Friday, January 29, 2010

Some Notes about The Pasque Flower

When I decided to title this blog “The Pasque Flower”, little did I know. My friend and colleague Wayne Freimund sent me a piece last week by philosopher Holmes Rolston, published in the April 1979 issue of Natural History Magazine. In that essay, Rolston discusses the symbolic significance of the pasque flower as he sees it. I always look forward to seeing the first pasque flower of the year. Pasque flowers emerge in early spring on our small plot of land south of Missoula, and I have always looked forward to their presence. Rolston notes:

The pasqueflower symbolizes all that is missing in the wintry landscape, and should there come a spring without the regeneration it prefigures, the winter would have grown lethal. Wildness without its flora would be only the bleak and conquering storm, and it is this florescence that the pasqueflower helps us to celebrate because it dares to bloom when the winter of which we have wearied is not yet gone
As I weary of many tired arguments about how to manage protected areas (e.g., carrying capacity), the connections with society and the people who visit them, I always look forward to new ideas and approaches, such as the application of systems thinking to many of the challenges that confront us.

The pasque flower (and its equivalents around the globe) is important to me, and to all of us because it provides us with a sense of hope and celebration that Rolston spoke of. Providing stewardship for protected areas is difficult, and we need people and ideas who dare to bloom in a wintry landscape of gray.

Rolston is not the only philosopher to speak of the pasque flower. Naturalist and philosopher Aldo Leopold summed things up well when he stated:
“A chance to find one (pasque flower) is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Protected Areas in an Age of Complexity

Most of us recognize and appreciate that protected areas exist within a context of change, complexity, uncertainty and contentiousness. Our appreciation of this context demands that we approach both the challenges and opportunities presented by the various processes and forces acting on protected areas with a different problem-solving paradigm in mind. Recognizing that protected areas exist within a complex and dynamic milieu, is not enough for successful management in the 21st century; that complexity must be engaged, assertively and competently.

To do this, we must dispel our conventional event-oriented approach to management and planning; we must recognize and engage the messy problems and wicked situations with new, innovative and resourceful approaches. These approaches must not simply reform the conventional rational-comprehensive approach to planning that has dominated protected areas in the 20th and early 21st centuries; they must be complete reinventions of how we make decisions. That reinvention must develop planning processes that are (1) inclusive; (2) representative; (3) learning focused; (4) ownership building (in the sense of creating a sense of empowerment and responsibility); (5) that recognize that trust underlies the interpersonal relationships inherent in planning processes and (6) respect different forms of knowledge.

This is a tall order. Systems thinking will help. See Senge, The Fifth Discipline, for a good explanation of how organizations can apply systems thinking to overcome their “learning disabilities”. But systems thinking, while a necessary condition for stewardship, is not sufficient. Productive approaches to protected area stewardship will require not only an appreciation of complexity, but also a willingness, both politically and technically to engage it. We need competent, open-minded planners and managers possessing skills equal to the challenges of the 21st century.

Well, this all well and good, but can we be more specific? Protected areas are embedded within a complex social-ecological system. Exogenous variables, to paraphrase systems theorist John Sterman, don’t really exist. The organization with stewardship responsibilities is part of this system not separate from it. Solutions lie within the organization. While this system is both complex—nonlinear dynamics occurring here—it is also complicated—a large range of variables operating at different spatial, temporal and social-organizational scales and at different paces. Systems thinking helps us understand what kind of feedback loops operate, where the delays between cause-effects happen and what leverage points might be available. By diving deeper, we begin to understand the underlying structures and patterns that lead to, and even cause, the events we find so troubling.

In future blog entries, I will provide some examples to demonstrate the value of systems thinking in providing insights to the issues and challenges facing protected areas today.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Water and Protected Areas

“Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink”.

While poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner was referring to the ocean surrounding a ship, the statement can equally apply to the growing scarcity of freshwater, not only for human needs but for the ecosystems that support life on the planet. Water serves numerous utilitarian purposes—it satisfies thirst, it irrigates our fields, it cools our factories and machinery, it serves as habitat for the fish we eat. We use water to treat our sewage and cool our homes, cook our dinners and wash our clothes.

