The University of Arizona

The Elusive Promise of Social-Ecological Approaches to Rangeland Management

Mark W. Brunson


Resilience-based frameworks for social-ecological systems (SES) are prominent in contemporary scientific literatures, but critics suggest these approaches may promise more than they deliver. A fundamental premise underlying the SES approach is that, because of the scope of human activities worldwide, we cannot separate ecological and human elements of nature when tackling our biggest challenges. Proponents argue that managers should not seek optimal solutions, but instead build capacity to adapt and transform systems to thrive within unpredicted or novel ecological states. If the range profession is to take advantage of resilience ideas, we need better tools and concepts for understanding  nterconnected systems. SES research and management strategies will pose practical difficulties, most notably finding ways to bridge differences between the methods of social and natural sciences. Also needed are institutions that involve scientists, managers, and stakeholders in analysis and informed governance, thereby addressing a key tenet of ‘‘resilience thinking’’ while accounting for the ‘‘wicked’’ nature of problems that, like many facing rangeland managers today, do not have a single best solution but only more or less feasible responses. In hopes
of guiding managers toward more feasible options, I offer a model of rangeland social-ecological systems describing how management choices are influenced by, and may affect, human and natural systems at local and regional-to-global scales
through both top-down and bottom-up processes.

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