Date of Award
Master of Science
Since the 1980s, approaches to managing forest resources in the US and around the world have been shifting from the conventional sustained yield approach towards ecosystem management. Ecosystem management is a resource management paradigm that seeks to employ a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to landscape scale conservation, as well as the integration of socio-economic and biophysical considerations with the overall goal of enhancing the health and resilience of coupled social-ecological systems. While the role of natural resource conflicts as drivers of the transition towards ecosystem management has received some research attention, the potential roles of ecosystem management in emerging natural resource conflicts have not been adequately explored. The effective implementation of ecosystem management requires adaptive governance mechanisms capable of integrating diverse stakeholder values and knowledge systems across scales. The absence of such institutional mechanisms could contribute to the emergence of wicked problems – a class of problems that defy clear definitions and definitive solutions. Using the Shawnee National Forest as a case study, the purpose of this qualitative study was to understand the role of natural resource conflicts in the transition towards ecosystem management, as well as the consequences of ecosystem management on emerging resource conflicts. The study also aimed to assess the extent to which the approaches and strategies used in managing natural resource conflicts meet the institutional requirements for managing wicked problems. In this regard, semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2021 among 24 key informants representing the US Forest Service and relevant stakeholder groups, such as environmental groups, recreationists, and local businesses. The interviews were preceded by a review of documents to understand the context of changing forest policies and evolving conflicts in the Shawnee National Forest since the 1980s. The data were analyzed with the NVivo software using a deductive coding approach. The results showed that the transition towards ecosystem-based forest management in the Shawnee National Forest was primarily triggered by conflicts between environmental groups and the US Forest Service over timber harvesting. Although the institutional framework for alternative dispute resolution existed at the time, these conflicts were largely managed through the national legal system. Since the transition to ecosystem management with the adoption of the 2006 Forest Plan, new conflicts have emerged, this time, mostly among various recreational groups. The lifting of the injunction on timber harvesting and the increased focus of the US Forest Service on active forest management as part of forest restoration efforts appear to have set the stage for the potential re-emergence of conflicts over timber harvesting. Regarding conflict management, the use of alternative conflict management techniques, such as negotiation and mediation have received increased attention since the adoption of the 2006 Forest Plan, although the effectiveness of these processes has been hampered by various institutional and attitudinal constraints, including conflicting procedural requirements, limited capacity, and lack of agency commitment towards meaningful stakeholder engagement. Meanwhile, the fear of lawsuits continues to shape forest management decisions on the Shawnee National Forest. These findings highlight the inadequacy of the national legal system in managing wicked problems and they highlight the need for investments in effective institutional mechanisms for conflict management, such as adaptive governance.
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