Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

The role of science communication in natural resource planning: A case study in the Central Highlands of Queensland

Anne Leitch1, Jenny Bellamy1 , Allan Dale2 and Lynda Pollock3

1CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Long Pocket Laboratories 120 Meiers Rd, Indooroopilly, 4068
DNR, Mineral House, George St, Brisbane 3 DPI, Rockhampton


Regional planning for natural resource management in Australia has failed to assimilate that regions are complex natural systems with interdependent environmental social and economic elements (Dale and Bellamy 1998). Such planning is underpinned by the traditional scientific presumption that once we know the facts we can fix the problem. This perception is compounded by the limited role of science communication in the current system of planning for natural resource management in Australia. In regional resource use planning, centralised agencies have overused scientific information to define problems and yet this has not translated to use of scientific information in managing the problems.

In regional planning, science communication can be redefined from a more traditional role of research, development and extension, to a more communicative model that has adiverse and multi-disciplinary role of interpreting scientific information for use by a particular group, building stakeholder capacity, and facilitate and manage negotiation between key stakeholder groups.

This paper describes a pilot project (funded by CSIRO and Land and Water Australia) that was conducted from 1997 – 2000 in Queensland’s Central Highlands. The Central Highlands Regional Resource Use Planning Project (CHRRUPP) sought to establish and evaluate the outcomes from a more negotiated approach to regional planning for sustainable resource use. In doing this CHRRUPP aimed to build the capacity of all stakeholders with an interest in the region’s natural resources. This was assisted by a range of science communication services intended to encourage the development of group understanding of sustainability problems and to provide a common basis for negotiation towards agreed regional solutions. The pilot study aimed to shift our understanding of how scientific information should be developed and communicated in order to build the capacity of regions to solve sustainability problems. We describe the way science communication was planned, implemented and evaluated within the regional planning context.

Introduction — towards a more communicative style of planning

When government agencies undertake planning for natural resource use and management these plans often focus around a natural resource crisis, a single sector, or a single focus issue (Dale and Bellamy 1998). While there may be attempts to undertake some consultation with affected stakeholders, ultimately the decision-making stays firmly within the agency’s control despite the social and economic consequences of the decisions. In this context, science is simply used as a technical tool in agency decision-making and science communication plays a traditional role of providing 'reliable' information on which policy decisions can be based. While such a form of science communication has helped key agencies to understand technical aspects of natural resource issues, it is unable to play a role in resolving competing interests for the resources.

The end result of this type of rationalist and technocratic approach to natural resource management is usually a set of outcomes that meet the needs of a limited range of stakeholders; predominantly the responsible Government agency and its key clients. It does little to mediate the complex perspectives usually involved in resource management issues, which may include international, Federal, State and local government and community level agendas. These perspectives may include those from a vast range of industry (e.g. mining, cotton, grazing) and community sectors (particularly conservation, indigenous and human service sectors). Even within some of these sectors there are conflicting and multiple resource use aspirations at any particular spatial scale (e.g. farm, catchment, region).

Planning theory has shifted from a rationalist perspective of practice traditionally institutionalised by State or local government agencies and has moved toward more sophisticated (systems-based) views of planning (see McDonald 1989). Such systems-based views acknowledge that the planning arena can be more accurately described as a complex web of bargaining and negotiation among plural interests including those of the community, industry and government. However in planning practice, there is a continuing debate between those who apply planning as a centralist, technical scientific process and others who propose a political process of negotiation and trade off among competing interests in resource use.

Like most artificial dichotomies, neither functionalist nor pluralists are fundamentally wrong (Dale and Lane 1994) it is rather a matter of applying a style of planning appropriate to the planning context. The planning context is extremely variable and depends on the distribution of power held by interests within the planning arena. When the arena comprises many interests, their competing objectives need to be satisfied to a reasonable degree for the planning outcomes to be fair and equitable. Natural resource use planning occurs in this highly political context, and as such, the model adopted should be a communicative planning approach that balances the need for government intervention with the empowerment of communities to negotiate successful strategies.

In a communicative planning model, science communication is redefined from the traditional ‘research, development and extension’ approach that, at worst, tacks communication on to the end of the project often unplanned, unresourced and unevaluated and, at best, presumes that land managers will accept and adopt new technology based on the recommendations of scientists and extension officers (Brown and MacLeod, 1997). Instead a new model of science communication is proposed that presents a diverse and multi-disciplinary role of interpreting scientific information for use by a particular group, building stakeholder capacity, and facilitate and manage negotiation between key stakeholder groups.

What role for science communication?

