Summit County Lower Blue Subbasin Master Plan

Much of the responsibility for land use planning in the U.S. falls to county-level government. There are, however, few written examples of DSS use related to biodiversity issues at the county level. One exception is the work of Tom Hobbs and David Theobold at Colorado State University. One of their examples is a collaboration with Summit County, Colorado, which is located about 60 miles west of Denver and is the home of the mountain resorts of Breckenridge, Vail, and Keystone. In terms of population, it has been one of the fastest growing counties in the nation (99.5% increase from 1990–2000). The White River National Forest occupies over 80% of the total land area in the county, and considerable development has occurred in forested areas or on private urbanized lands that are forested and adjacent to federal lands (i.e., the wildland/urban interface). As is common in many U.S. counties, a citizen committee updates a “master plan” for the county every few years. These plans do not directly set regulations, but rather provide guidance in setting legal standards, such as zoning regulations. In Summit County, the comprehensive plan is further subdivided into four subbasins, of which the Lower Blue subbasin is the least developed to date.
Dr. Hobbs championed the need to better integrate biodiversity information into county-level planning and received funding in 1994 to develop such a system from the Great Outdoors Colorado fund (state lottery money) and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. County commissioners from Summit and Larimer expressed interest and provided support for implementation in their counties. In addition to the computer programmers and scientists, Hobbs assembled a collaborative design group consisting of a county commissioner, a planner, a developer, a land owner, a wildlife manager, and some environmental advocates. The system was built using an iterative process of collecting ideas from the design group, constructing prototypes, and obtaining feedback. Theobald et al. (2000) describe one of the lessons learned in the collaborative design process:

Scientists on our design team originally advocated development of generalized population viability models as a way to analyze the consequences of development of a patch of habitat. However, the citizen participants found this approach to be obtuse and excessively technical, requiring them to take ‘on faith’ the validity of models produced by experts. There was a strongly expressed sentiment among these nontechnical members of our design team that they must be able to explain any analysis we used in a reasonable way to their fellow citizens, without relying on ‘outside’ technical expertise to establish the credibility of the analysis.

Additionally, they found a gap between the generalized theories that scientists work with and the more specific information needed in local land-use planning. Bridging this gap required experts willing to make difficult judgments or assumptions. Many of the assumptions and parameters also involved value judgments, which were most appropriately derived from the stakeholders. They also encountered difficulties in bridging the differences in time and space as they relate to ecological processes (long times and large areas) versus county planning processes (shorter times and smaller areas). Most biodiversity data is collected at the state level, so the level of detail is often less than ideal for local planning.

The resulting maps were used by the county in the update of their Lower Blue Master Plan. By the end of the process, the SCoP tool had become too complex to be easily transferable to other counties, and there was less political support at the state level for such planning related to private lands. Some of the ideas were incorporated into a statewide service operated by the Division of Wildlife called the Natural Diversity Information Source (NDIS). NDIS provides basic county-level statistics, species status lists, and internet maps of historical land use development trends. It does not, however, provide the type of species distribution and future build-out analyses that formed the core of the Blue Subbasin analysis.


Johnson, K.N.; Gordon, S.; Duncan, S.; Lach, D.; McComb, B.; Reynolds, K. 2007. Conserving creatures of the forest: A guide to decision making and decision models for forest biodiversity. Corvallis, OR : Oregon State University, College of Forestry. 88 pp.

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Colorado, USA

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Biodiversity Conservation

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Biodiversity Conservation

Land Use Planning

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Lessons Learned

Citizen involvement is needed to make the many value-based judgments needed in conservation planning.

Landowners value plans and regulations that are constant and predictable, which conflicts with the “learn as you go” process of adaptive management favored by ecologists.

Models tend to become complex as they are customized for a particular use; in order to be transferable to other locales, they must be stripped to a few core elements.Models tend to become complex as they are customized for a particular use; in order to be transferable to other locales, they must be stripped to a few core elements.

Models used must be simple enough for stakeholders to understand.

There is a gap between the general scientific principles established on landscape habitat evaluation and the specificity needed to implement them in a land use plan; expert interpretation is needed.

End Year

Theobald, D.M., and N.T. Hobbs. 2002. A framework for evaluating land use planning alternatives: protecting biodiversity on private land. Conservation Ecology 6(1): 5. Online:

Theobald, D.M., N.T. Hobbs, T. Bearly, J.A. Zack, T.Shenk, and W.E. Riebsame. 2000. Incorporating biological information in local land-use decision making: designing a system for conservation planning. Landscape Ecology 15(1): 35–5.

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