Introduction to the special feature practicing panarchy: Assessing legal flexibility, ecological resilience, and adaptive governance in regional water systems experiencing rapid environmental change


This special feature presents articles on the cross-scale interactions among law, ecosystem dynamics, and governance to address the adaptive capacity of six watersheds in the United States as they respond to rapid environmental change. We build on work that assesses resilience and transformation in riverine and wetland social-ecological systems across the United States at a variety of scales, levels of development, and degrees of degradation, focusing specifically on the Anacostia River, Central Platte River, Klamath River, Columbia River, Middle Rio Grand River, and the Everglades wetlands. All of these cases involve complex institutional systems, histories involving ecological and social regime shifts, and are operated under similar constitutional and legal frameworks for the division of authority among federal, state, local, and where applicable, tribal governments. We focus on the legal dimensions of watershed governance that directly relate to ecological resilience and transformability of the social-ecological systems. We synthesize the results of these assessments to advance our understanding of the role of law and governance as a trigger, facilitator, or barrier to adaptation and transformation in the face of rapid environmental change, including shifting climate. This introductory article defines terminology and theoretical concepts to present a bridging framework between U.S. law and ecological resilience that can be used by the remaining articles in this special issue.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Barbara A. Cosens
Lance H. Gunderson
Brian C. Chaffin
Ecology and Society

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