The planning system is comprised of multiple groups (e.g. Government agencies, specific industries, indigenous communities, etc.) all of whom undertake planning of one form or another to achieve their own value-based objectives. Dale and Bellamy (1998) propose that the health of the planning system depends on three cornerstones:

  • the collective understanding each has of natural resource management problems
  • the institutional support to negotiate through issues
  • the capacity of these groups to participate in this inherently political process.

These cornerstones help to build the vitality (or the health) of the system of planning operating at any scale, rather than imposing a new system upon the complex set of existing arrangements.

In applying these cornerstones of regional planning, it is easy to see that communication is the common thread that keeps a planning system functioning. The first cornerstone relies on the successful communication of scientific information across all stakeholders. The second relies on establishing communication styles and channels that will allow equitable bargaining and collaboration between groups. The third relies on ongoing skills transfer and on effective internal group communication.

Therefore, the challenge of science communication in a regional planning context is to develop an appropriately resourced and broadly owned communication strategy which takes into account the needs of the project, and the needs and environment of the target audience. Throughout its implementation such a strategy would also be evaluated and adapted to take into account the progress towards objectives and the changing needs of the stakeholders

The CHRRUPP concept as a basis for planning

A regional planning experiment as a well as a planning process, CHRRUPP aimed to establish and evaluate a negotiated and integrated approach to planning in the Central Highlands of Queensland that was based on the three cornerstones of regional planning outlined above. The Central Highlands was an ideal region in which to explore such an approach. The region’s economy is based on coal mining, pastoralism, irrigated agriculture and dryland cropping. Extensive tree clearing and debates about dam building are the focus of national attention. The region is subject to a range of overlapping native title claims and lacks a comprehensive representative reserve system. The diversity of these problems lends itself to solutions that can be negotiated with key groups across the region.

CHRRUPP supported regional stakeholder groups to plan their response to regional pressures and so assist them to manage their resources sustainably. This is done in the region in three ways, by:

  • supporting local groups to develop regional plans of sustainable use of natural resources
  • supporting local groups to negotiate regional solutions to common natural resources use issues
  • researching regional planning techniques and processes which would underpin a cooperative approach to planning.

CHRRUPP involved individuals, groups, and industries from across the Central Highlands, and the broader Central Queensland region. These became self-defined sectors that included: pastoral, grains, intensive food and fibre producers, local government, State government, conservation, mining, human services, Landcare, Aboriginal, economic/ tourism, University-based education, and a broader Integrated Catchment Management Group (Fitzroy Basin Association). CHRRUPP worked with these sectors to help them understand natural resource problems within the region and to undertake their own planning for natural resources. CHRRUPP also supported the sectors to negotiate regional solutions to common natural resource use problems.

The central, and integrating, mechanism of CHRRUPP was the Regional Coordinating Committee (RCC), which brought together the sectors and established a forum for interaction and collaboration. The RCC included representatives from each sector and these sector representatives were encouraged to liaise with their own sector and so bring a grassroots perspective on resource use planning issues and opportunities in the region. RCC forums were held three times a year and enabled a common regional vision to be developed and regional strategies to be identified across sectors. The RCC also provided a focus for the four overarching regional services developed to support the planning process:

  • the Central Highlands regional information service and decision support tools
  • a system of state of region reporting (the Regional Rolling Audit)
  • a project communication strategy
  • on-going evaluation.

CHRRUPP involved a research team from CSIRO, which provided technical assistance, administrative support and project coordination as well as documenting, synthesising, and evaluating findings during the three years of the project. This team involved people with a range of disciplines including regional planning, social and institutional analysis, geographic information systems, decision support software, evaluation, and science communication.

As a three year research project, CHRRUPP was completed in November 2000: as an ongoing approach to regional planning, the key elements of the planning system and its support services and arrangements have gradually been handed over to full community management.

CHRRUPP’s communication plan

In CHRRUPP, the challenge of shifting to a communicative model of regional planning was tackled by developing a communication strategy which clearly identified target audiences and endeavoured to take account of their background, perceptions of the key issues, their concerns and their communication needs. The first plan was drafted at the beginning of the project life cycle in 1997and was reviewed mid way through the project in 1998 and a second plan developed.

The communication strategy was developed through a workshop with the CHRRUPP project team. This process was important to develop a shared group learning of the communication principles and processes that would underpin the plan. The final document ( adopted most elements of a standard public relations plan (e.g. as outlined by Cultip et al. 2000) including communication objectives, communication environment, audiences, goal, objectives, messages, tactics, resources, and evaluation strategies.

