main steps in the process, in the context of regional planning, leaving the details to Chapter 10. Like ecosystem management, these steps represent an ideal that is often only partially achieved in practice. A working example of regional planning is provided in Case Study 2.

The first step in regional planning is to frame the decision by identifying the key issues and delineating the planning boundary. Initial framing is usually done by the government and provided to the responsible planning agency through a terms of reference. The planning boundary is a social construct, reflecting the geographic area where the values of interest are located and where the relevant activities take place.

The second step is to clarify the objectives. This requires social dialog because the government does not intrinsically know what the public and key stakeholders want. Environmental objectives are usually included, but not in every case. For example, some regional planning initiatives in BC and Ontario have focused on resolving conflicts between urban expansion and agriculture.

The third step is to identify management options. Regional planners have a variety of management tools available to them (Kennett 2006b). Zonation, which is effective and relatively straightforward to administer, is one of the more common approaches. Other tools control what happens within a given zone. These include rules that limit the intensity of specified activities as well as their spatial distribution and their occurrence over time (see Box 7.4). Operating regulations, economic incentives, and the application of best practice standards may be used to modify activities at a finer scale.

The fourth step is to determine how well each of the management alternatives is likely to perform with respect to the stated objectives. This provides the basis for evidence-based decision making. Computer models are often used to facilitate the evaluation phase, though the level of complexity is quite variable. The highly detailed landscape change models we discussed in the context of cumulative effects management are the exception rather than the rule in conventional land-use planning. When the capacity for modelling does not exist, decision makers rely on expert opinion.

The last step is to choose a preferred management approach. Sometimes the optimal approach is obvious, making broad consensus possible. More often, irreconcilable differences among stakeholders will remain. This does not mean that the planning process has failed. If conducted properly, it will still have clarified the desired outcomes, illuminated fundamental trade-offs, and determined the utility of potential management approaches. Thus informed, the government is in a much better position to make and defend a political decision about how to proceed. Such planning decisions are more likely to be respected if all perspectives have been accounted for and treated fairly, and if the decision-making process has been transparent (Lamont 2006).

Most regional planning initiatives require an ongoing process for plan review and renewal, to keep the plan current as circumstances change. Iterative planning also allows for an assessment of plan’s performance against expectations and it supports structured learning about key uncertainties (Gregory et al. 2006).

Barriers to Integration

Ecosystem management, strategic environmental assessment, and regional land-use planning can be thought of as pieces of a puzzle—each contributes something essential to the maintenance of biodiversity, but none is sufficient on its own. Ecosystem management contributes a systems perspective, articulates the ecological foundations of planning, and provides guidance on the appropriate spatial and temporal scales for planning. Strategic environmental assessment provides outcome-oriented planning tools for evidence-based decision making. Regional land-use planning provides the institutional machinery for making political decisions about land use in the face of conflicting objectives, as well as the legal authority needed for plan implementation. Without integration into the government’s decision-making process, ecosystem management and strategic environmental assessment have limited potential for influencing regional outcomes.

Over the years, there has been considerable cross-fertilization among the three approaches. However, only limited progress has been made in combining all three approaches into an integrated system of ecosystem-based regional planning (Rayner and Howlett 2009). There are three main reasons for this lack of progress: an unsuitable governance structure, resistance to change, and insufficient political will.

The existing system of land-use governance in Canada is geared toward sectoral decision making rather than integration (Fig. 7.2). Instead of providing a comprehensive vision for land use, existing policies advance sector-specific mandates that often conflict with each other (Kennett 2006b). Moreover, the institutional structure and capacity needed to coordinate land-use decision making are generally lacking (Rayner and Howlett 2009; Kristensen et al. 2013). This situation precludes the systems-based approach embodied by ecosystem management.

Kennett (2006b) has described the governance reforms needed to support integrated regional planning. They begin with a high-level commitment to integration, expressed as a unified vision for land use. In addition, structural changes are needed to vertically integrate decision making from high-level policy down to operational management (Fig. 7.21). Trade-offs should be resolved where it is most effective to do so, and each stage of decision making should lay the groundwork for the next. Legislation is required to ensure accountability and to provide decision-making authority where it is needed.

Another important step is establishing an agency above the sectoral departments that serves as a hub for operational integration—a unified land manager (Fig. 7.21). The role of this land manager is to:

  • Develop and periodically revise integrated regional plans
  • Provide feedback to elected officials on policy gaps that need to be filled and policy collisions that require resolution
  • Provide planning guidance to sectoral departments and ensure that lower-level decisions align with regional plan objectives
  • Track land use, monitor regional plan outcomes against stated objectives, and facilitate adaptive learning
Fig. 7.21. A framework for the vertical integration of planning. Moving down through the hierarchy, the issues become narrowed and the level of detail increases. The column on the left indicates the agency or group responsible for decision making at each stage. Public input and scientific advice enter the process at all stages, to varying degrees.

Little progress on these reforms has been achieved to date, for a variety of reasons. Changes in governance challenge existing power structures, resulting in pushback from those who stand to lose authority, such as sectoral departments (Hodge et al. 2016). Furthermore, a system that promises to balance societal interests is no boon to those who benefit from the existing approach, such as resource companies (Rayner and Howlett 2009). Efforts to achieve balanced outcomes are also constrained by past decisions, particularly those related to project approvals and land tenure allotments. Finally, progress is hampered by gaps in knowledge, inadequate budgets, and the overall complexity of the transition. Case Study 2 illustrates many of these issues.

A commitment to integrated regional planning is ultimately a matter of political will, which has so far been lacking. Governments have been reluctant to undertake institutional change because it requires a significant expenditure of political capital and government resources, yet the political rewards are far from obvious. Though there is strong public support for protection of the environment and biodiversity, this does not automatically translate into strong demand for planning reform. The connection is not readily perceived, and the benefits only accrue over time. Moreover, as noted above, there is substantial resistance to change from many quarters. Governments also realize that integrated planning may lead to contentious debates over land use that ultimately leave all parties unsatisfied. Thus, the status quo tends to be favoured over action.

Given the existing headwinds, progress toward fully integrated planning will no doubt be slow. However, even incremental change will lead to improved conservation outcomes (PM 2009). Conservation practitioners should consider it part of their mandate to advance and promote such improvements.


Share This Book