Stephanie joined The Nature Conservancy's Michigan chapter in 2018. As a conservation scientist, Stephanie's current research includes coastal wetland flood damage reduction modeling and assessing the human well-being value of coastal wetland conservation projects within the Great Lakes. She also helps bridge the gap between science and communications by creating compelling visualizations for TNC Michigan. Stephanie served as the Blue Accounting coastal wetland visualization lead from 2018-2020 utilizing storytelling through mapmaking to advance coastal wetland conservation. She also served as a TNC Midwest Division Executive Committee member from 2019-2020.
Stephanie holds a B.A. in Spanish and a minor in Business from the University of Central Florida, an M.A. in International Affairs from American University and an M.A. in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from the U.N. Mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. She also completed a practicum in Israel and Palestine during grad school, which focused on water, cooperation and environmental peacebuilding. She speaks Spanish and is a certified Fire Fighter Type 2. Stephanie lives with her wife Roxanne and their retired greyhound, Leo, in Grand Rapids, MI. She enjoys beekeeping, playing ice hockey and fostering retired greyhounds in her free time.
Planning for People and Nature: Selecting socioeconomic indicators for our conservation programs
A team of scientists at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is using data to connect people to nature and science. Learn how they selected social and economic indicators for coastal conservation to track progress toward our conservation goals in Michigan.
Part of my job as a conservation scientist with TNC is to use data and information to address conservation challenges. To improve coastal conservation decisions in the Great Lakes, I work with the TNC Michigan science team to identify and fill science and data gaps. For example, to measure progress in coastal wetland conservation, we have compiled data such as total acres of wetlands protected and total dollars invested in wetland restoration. But to achieve our vision of a future where both people and nature thrive, how should we track progress for people?
The science team wanted to identify social and economic indicators for coastal conservation that our team could use to track progress toward our conservation goals. We put together a coastal wetlands team composed of TNC scientists specializing in Great Lakes coastal wetlands and geospatial science. Our coastal wetlands team was advised by the Great Lakes Coastal Assembly—“a diverse group of over 20 federal, state, and interstate agencies, tribal governments, NGOs, and universities working together to conserve the land-water interface in the critically important coastal zones of the Great Lakes.”
Identifying indicators, particularly socioeconomic indicators, can be challenging because the selection process can be time-consuming. Generating data for the indicators can also be costly and require extensive monitoring. However, socioeconomic indicators would help create connections between ecological goals and the outcomes that Great Lakes coastal communities care about such as enhanced social and economic benefits. Demonstrating the connection between coastal wetland conservation and human well-being helps fulfill TNC’s vision—“a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs.”
TNC enlisted the inaugural Bailey Conservation Fellow, Mauri Liberati, to help develop and implement an indicator selection process that would address these challenges. She used human quality of life frameworks to identify socioeconomic indicators, paired with structured decision making for facilitating the selection process. The coastal wetlands team also collaborated on this work with two additional Michigan conservation programs to leverage our collective insights. We worked with team members from agriculture (adoption of ag soil health and nutrient practices in the Saginaw Bay watershed) and urban water (implementing green stormwater infrastructure in the city of Detroit).
This indicator selection process had four steps: Brainstorming, scoring, winnowing and implementation.
Socioeconomic indicator selection process pilot program areas and land cover types— Agriculture, Great Lakes coastal wetlands, and Urban water. The main map displays a hillshade representation of ground surface height (light green equals lower elevation, dark green equals higher elevation. Data Sources: 2019 National Land Cover Database; (Homer et al., 2020), Airbus, USGS, NGA, NASA, CGIAR, NLS, OS, NMA, Geodatastyrelsen, GSA, GSI, GIS User Community and the U.S. Census Bureau
Step 1: Brainstorming the Socioeconomic Indicators
The coastal wetlands team started this work by participating in an indicator brainstorming phase. During this phase, we developed a comprehensive list of all potential socioeconomic indicators that aligned with TNC’s human well-being focal areas—living standards, health, education, work and leisure, governance, social cohesion, security and equity. All three conservation programs collaborated on this phase, and we received valuable input from TNC staff from our development, communications and operations departments.
