The limited understanding of how ecosystem service knowledge (ESK) is used in decision making constrains our ability to learn from, replicate, and convey success stories. We explore use of ESK in decision making in three international cases: national coastal planning in Belize; regional marine spatial planning on Vancouver Island, Canada; and regional land-use planning on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Decision makers, scientists, and stakeholders collaborated in each case to use a standardized ecosystem service accounting tool to inform spatial planning. We evaluate interview, survey, and observation data to assess evidence of 'conceptual', 'strategic', and 'instrumental' use of ESK. We find evidence of all modes: conceptual use dominates early planning, while strategic and instrumental uses occur iteratively in middle and late stages. Conceptual and strategic uses of ESK build understanding and compromise that facilitate instrumental use. We highlight attributes of ESK, characteristics of the process, and general conditions that appear to affect how knowledge is used. Meaningful participation, scenario development, and integration of local and traditional knowledge emerge as important for particular uses. © 2014 Pion and its Licensors.
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