As a framework for the communication strategy, a set of communication principles was developed and these were the:

  • empowerment of existing sectors involved in regional planning
  • facilitation of forums and processes involving representatives from each sector to allow consultation and negotiation of regional solutions to resource use pressures
  • research into development of effective sustainable mechanisms to improve the regional resources use planning approach.

The communication objectives of the plan were to:

  • support the embedding of integrated and sustainable regional planning activity amongst CHRRUPP stakeholders
  • ensure communication processes are dynamic and responsive to feedback received through evaluation and refinement of processes.
  • encourage the continuation of CHRRUPP by reinforcing its successes and worthiness to stakeholders through communication of its progress and achievements
  • maintain and enhance communication amongst CHRRUPP team members to ensure a high level of service delivery
  • maximise the influence of CHRRUPP in its role as a nationally-significant research and development experiment in regional resource use planning.

The success of CHRRUPP relied on acceptance of the process and outcomes from four broad stakeholder groups including: sectoral groups, the Central Highlands community, the research and academic community and influential people and agencies beyond the Central Highlands region. Communication tactics focussed on keeping these stakeholder groups informed of and satisfied with the processes of CHRRUPP and included: RCC regional forums, community forums, electronic (email and regional information system CHRIS) newsletters, using and supporting existing linkages (e.g. environment sector, human resources sector).

Keeping all CHRRUPP activities, including communication activities, focussed and relevant was done through an evaluation component of the CHRRUPP project. This evaluation was considered to be fundamental to identify the changes arising from CHRUUPP and to support an adaptable and flexible approach to project implementation. The focus of the evaluation was to assess the overall impact of the project and its research outcomes, but also to evaluate specific methods, processes and tools to support regional resource use planning. The rationale and approach of the evaluation framework applied is fully outlined in Bellamy and Dale (2000) but briefly it was done as a longitudinal study primarily through regular, semi-structured stakeholder interview, participant observation, and specific evaluation activities.

Delivery of communication outcomes against communication objectives

As a project, CHRRUPP achieved significant on-ground improvement in the planning system of the Central Highlands as well as delivering change in on-ground natural resource use and regional infrastructure (see Bellamy and Dale 2000 for full description). The communication components of CHRRUPP also delivered several outcomes against the communication objectives outlined in CHRRUPP’s communication strategy.

Objective 1. Support integrated regional planning activities

The first objective of the communication strategy was to ‘support the embedding of integrated and sustainable regional planning activity amongst stakeholders through CHRRUPP’, which was one of the primary objectives of the CHRRUPP project. How CHRRUPP, as a project, delivered against this objective is outlined in more detail in Bellamy and Dale (2000) but in summary the outcomes supported the three cornerstones of healthy planning outlined above in providing access to knowledge, the establishment of appropriate institutional arrangements, and the building of capacity of these groups to engage in the planning process.

1. Access to technical social, economic and environmental knowledge

Building a technically sound understanding for regional planning required improving the community’s access to, and awareness of, the technical aspects of the regional planning arena so stakeholders can understand how their region functions socially, economically, environmentally and politically. CHRRUPP developed tools and technologies to inform the planning process, in particular:

  • A state of regional reporting
    The Central Highlands Rolling Regional Audit (RRA) aims to assist decision-making by providing useful, accessible information and also for monitoring regional progress on a range of themes and the effectiveness of current responses. Using the Pressure-state-response model, the CH-RRA is a series of 29 Indicator Reporting pages on specific topics relevant to regional sustainability in the Central Highlands (Bellamy, 2000a).

    Through the CHRRUPP evaluation, stakeholders reported that, for the first time, the RRA provides then with information on a range of key environmental, economic, social and institutional indicators in and integrated and interpreted way. It was also seen to have potential in improving understanding amongst stakeholder of how the region functions and be able to provide useful, synthesized and interpreted information to all sectors of the community to improve their ability to undertake planning.
  • A regional information system
    Two WWW sites were constructed during CHRRUPP. The Central Highlands Regional Information Service (CHRIS, ) was a regional homepage to provide links relevant to the Central Highlands and so increase the use of the internet in the region. The second site, CHRRUPP web aims to help stakeholders to participate in the planning process by providing access to information in an easily understood format, assisting stakeholder groups to prepare for negotiation, and helping stakeholder groups to represent their constituents.

