Social science bolsters a massive management plan

In 2007 the mangers of Wyoming’s rugged and far-reaching Bridger-Teton National Forest revisited their forest plan as mandated by the National Forest Management Act. For the Forest Service planners, their colleagues, and the public this meant exploring trade-offs among integrated ecological, social, and economic variables to develop potential management guidelines for a whole suite of issues on a 3.4 million-acre landscape for the next 15-20 years. No mean feat.

A task like this, rife with interrelated, complex data and resources, and spiced with conflict and high emotions, is termed “wicked” by social scientists. Pull on one thread in this mass, and the whole thing moves. If economic and ecological facts and figures indicated a clear path toward a healthy forest, abundant wildlife, and economic wellbeing, writing a forest plan would be a simple task. Most folks working for land management agencies know a lot about vegetation, water, wildlife, maps, and ecological processes, but few are steeped in social psychological knowledge. It is the pesky social, or human, component that truly creates the complexity and is difficult to absorb into decision making. That one wildlife species, Homo sapiens, complicates it all.

In 2007 the Wyoming Governor’s Office asked me, then human dimensions in natural resources scientist with Colorado State University and now with the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming, to unravel this social complexity in the Bridger-Teton. I conducted a random sample mail survey and applied other social science methods to map residents’ values to important places in the forest. The survey results showed the strongest connection between residents and their forest that I’ve ever found doing this kind of work. That’s because both working and recreational uses of the forest were meaningful here. Residents cared about the Bridger-Teton for the grazing, logging, and outfitting work, camping and tourism experiences, and sustenance through hunting and fishing.

Within these strong connections a range of priorities rose to the surface. Some survey respondents preferred opening roads while others wanted them closed. Many called for more active logging to reduce insect-affected trees and protect property, and many opposed oil and gas leasing on the forest. Most respondents supported grazing permits with limitations. People were concerned about the moose population, and they wanted managers to protect vegetation for wildlife habitat.

Armed with the survey results, I travelled through the Bridger-Teton, meeting with loggers, cattle and sheep ranchers, hunters, business owners, mountaineers, energy industry professionals, county commissioners, mayors, helicopter pilots, weed and pest department folks, environmentalists, second and primary home owners, and motorized and horse-back outfitters, often in remote areas. As a social scientist, I hope my data will inform decisions, but integrating this knowledge can be tricky for natural resource managers. So I met, too, with the Bridger-Teton supervisor and her staff, and planners in each of the six forest districts. I wanted to dig deeper into the survey results, and to explain my findings.

In Afton, Wyoming, for example, I sat down with the Greys River District Ranger, county commissioners, and other community members to discuss motorized recreation. The survey showed less support for motorized recreation in their county, and in the whole forest, than they had hoped. We discussed creating a collaborative process to find a sound management solution. Here, information generated by social science helped ground-truth assumptions about what people thought.

Like many natural resource issues, forest management is inherently complex and can be controversial. A survey designed with real help from local residents can truly address the questions folks have. Results that have validity in residents’ and agencies’ eyes, can inform management options. And face-to-face conversations can further unravel “wicked” interrelated issues.

In the case of the Bridger-Teton, the survey results reached even beyond the planning process. The data confirmed that locals found proposed oil and gas exploration in one part of the forest unfavorable, informed the creation of a Jobs and Recreation Act in Montana, and started collaborative discussions around motorized recreation in the Star Valley. Five years later, people tell me they are still using the data for projects in the forest.

Jessica Clement, a social scientist who has studied collaborative processes for forests, public lands, and other resources for twenty years, directs the Ruckelshaus Institute’s Collaboration Program in Natural Resources.