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Building online tools to enable a naturalmodel of development

Many of our most pressing problems are caused by the rift between people and place thanks to industrial development. When it comes to making decisions about complex natural systems, we've got the technology to help.

It may seem counterintuitive to think that technology can help people reconnect with nature. But through tools that facilitate planning processes integrating human use in natural systems, Ecotrust is enabling communities and planners to make decisions for a more regenerative future, bridging the gaps between people and place.

Our custom tools answer specialized questions for their unique users — from the best place to build a culvert for salmon habitat restoration to the return on investment for small forest landowners who want to harvest trees on their property. However, while the goals of each project might differ, we’ve found that these tools can be loosely divided among four categories: Scenario planning, optimization, collaborative design, and suitability.

Scenario Planning tools

Scenario Planning tools assist decision makers who have a set of pre-defined prescriptions and want to see how they play out differently measured against specific metrics. For example, with our ForestPlanner tool, users enter basic information about their forestland then identify different forest management practices they want to use on their property. Based on their previously defined management requirements, the tool returns information about wood harvested, long term standing volume, carbon sequestered, and aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitat. Most small property owners typically can’t afford to create sophisticated management plans that are unique to their property, making ForestPlanner a powerful tool for leveling the playing field.

Optimization tools

Ecotrust has developed a number of Optimization tools to help decision makers create a path or process for getting to a clearly defined goal. For example, the juniper management tool we built for the Bureau of Land Management enables land managers to determine how to most efficiently spend limited budget dollars on juniper removal in Eastern Oregon. With these kinds of tools, users specify a set of objectives typically related to the amount of a particular habitat they want to restore or conserve — such as acres of juniper that need to be removed — and the tool identifies optimum locations for restoration that will also help the agency minimize their costs.

Collaborative design tools

Collaborative design tools enable decision makers and stakeholders from a wide variety of backgrounds and opinions to come together to create plans. There are no political boundaries or borders in nature, making collaboration an essential part of the process for good land and marine use management and planning. Through these collaborative efforts a variety of needs, concerns, inputs, and outputs are considered — creating the demand for a set of tools designed to facilitate a highly transparent stakeholder engagement process. The MARCO Ocean Data Portal is an excellent example. This platform hosts a wide array of maps recognized as essential data for ocean-use planning efforts by partners across the region, organizing mapping tools and resources in an easy-to use and visually compelling design.

Suitability tools

To help land managers and others evaluate spatial data (usually maps) to better understand opportunities and limitations of on-the-ground action — such as riparian habitat restoration — we’ve developed Suitability tools. These types of tools also help users with access to limited data make better decisions for a specific area, providing a step-by-step process to fill in available information and guide users through what options best suit their area of interest. For example, our Prospect R tool was developed to help conservation groups and funders determine whether the habitat benefits of restoring mine sites located in a floodplain would outweigh the costs of doing the work.

Lessons learned

Ecotrust’s long history of building tools for complex decisions has come with a lot of lessons learned. Through our work we have gained a better understanding of place as a central principle for multifaceted natural resource-related decisions. We have also learned that “the natural model of development” requires that we embrace the complexities of nature in order to create new value and wealth. Also, just as a hammer doesn’t build a house all at once, these tools won’t give users all of the answers to their questions immediately. Rather, they piece together segments of information one-by-one in service of a larger design, helping construct a natural model of development.

Most of all, we’ve learned that when communities are empowered to find innovative solutions to their unique challenges, they are more likely to build a new economy that is resilient and inclusive: Of the many arguments against the top-down, industrial model of development, one of the strongest is that it eschews broad input from communities that bear the most direct and serious impacts, resulting in communities with little say in the management of resources they rely on. Even with the advances in technology and access to larger pools of data, there is still work to be done to democratize online tools and data gathering for more nuanced understanding of communities in our region.