The demand for water for these utilitarian purposes is increasing—generally at a rate of twice population growth, not just in the developing nations but in developed ones as well. Not only is the amount of water available an issue, but its quality as well. An estimated 1 billion or so people in the world lack access to safe, potable water, and, as a result, fostering disease, inhibiting economic development, and reducing quality of life.

Protected areas frequently play an important role in providing high quality water supplies to not only wildlife populations but to humans as well. Half the U.S. population sources its water from publicly administered national forests. Many people, such as me, have bore holes that draw from aquifers refreshed by snow and rain occurring on these forests.

In addition to these utilitarian functions, water plays important symbolic roles in human life. It is often viewed as synonymous with life itself. It serves as the basis for an enormous amount of recreational activity, such as boating, rafting, canoeing, fishing, and waterskiing. In its frozen state it provides the foundation, as snow, for snowmobiling, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, sledding and other snow sports. As ice on lakes, it is used by anglers in the winter for ice-fishing. And it serves as a backdrop for views, cabins and campsites. In the late 1960s, my wife and I completed data collection for my colleague Dave Lime concerning the use of specific campsites in campgrounds in the Superior National Forest of Minnesota. Dave’s Ph.D. Dissertation demonstrated that campsites with views of water surfaces were much more likely to be used than campsites away from water.

In these many uses of water, protected areas play important roles, and thus how protected areas are managed affects these uses, both utilitarian and symbolic. In decisions concerning how scarce water supplies will be allocated, symbolic uses rarely are adequately considered. Part of this problem is attributed to lack of an agreed upon metric: utilitarian values can normally be measured in financial or economic terms, but the value of a view or the use of water for fishing does not have an equivalent and accepted metric. Managers thus must be prepared to acknowledge that these values occur and that they must be considered on an equal basis with utilitarian purposes.

A more complete discussion of symbolic uses of water can be found in the volume Water and people: challenges at the interface of symbolic and utilitarian values (edited by Roger Clark, George Stankey and myself) for the Pacific Northwest Research Station. This might be useful for those wanting more background. The free download is located at

Monday, January 18, 2010

Climate Change and Protected Areas

Climate change is perhaps the most pernicious and least understood challenges facing humans today. It is a classic example of a system that is not only complex, it is complicated. The delays between human action, not only in causing changes, but in their correction as well, are long, sinuous, and loosely coupled. This makes understanding the system difficult. Imagine yourself taking a shower in a hotel room for the first time. You turn the water on and attempt to adjust the temperature. Its too hot, so you turn the temperature down. Nothing happens. You turn the lever toward “cold” some more. Nothing happens. You turn it more. Now its super cold! So you adjust the lever more toward the “hot” side again. Still too cold. You repeat these steps several times, and get frustrated. This is a simple system with a relatively short time delay. Now try to imagine a large system, with hundreds of variables and multiple delays of different lengths. Couple this with effects that occur someplace else. Now you can appreciate some of the difficulties in understanding climate change and trying to figure out what to do about it.
But what does climate change have to do with protected areas. Well, there are over 112,000 nationally designated protected areas in the world, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Center in Cambridge, UK. Each one of these was established with some implicit assumptions about the presence of vegetation and wildlife within it. As the climate changes, so does the vegetation, and the animals. The type and distribution of natural capital changes. As natural capital changes, the services provided by ecosystems constructed on that natural capital also changes. Now this is pretty significant shift, and it means that protected areas may no longer protect natural capital—and the related ecosystem services—that was originally intended. That natural capital may shift to places outside the protected areas, or, it may no longer exist.
The shifts in ecosystem-based services—the type, quantity and spatial and temporal distribution—affect people who depend upon those services for their survival. That is, US! Water may no longer come in the amounts or seasonal distribution we have come to expect. Genetic resources may be lost. Carbon storage may increase, or decline. The point is, humans depend on that natural capital for their very survival. Protected areas play a critical role in ensuring the sustainability of those services.
Now we have probably all heard about this before, and probably many times. But what can and should we do about it? We need to understand that we, as humans, must adapt. Adaptation means not only changing our behavior to reduce our impact, but adapting to shifts in services and the availability of the benefits coming from those services. One of those services we benefit from is wildlife populations and behavior. We benefit by the tourism that is developed around those populations, through the spending non-locals make in the local area, creating economic opportunity. Tourism, through the development of not only income, but also of skills, can help a community build resiliency, if it (tourism) is carefully managed.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Center has been particularly concerned about the potential of a changing climate on the sites inscribed on the List of World Heritage. These sites protect the “outstanding universal value” – why the site is inscribed—of a place to all of humanity. Climate change may threaten that value. See for further information on activities of the Center.
Of course, working at the international level to secure changes that reduce impacts is also important. International cooperation and collaboration is essential to ensure that nations work together. While many people were disappointed in the Copenhagen conference, it does establish a foundation for future agreements on emissions. For one very positive assessment of this foundation, you might want to visit
So, we need a concerted effort not only to understand climate change and its causes, but also effects on protected areas, the values and natural capital they contain, and the ecosystem services they provide. We need an organized effort to discuss these effects.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tourism and Protected Areas -- A Symbiotic Link

