Forging new models of natural resource governance

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Apr 04, 2016
R. Bixler, M. McKinney, and L. Scarlett


Effective solutions to today’s most pressing natural resource management challenges demand working across jurisdictional and sectoral boundaries, which requires a networked system of governance. The 21st century has seen a dramatic shift in technology and social norms that have fundamentally changed the way we coordinate and make decisions at individual, organizational, and societal levels. The term “network society” has been applied to this mode of organization. Through networks, people leverage informal relationships to exchange ideas, build rapport, identify common interests, work together, share power, and solve problems of mutual interest. Network governance emerges when people realize that they (and the organizations they represent) cannot solve a particular problem by acting independently and that their interests may be better served through collaboration, drawing on their diverse capabilities. At large landscape scales, networks facilitate and shape governance of economic, socio-cultural, and ecological processes and activities. 

Large landscape conservation spans boundaries and land uses – including working lands, urban areas, and wildlands – to encompass whole landscapes. Networks of people and organizations within these landscapes unite to focus collective attention and effort on areas of recognized conservation value as well as on specific conservation priorities or threats. The vast scale of these initiatives often necessitates a broad-based, multi-jurisdictional, multi-sectoral, and multi-purpose (economic, social, and environmental) approach. Individuals and organizations must work across boundaries and agencies to devise networked governance structures that encompass the necessary authorities and geographic scale to achieve linked economic, social, and environmental objectives.

This Special Issue explores the application of network governance to large landscape conservation. The articles detail challenges and opportunities with this approach. We offer the following recommendations for practitioners, policy makers, and scholars: (1) focus, refine, and expand the concept of governance to inform analysis of social– ecological systems; (2) cultivate network leaders who create opportunities for transformative collaboration around shared problems; (3) reflect on the nature of network successes and strategies for evaluating outcomes; (4) understand governance processes and practices at multiple scales and their mechanisms for engaging communities and other stakeholders in multi-level decision making; and (5) recognize that networks are susceptible to the differences in power, influence, and resources among network participants, and plan and act accordingly.

Addressing environmental problems at the large landscape scale is more than a scientific or technical challenge, and it’s more than simply managing natural resources more effectively and efficiently. At its core, such problem solving is fundamentally about integrating diverse needs, interests, visions, and cultures. Such integration – to promote vibrant economies, livable communities, and healthy landscapes – often springs from creating opportunities for interested and affected people to come together with the best available information to focus on issues of common concern.

Recognizing the need to support and connect initiatives that work at scales large enough to advance systemic and integrated approaches to resource management, the Practitioners’ Network for Large Landscape Conservation ( formed in 2011. The Network’s mission is to build capacity across scales and sectors and to improve policy frameworks that promote and support large landscape conservation. Embracing the tenets of the network society, the Network allows individuals and organizations to come and go, depending on their needs and interests; it is adaptive and provides a platform to share information and lessons learned and collectively advance the theory, practice, and performance of large landscape conservation.

We have learned that there is no one-size-fits-all model for addressing environmental problems, and we encourage practitioners to match the processes of governance to the particular issue or opportunity at hand. We invite scholars to build partnerships with those involved in such initiatives and to engage in research, teaching, and public outreach efforts that advance participatory models of governance at relevant scales.

This large landscape conservation approach – whether initiated by a federal or international agency, a non-governmental organization like The Nature Conservancy, or a university – requires increasingly networked modes of organization and collaboration to build durable, systemic, and sustainable solutions. As we write this, new models of natural resource governance are being forged across hundreds of landscapes in North America and elsewhere in the world. This Special Issue identifies important theories, concepts, strategies, and practices that can help those efforts move forward and will help everyone interested in large landscape conservation to reach deeper insights into the actions and motivations that are shaping landscape-scale natural resource management.

Read in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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