    The development of the web sites was an evolutionary processes with internal reviews and user feedback helping to shape the first version. Regional stakeholders recognised the potential value of the sites in their positive comments - all informants who visited the site considered it potentially useful - in the two CHRRUPP evaluation surveys in 1999 and 2000 (Bellamy 2000b, 2000c). Web page access log analysis from February 1998 to August 2000 showed a steady increase from users not associated with the developing the web site: external users since January 1999 have accounted for 96.25% of the total ten thousand users (Bellamy and Dale 2000).
  • Decision support software.
    Two interactive computer-based tools, JavaAHP and VegMan, were developed to support decision-making in natural resource use planning.

    JavaAHP is the first decision analysis tool available on the WWW for natural resource management. It provides a structured, yet flexible, approach to organising judgments and establishing priorities. It also enables better understanding of different alternatives and the effects of divergent social values upon their evaluation. JavaAHP has been selected as a potential tool for use in the Water Allocation Management Process (WAMP) for the Fitzroy Basin of Queensland. Zhu (2000) has established its procedure and strategy for use in the Fitzroy WAMP SIA.

    VegMan provides access to current information and data on natural resources in the Central Highlands region, and updated government policies and legislation regarding vegetation management.

2. Establishment of appropriate institutional arrangements

There were many steps taken through CHRRUP to improve institutional reform in the region, but the key one in terms of communication was the Regional Coordinating Committee (RCC). As a central coordinating mechanism for the region’s sectors, the RCC provided an inclusive regional forum for the negotiated development of a common regional vision for the Central Highlands. The fora involved all sectoral representatives (and /or their proxies) and brought together different regional interests in a single forum to discuss common issues, foster inter-sectoral linkages, and come to agreement on solutions to common regional problems.

In the CHRRUPP evaluation it emerged that RCC members are generally very positive about the RCC strengths and, as a cross-sectoral integrating body, the contribution it makes to providing a regional focus on natural resource use and management in the region (Bellamy and Dale 2000).

Building the capacity of groups involved in the use and management of resources. In CHRRUPP, there was significant investment in capacity building across the community through investing in individuals, building stronger sectors, building and promoting partnerships, structuring negotiation, and involvement of the broader community.

One of the key initiatives in this area was the development of the RCC. In the formal evaluation of CHRRUPP (Bellamy and Dale 2000) the members of the RCC considered that the formation and the operation of RCC has made a significant investment in capacity building in the region by being inclusive, interactive, empowering, credible, influential, fostering learning, and providing a ‘one stop shop” for government. RCC members also indicated that, as a communication medium, the RCC forums were particularly successful in developing understanding and respect for other sector’s views and perspectives on regional issues. They also considered there has been a substantial improvement in both the region’s intra-sectoral and cross-sectoral linkages since CHRRUPP began in 1997. This ranges from informal information exchanges to purposeful intra-sectoral planning and project development.

Objective 2. Ensure dynamic and responsive communication processes

The second objective of the CHRRUPP communication plan was to ensure communication processes are dynamic and responsive to feedback received through evaluation and refinement of processes. An important lesson for the CHRRUPP team was to recognise when communication and involvement investments were not working and move to more effective engagement strategies.

In identifying the effectiveness of communication strategies to ensure they were able to fulfil project objectives, the CHRRUPP evaluation process played a critical role. For example, the first round of the evaluation found that, as the Regional Coordinating Committee meetings were held quarterly, there was a need to ensure continuity and progress on issues. Subsequently, a proxy from each sector was included in the meetings and also tele-meetings were introduced as less formal, but useful, way to allow people to keep discussing issues and activities between the larger face-to-face forums.

The project team also tried to reflect on the project communication activities to assess if they were being effective. One example was the regional priorities forums – initially these were general forums held in the larger towns in the region to engage the wider Central Highlands community in the regional planning process. However these style forums did not attract interest from the broader community and were not well attended. Reflection on this type of forum by the project team meant they evolved to issues-specific forums which engaged the community more successfully and so contributed to project objectives.

Objective 3. Promote CHRRUPP’s progress and achievements

The third objective of the CHRRUPP communication plan was to encourage the continuation of CHRRUPP by reinforcing its successes and worthiness to stakeholders through communication of its progress and achievements. To be able to communication CHRRUPP’s progress and achievements it was important to first develop a profile for the project amongst its identified stakeholders. A range of media were used to achieve this such as a project brand (the CHRRUPP gecko logo), a variety of communication products (a newsletter, contributions to other organizations’ newsletters, fact sheets, planned and opportunistic media coverage), sponsorship and promotion, regional priorities forums, and the issues-based forum held in different locations across the region.