Nearly every one of the more than 112,000 nationally designated protected areas in the world receives some visits from people seeking to appreciate and enjoy the biophysical attributes of the place. The enormous visitation to the world protected areas is indicative of the value of these places to humanity. Yet, often the level and type of visitation may threaten the natural capital in the protected area, the services this capital provides and benefits--broadly defined--that flow from them.

Tourism is thus frequently viewed as a threat to protected areas. In my opinion, it is a threat because it is not managed appropriately. Agencies often fail to control, guide or influence visitor behavior or the tourism industry.

But tourism can also be viewed as a source of political and social support and as a source of income for management. Tourism activity may provide incentives for those concerned about loss of access to resources within the protected area. Tourism may help build pride in local places and cultures. Tourism can help visitors better understand connections with the natural world and build understanding of how humans impact their environment.

So, instead to responding to tourism in a knee-jerk way that it is a threat, perhaps we need to think and work our way through the interactions among tourism, protected areas and local communities. We need to think of this as a system of interconnecting parts and how we can optimize the functioning of this system.

On another note, some of you may wish to have more background on me. Well, the University of Montana still maintains my web page there, as I am actually Professor Emeritus on the faculty. You can find my web page at

If you are interested in considering alternative frameworks for managing tourism and visitors in protected areas, you migh want to download the publication "An Assessment of Frameworks Useful for Public Land Recreation Planning". I was one of the co-authors. It is available here:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Blog for Park Managers and Protected Area Academics


The world is changing, and changing fast. We all know this. But what changes are affecting parks and protected areas? And what implications do these changes have for how we provide stewardship to these special places. As a scientist, researcher and even manager for the 40 years of my career, I have seen these changes challenge managers. At times appearing overwhelming--with good reason--these changes are the source of many problems.

I created this blog to share my thoughts with managers and academics in the hope it will provide them something to consider as they seek resolutions to the challenging opportunities and issues confronting us. I don't have a lot of answers--but I do have a lot of observations. These might be helpful.

One thing we all share is a deep appreciation for the natural world and how humans can experience and benefit from that. Most of us have an enormous passion for protection of these places, for providing access to them and for the benefits they may provide to both visitors and nearby residents. These passions are the source of our strengths, but also can become a limiting factor in securing effective, efficient and equitable responses to the challenges of the 21st century. How can we capitalize on our psssion for excellence in management while remaining adaptable? This an important question for all of us.

In many cases we frame this question as a matter of "balance": how do we balance two different interests? I prefer to use the term "integrate". Balance implies opposing forces, zero-sum conflicts,more of one means less of another. While many conflicts around protected areas are zero-sum, most, optimistically put, involved values that are partly shared and partly competing. What we need to do ist to integrate these values and issues rather than choose one or the other which is implied by the notion of balance.

In the coming weeks and months I plan to raise these questions and provide a perspective on them. You are welcome to respond and comment on them. It is through such dialogue that we learn and make progress.