ENGAGING COMMUNITIES IN THE SCIENTIFIC PROCESS…

 Community engagement and analysis of benefit and outcome are integral elements of the scientific process.

Community engagement and analysis of benefit and outcome are integral elements of the scientific process.

Basin-wide Fish Assessment and Community Coordination Fellow

The title says it all. “Community Coordination Fellow” is one clause of my Sierra Fellows title and so it occurs to me that it is necessary to identify exactly how to engage my host community in my work, which is, of course, supposed to benefit them… somehow…

Science should and simply does have a community element. Especially when the topic of research is highly important to a community (or even a society), people care about what the results of a scientific endeavor will be, and how these results might influence their daily lives. In the Upper Feather River Basin, desirable fishery management outcomes can be quite different for any given person. An avid angler that fishes every possible day for not just success, perhaps, but setting and the joy of pursuit, will have concerns and opinions that are somewhat different than the summer visitor who wants to ensure their children catch anything at all. For the angler, a colorful native rainbow might be the objective. For the visitor, a child’s smile. They, in turn, have different interests than the shop owner who relies on their business, or the rancher who uses the angler’s same stream as a water source for her cattle.

For this and many other reasons, it is appropriate and necessary for the UFRBWA to have a community coordination aspect. From the land management perspective, there are many resources managers responsible for fisheries management or monitoring in the Basin, and many more responsible for the management of resources that affect fishery health in less direct ways. Coordinating with all of these folks is necessary in order to maximize inclusion of the diverse expertise these parties represent, as well as the data they, or their agency is privy to. Coordination also ensures that management strategies have a resource perspective, i.e. the fish, rather than a particular agency’s objective or a particular funding source requirement. It also means that strategizing occurs at a larger scale such that it can first identify the priority areas before investing resources into areas in which only marginal protection, reconnection and restoration is possible.

Additionally, the Basin is home to numerous communities that, while similar in a broad sense, are quite diverse in their composition, opinions, priorities, and the resulting overall perspectives they represent. Furthermore, I have found each community area to contain various groups interested in many ways with fishery health. Coordinating with and integrating these groups, which may include local business owners, educators, rangeland managers and, of course, anglers (among others), into my project activities will be necessary in order to ensure their voices are heard in project steering as well as to develop a broad base of community support for this work.

Because I now live in the communities that are affected by my work and I endeavor to be liked and respected in them, I will have to navigate this engagement so as not to adversely affect my research or standing in the community. Additionally, it may be necessary to shift roles in order to engage all of the stakeholders (including those whose stance may directly contradict with my project or personal goals), creating further issues regarding expectations.

As I work towards engaging my host community, I find myself seeking the most effective and productive course but am often confronted with questions about how to go about this. What responsibility do I have in my work to help a community address or resolve problems or conflicts, or create expectations? How can I engage and acknowledge the community’s preferences and expectations such that there is equal representation in my work? And what if, for example, the results of my work show the need for discontinuing a favored management practice?

Many of these questions will remain unanswered until I am able to fully immerse or acquaint myself in the community perspectives. In order to do so, I plan to host community engagement meetings. These will take place as town hall-style forums in which I will present 1) an overview of the project, its needs and goals 2) progress and information generated to date and 3) solicit from the public any concerns or desires they have regarding the focus or process of my work.

From just a short time of living in Plumas County communities, I have been able to discover the importance that fish (and wildlife) management has for many residents in the area. As I’ve met more and more of those members and have begun engaging them through conversation, I have further realized that there is also great diversity in local opinions with respect to my work. While oftentimes a given group will feel strongly about a certain course of fisheries management (and strongly against an opposing group’s view), what I have found to be consistent across all groups is that the opinions of individuals in the community cannot be lumped in categories, but rather lie along a broad spectrum of priorities, ethics, and desired outcomes. Engaging the entire spectrum, though challenging, will be key to assisting the communities in developing a unified set of objectives for improving fishery health in the Basin.

While addressing community coordination for UFRBWA does have an easily defined path for initial community engagement (representative interview pools, town hall steering meetings, etc.) it seems that, much like the scientific method, community coordination will be an iterative process, in which we revisit our results until they stand with rigor as solutions that are broadly approved of by the community at large.