These various communication strategies resulted in a high degree of commitment to the planning process by those directly involved, such as the RCC members. However they were less successful amongst the broader community. An evaluation of the awareness of CHRRUPP amongst the broader community was not done formally, but RCC members indicated in the project evaluation they thought the level of awareness of CHRRUPP in the general Central Highlands community was not high. The project team concluded that investment in awareness-raising activities cannot be too great and that this should be a high priority for future regional planning approaches.

Objective 4. Develop internal processes to maintain service delivery amongst CHRRUP team

The fourth objective was to maintain and enhance communication amongst CHRRUPP team members to ensure a high level of service delivery. Working with a multidisciplinary team that was spread thinly across a range of CHRRUPP subprojects, and with staff located in both the Central Highlands and Brisbane, meant that it was very important to have effective internal communication processes within the CHRRUPP project team. Regular meetings were held that were structured around team members and their activities.

An internal communication review midway through the project indicated that staff found these meetings frustrating and did not feel they improved their understanding of the project’s progress. This resulted in a restructuring of these meetings. Subsequent staff meetings were structured around subproject reports on activities. This change in emphasis ensured that a service delivery focus was maintained amongst project staff and staff reported being more satisfied with their understanding of the project’s progress.

Objective 5. Maximise influence of CHRRUPP on regional resource-use planning

The fifth objective of the communication plan was to maximise the influence of CHRRUPP in its role as a nationally-significant research and development experiment in regional resource use planning. This was done through project staff giving a number of government workshops, seminars and conference papers and also the publishing of a range of scientific papers detailing CHRRUPP’s approach and outcomes (see Bellamy and Dale 2000). In addition, the development and implementation of a media strategy resulted in a number of articles in media outlets including ECOS, The Bulletin, regional radio, and regional newspapers.


Science communication played an important role in strengthening regional planning for natural resource management in the Central Highlands. One of the key messages from the CHRRUPP project was that science communication needs to be viewed as a high priority in building a better regional planning system. CHRRUPPs had a significant investment in science communication. Key areas in which CHRRUPP delivered on were:

  • internal stakeholder communication
  • improved communication among stakeholders
  • improved communication and collaboration between the scientific community and stakeholders which is supported by appropriate institutional arrangements
  • increased State, national and global influence through externally-focused communication.

Clearly this work calls for a redefinition of science communication as playing a broader role in the management of natural resources. Communication is the common thread that keeps a planning system functioning and thus science communication can be redefined to include the successful communication of scientific information across all stakeholders in a useable format; supporting the establishment of communication styles and channels that will allow equitable bargaining and collaboration between groups; and also playing a role the building the communication capacity of individuals and groups involved in natural resource management to ensure effective group communication processes.


  1. Bellamy, J. A. (2000a) The Central Highlands Regional Rolling Audit. CHRRUPP. CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems. Brisbane.
  2. Bellamy, J. A. (2000b) An analysis of stakeholder views on the Central highlands Regional Resource use Planning Project: March/April 1999. Internal report prepared for the LWRRDC R&D Project CTC13. CSIRO Tropical Agriculture: Brisbane. February 2000.
  3. Bellamy, J. A. (2000c) An analysis of stakeholder views on the Central highlands Regional Resource use Planning Project: May Jul 2000. Internal report prepared for the LWRRDC R&D Project CTC13. CSIRO Tropical Agriculture: Brisbane. November 2000.
  4. Bellamy, J. A. and Dale, A. P. (2000). Evaluation of the Cental Highlands Regional Resource Use Planning Project: A synthesis of findings.
  5. Brown, J. and MacLeod, N. D. (1997) Improved adoption of information for sustainable land management: proceedings of a CSIRO workshop, Brisbane, Queensland.
  6. Cutlip, S. M. Center, A.H. and Broom, G. M. (2000) Effective public relations. 8th ed. Prentice Hall
  7. Dale, A. P. and Bellamy, J. A. (1998). Regional Resource Use Planning in Rangelands: an Australian Review. LWRRDC Occasional Paper Series, No. 6/98.
  8. Dale, A.P. and Lane, M. B. (1994) Strategic perspectives analysis: a procedure for participatory and political social impact assessment. Society and Natural Resources 7: 253 – 267.
  9. McDonald, G. T. (1989) Rural resource land use planning decisions by bargaining. Journal of Rural Studies 5:325 – 335.
  10. Zhu, X. (2000) MOCA: A decision support tool for project evaluation and prioritisation in regional resource use planning. The Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Multiple Objective Decision Support Systems for Land, Water, and Environmental Management (MODSS’99), 1-6 August 1999, Brisbane, Australia. (in press).

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page