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ARS Home » Plains Area » El Reno, Oklahoma » Grazinglands Research Laboratory » Agroclimate and Natural Resources Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #362721

Research Project: Towards Resilient Agricultural Systems to Enhance Water Availability, Quality, and Other Ecosystem Services under Changing Climate and Land Use

Location: Agroclimate and Natural Resources Research

Title: Understanding the use of decision support tools by conservation professionals and their education and training needs: an application of the reasoned action approach

Author
item RANJAN, PRANAY - Purdue University
item DURIANCIK, LISA - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, USDA)
item Moriasi, Daniel
item CARLSON, DEE - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, USDA)
item ANDERSON, KARMA - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, USDA)
item PROKOPY, LINDA - Purdue University

Submitted to: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 5/1/2020
Publication Date: 5/12/2020
Citation: Ranjan, P., Duriancik, L.F., Moriasi, D.N., Carlson, D., Anderson, K., Prokopy, L.S. 2020. Understanding the use of decision support tools by conservation professionals and their education and training needs: an application of the reasoned action approach. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 75(3):387-399. https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.75.3.387.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.75.3.387

Interpretive Summary: The mission of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is “to provide resources to farmers and landowners to aid them with conservation” that is intended to help them balance between sustainable productive lands and a healthy environment. One of the ways in which NRCS accomplishes this mission is by providing free science-based technical assistance and recommendations to farmers and landowners by the conservation agency staff. A medium that helps conservation agency staff to do this is decision-support tools (DSTs), which are computer software programs that make it possible to test different management options and present farmers with the likelihood of various production and environmental outcomes resulting each option. Technical advancements in conservation science, the pragmatic needs of conservation planning, and government support for collaborative initiatives such as the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), have contributed to evaluation and development of both existing and new DSTs. Limited, to almost no, attention has been paid to the DSTs education and training needs of conservation agency staff, who are the primary recipients and anticipated users of the results of these tools. To address this knowledge gap, we conducted an online survey of staff in conservation agencies develop an understanding of the use, or lack thereof, of DSTs by conservation agency staff in CEAP watersheds and subsequently identify their education and training needs. We found that not all agency staff in CEAP watersheds with direct planning responsibilities felt they used DSTs. Agency staff predominantly agreed that DSTs should fulfill stakeholder engagement roles. Overall, our findings suggest the need for future research on establishing a deeper understanding of conservation agency staffs’ skills, attitudes, perceived norms, behavioral limitations and intentions towards using DSTs, in order to refine future training and education to better meet needs.

Technical Abstract: Decision support tools (DSTs) are a means to facilitate science-based conservation planning. Technical advancements in conservation science, the pragmatic needs of conservation planning, and government support for collaborative initiatives such as the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), have contributed to evaluation and development of both existing and new DSTs. Much of current scholarship on DSTs, however, focuses on their uptake by farmers and their crop advisors. Limited, to almost no, attention has been paid to the education and training needs of conservation agency staff – the primary recipients and anticipated users of these tools’ results. To address this knowledge gap, we conducted an online survey of staff in conservation agencies that are located in counties that either currently includes or included a CEAP Watershed Assessment Study site. We found that agency staff did not use all DSTs, and not all DSTs we surveyed were equally popular with respect to their usage and awareness. The desired technical roles of DSTs included: conservation targeting, watershed assessment and planning, and quantifying environmental and financial benefits of conservation practices. The desired stakeholder engagement roles of DSTs included: facilitating engagement with watershed stakeholders, educating farmers about areas of concern in the watershed, and facilitating engagement with farmers one-on-one and in a group setting. We found a statistically significant difference between the desired technical and stakeholder engagement roles of current DSTs and how well these DSTs fulfill them; suggesting that there is room for improvement. By applying the Reasoned Action Approach framework, we also found that DST users and non-users are not only differently skilled, but also perceive barriers related to learning about and using DSTs differently. Taken together, our findings suggest the need for future research on establishing a deeper understanding of conservation agency staffs’ skills, attitudes, perceived norms, behavioral limitations and intentions towards using DSTs, in order to refine future training and education to better meet needs.