Situating humans in ecosystem recovery: the Human Dimensions Protocol

Puget Sound Partnership
Puget Sound Partnership
5 min readJul 28, 2020


A detailed look at a resource for understanding the complex interactions and relationships between humans and the natural environment

By David Trimbach, Ph.D., Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Oregon State University

Photo of kayaker and boats near Blake Island in WA. Photo credit: Mark Smith.
Kayaker and boats near Blake Island. Photo credit: Mark Smith

What economic impacts does a habitat restoration project entail? How often do residents engage in shellfish harvesting? Do people attach to or identify with the natural environment? What are the inequitable community impacts of environmental planning decisions? Do residents engage in pro-environmental stewardship activities? This range of questions illustrates a tiny fraction of the human or social aspects of ecosystem recovery. Such questions demonstrate the complex relationships and interactions between humans and the natural world. These questions, among others, can be addressed through human dimensions.

Human dimensions generally refers to the full spectrum of ways in which people relate to the environment, including through specific actions or behaviors that may positively or negatively impact ecosystem health, and the various ways people directly benefit from interacting with the environment, including through recreation, subsistence or cultural practices, or even stress-reducing or therapeutic activities. Human dimensions tends to be divided up into communication, management, and the social sciences. Human dimensions, particularly social science, is increasingly recognized as integral to ecosystem recovery, including within the Puget Sound region and by the Puget Sound Partnership (Partnership).

Photo of two people strolling along the beach at Dash Point, Washington, at low tide. Photo credit: Ruth Hartnup.
Two people strolling along the beach at Dash Point during low tide. Photo credit: Ruth Hartnup.

Since the Partnership’s creation, with ebbs and flows, the social sciences and human dimensions have been an essential aspect of its work. This is illustrated by the Partnership’s creation of its Social Science Advisory Committee in 2010, development of its integrated conceptual model that includes social and ecological interactions in 2014, and adoption of Human Wellbeing Vital Signs in 2015. This is also illustrated by the recent completion and redesign of the Human Dimensions Protocol (Protocol). Funded and supported by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program and the Puget Sound Partnership, the Protocol provides guidance supporting the integration of human dimensions, including social science, into the work of Implementation Strategies. Implementation Strategies are plans for accelerating progress toward the 2020 ecosystem recovery targets for the Puget Sound Vital Signs and are created by regional and local partners. One major product of Implementation Strategies is known as a Starter Package, which includes a wealth of information, data, and science to achieve recovery goals. The Protocol provides a helpful and accessible guide to Implementation Strategy teams to better understand, address, and include human dimensions, notably social science, in their discussions, processes, plans, and plan-related documents, like Starter Packages.

The Protocol builds upon and reflects a wealth of human dimensions and social science work that has been undertaken over the past decade or so. The Protocol itself is a testament to the work of others, including members of the Social Science Advisory Committee. While I led and largely authored the Protocol, it includes content, information, and resources that were developed and reviewed by others, including Dr. Kelly Biedenweg (OSU), Dr. Trina Wellman (Northern Economics, Inc.), Emilie Franke (Northern Economics, Inc.), and Leah Kintner (Partnership), among others.

Photo of a group of people enjoying the view from Oyster Dome, near Bellingham, Washington. Photo: Kirk and Barb Nelson
A group enjoying the view from Oyster Dome, near Bellingham. Photo credit: Kirk and Bar Nelson.

The Protocol is structured as a “how to” guide for practitioners and planners, who may be broadly curious about human dimensions or may have a specific question that needs to be answered. While the Protocol is tailored towards the needs of Implementation Strategies and Starter Packages (notably Section 2), the document and its diverse content could easily be used for the benefit of any partner within the Puget Sound recovery community, if not beyond.

The Protocol itself encompasses a diverse range of content and potential areas of interest or inquiry. The first major section focuses on specific questions that planners or practitioners may have that are focused on specific human dimensions content or topics. Such content includes: “What is social science?,” “What is human wellbeing?,” “What is human dimensions?,” “What is economics?,” “What can social science address?,” and “What is Structured Decision Making?.” The second section is specifically tailored to how human dimensions can be better integrated and reflected within Implementation Strategies, including how to better include more diverse partners in decision-making processes and how to perhaps create a human dimensions workshop. Beyond the Protocol’s main content is a variety of appendices. These appendices seek to provide more detailed content and information to help users better understand a range of topics. Such topics include: a human dimensions checklist for Implementation Strategy teams; a document that outlines equity within a recovery context; examples of social science survey instruments; Social Science for the Salish Sea top priorities; and a recently developed economics guidance document that includes its own helpful appendices.

Photo of children and adults enjoying the beach at Seahurst Park in Burien, WA. Photo credit: Cheryl Hammond.
Enjoying the beach at Seahurst Park. Photo credit: Cheryl Hammond.

For the regional recovery community, including Implementation Strategy teams and other key partners, the Protocol offers a concise, yet comprehensive resource to help address many social science and human dimensions questions or needs. This resource reflects the wealth of human dimensions work, notably social science, within the region. This resource also exemplifies the Partnership’s continued push and innovative progress within ecosystem recovery. Although the Protocol is considered complete in its current form, it is a living and adaptively managed resource that will likely evolve and reflect emerging challenges, key questions, and areas of interest within recovery and other fields. Additionally, while the Protocol is tailored for the Partnership and its regional recovery network, this resource can directly benefit others interested in better understanding the complex interactions and relationships between humans and the natural environment.

Dr. David J. Trimbach is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University (OSU). David is a member of Dr. Kelly Biedenweg’s Human Dimensions Lab at OSU. David has been working in close collaboration with and has been housed at the Puget Sound Partnership since 2017, where he has worked to integrate social science and human dimensions into ecosystem recovery.