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The future of present decisions

May 8, 2015

Picture this: a group of firefighters, wildlife staff, operations directors and park managers take three hours away from their day job to consider their day job fifty years from now.  Led by the Bay Area Ecosystem Climate Change Collaborative (BAECCC) and the Bay Area Open Space Council, this was the scene earlier this spring at the East Bay Regional Park District Board room:

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The picture shows the power of a team engaged in a scenario planning exercise with the Park District’s Fuels Management team. We asked: “What can we learn about fire management, eucalyptus trees, and habitat succession in the context of a changing climate? Will the areas of highest fire risk change? What will vegetation succession look like if it is hotter and there is more rainfall, or hotter and less rainfall?” It turns out that while the future is uncertain, there are certain actions that make a difference in preparing:

“Long range planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.”
-Peter F. Drucker

We used data from the Park District, from the Terrestrial Biodiversity and Climate Change Collaborative, Point Blue Conservation Science and the research of UC Berkeley Professor David Ackerly, to describe what the East Bay ridge might look like 50 years from now. What is the future for Oak Woodlands? What is the likelihood of fire regimes changing?

We provided quantitative predictions about how landscapes might change in the future. The changes are still sometimes hard to visualize. So we considered climate analogs – a way to look for locations on the landscape that have similar climate conditions to what is what projected in the future for an area of interest. For example, in a “hot and dry future” there are close analogs for Redwood and Sobrante Ridges in present-day western Riverside County, an area dominated by chaparral. Such analogs give us a visual indication of how the landscape will be transformed by climate change.

Scenario planning does not require that you predict the future. Instead, you use the best available data to develop plausible scenarios, and take steps to consider what you might do today to prepare for the future. We conducted the exercise with these steps:

Step 1: Consider four possible futures
Step 2: Visualize each future for East Bay Ridge
Step 3: Brainstorm management actions for each future
Step 4: Identify actions that are valuable in all scenarios

We talked about what it would be like to manage in each scenario. If it were warmer and with less rain and we had limited resources, we would “Look like LA”. But if we were in the opposite quadrant, with more rain and extensive resources, this was more “where we want to be.” Note that almost all climate models predicted that the hillsides would be warmer and drier 50 years from now.

The exercise looked like this:

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The question asked was “how would we manage if we were in these different quadrants?” It turns out that there are certain actions that we would take to prepare for all of the future scenarios (“no-regrets” actions):

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The best part of the discussion was realizing that the team could each do their job today keeping these “no-regrets” actions in mind. We asked each other: “What would you take back tomorrow to your team and/or back to your budget/workplan?” Ideas that came up included: seed banking, thinking of this drought period as the new normal, and developing tactics to integrate climate change in all planning discussions district wide.

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This exercise was special because it was informed by a team that works together regularly. This enabled the team to talk in specifics, so that lessons will be included in ongoing conversations to operationalize no-regrets management today.

Our hope is that other land managers can use scenario planning as a chance to think long term and get proactive about dealing with climate change risks. For more information about this approach, contact: