Colorado Plateau Futures: Understanding Agents of Change on the Colorado Plateau to Facilitate Collaborative Adaptation

Science Center Objects

The objective of this interdisciplinary research effort is to 1) characterize agents of change important to land management decision makers on the Colorado Plateau; 2) identify and analyze relationships between agents of change and key landscape attributes and processes; 3) collectively assess the influence of agents of change and attributes and processes on the services provided by the ecosystem; and 4) provide managers with potential future visions of the Colorado Plateau using scenarios that will allow them to prescribe current management actions to achieve preferred resource conditions.

Delicate Arch, a sandstone arch, at Arches National Park
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, one of the parks on the Colorado Plateau with the highest number of visitors (September 2015). (Credit: Stella Copeland, USGS. Public domain.)

Background & Importance

Climatic conditions and human land use practices are changing rapidly on the Colorado Plateau and these changes are anticipated to continue in the foreseeable future. Although resource management agencies are aware of these trends, they lack specific information about the potential consequences for landscape attributes valued by the agencies and the general public. An important first step in assessing the consequences of these agents of change is to characterize the magnitude of past and potential future changes, and describe the spatial patterns and locations of those changes on the Colorado Plateau.  

General Methods

The first step in this project (Goal 1) was to characterize agents of change (e.g. land-use, climate change) on the Colorado Plateau. We did this by gathering a diverse array of datasets on land-use and climate change from the past and future projections where available. We mapped areas of high intensity land-use and climate change (specifically drying trends) to identify which land-uses are likely to overlap, causing potentially higher impacts on ecosystem attributes, and where these areas of high overlap occur. We also explored scenarios for how these overlapping land-use and climate change variables might affect key ecosystem attributes, such as water availability.

The next step in this research (Goal 2) is identifying knowledge gaps. The goal of this phase of research is to better understand the state of information and tools used to make decisions about land management and address several relevant topics/issues. The results will help to identify and direct action to address gaps in information and tools needed to make land management decisions across the Colorado Plateau. To conduct interdisciplinary research that integrates natural and socio-economic science into natural resource decision making, it is essential to identify and coordinate efforts to address regional resource challenges, existing information sources, gaps in available information and tools, and opportunities and barriers to decision making and policy implementation. A gap analysis method will be used to gather the requisite information. In this phase we will engage resource management and conservation program professionals, who rely on scientific data and tools to make resource management decisions or inform resource policy. This group will form a community of experts to guide the data gathering and analysis. The information will then be used to help produce scenarios to facilitate the application of our results to on-the-ground decision making.

Important Results

Increasing trends and overlapping areas of high intensity for use, including oil and gas development and recreation, and climate drying, suggest areas with high potential to experience detrimental effects to the recreation economy, water availability, vegetation and wildlife habitat, and spiritual and cultural resources. Patterns of overlap in high intensity land-use and climate drying differ from the past, indicating the potential for novel impacts, and suggesting that land managers and planners may require new strategies to adapt to changing conditions.

Future Directions

Goal 2: Identify knowledge gaps with a gap analysis targeting regional land managers.

Goal 3: Analyze the impacts of agents of change on key ecological attributes such as water resources and vegetation (at least two separate projects) in regions identified as vulnerable.

Goal 4: Combine results from initial analysis and knowledge gap surveys to build scenarios targeted to management needs and vulnerable ecosystem attributes to aid with decision-making on the Colorado Plateau. Present results to resource managers in workshops.