Mauri then compiled our list of socioeconomic indicators from the brainstorming phase with both the agriculture and urban water teams. All together, our three teams identified 278 potential socioeconomic indicators. From this list, 52 of those indicators overlapped between the three teams and were particularly valuable to explore further. An additional 26 indicators that individual programs considered to be of high importance by the three conservation programs were also advanced for additional evaluation. In the end, 78 socioeconomic indicators advanced to the next step.
Step 2: Scoring the Indicators
The next phase consisted of our coastal wetlands team assessing the 78 indicators identified during brainstorming. We evaluated the indicators by scoring them on six criteria:
- Relevance to TNC Michigan’s conservation strategies
- Resonance to the community
- Responsiveness to conservation project impact
- How realistic it was to obtain the necessary data or carry out the needed monitoring efforts
- Data availability
- Confidence to capture team scoring alignment
The last two criteria–data availability and confidence–were added after Mauri recognized during group discussions that those were important aspects of the indicators that our team was grappling with.
Step 3: Winnowing
During the winnowing phase, the coastal wetlands team had to consider our priorities. For indicator selection, prioritization means specifying which criteria are more or less important for a given scenario. There may be scenarios where relevance to communities is by far the most important criteria, another scenario where data availability is the most important criteria, and another scenario where those criteria are equally important.
We started this step by specifying three scenarios that were important to our team. The first, wetland optimization, would focus on determining where we prioritize coastal wetland conservation and restoration work. The second scenario, capacity to monitor, determines where coastal wetland monitoring efforts would be most meaningful. And the third, research needs, would determine what indicators would serve best as future research topics for our science team. Within each scenario, we indicated the relative priority, or weights, of the five criteria from our scoring step.
The criteria scores (Step 2) and criteria priorities (Step 3) were combined to calculate an overall score for the 78 socioeconomic indicators we were considering.
Despite the diversity of the work across our three programs, the top-ranked indicators were all related to flood risk and damage. Only a quarter of the indicators were ranked in any team’s list of top-five indicators, showing further commonalities across our programs.
Step 4: Implementation
This structured decision-making framework helped us identify property damage from floods and storms as a high-priority research need in Michigan. The science team is now working with Michigan Tech Research Institute and the University of Michigan to quantify the relationship between coastal wetlands and flood mitigation. Our science team also looks forward to using this framework in an upcoming project to select social and economic indicators for a statewide conservation prioritization strategy.
We also implemented this indicator selection process with a group of stakeholders from the Great Lakes Coastal Assembly, a volunteer-based group composed of binational federal, state non-profit and tribal members who work on Great Lakes coastal wetland issues. The Coastal Assembly adapted the framework that Mauri and the TNC team developed to make it relevant to issues across the Great Lakes Basin. The Coastal Assembly used the same process but developed their own scenarios and prioritizations to evaluate the socioeconomic indicators. And again, despite our program differences, indicators related to property damage from floods and storms were considered particularly important.
You can check out the full article, Planning for People and Nature (Liberati et al., 2022) in the Journal for Conservation Science and Practice. It is exciting to participate in an effort to further connect people to nature through science and data. We hope other conservation entities find this structured decision framework helpful to inform their socioeconomic indicator selection process and better integrate socioeconomic indicators into Great Lakes decision making.
Jurjonas, M., May, C. A., Cardinale, B. J., Kyriakakis, S., Pearsall, D., & Doran, P. (2022). A Synthesis of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative According to the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. Journal of Great Lakes Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jglr.2022.01.008
Liberati, M. R., May, C. A., Sowa, S. P., Kyriakakis, S. R., Pearsall, D. R., & Doran, P. J. (2022). Planning for people and nature: Comparing quality-of-life outcomes across environmental systems to inform conservation planning. Conservation Science and Practice, e12782. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.12782
Jurjonas, M., May, C., Cardinale, B., Kyriakakis, S., Pearsall, D., and Doran, P. (2022). The Perceived Ecological and Human Wellbeing Benefits of Restoration. People and Nature. In review (Oct).