Managing Forests across Social and Ecological Boundaries: Collaboration among Multiple Landowners in the Context of Wildfire Risk

Client Organization: 
U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service
Project Location : 
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives:

1. Document how a set of public and private landowners is collaboratively restoring a fire-adapted forest landscape that crosses multiple property boundaries while also mitigating the risk of large wildfires
2. Identify the key distinguishing forest and wildfire management goals, values, experiences and practices of the landowners involved
3. Characterize primary social and ecological constraints and opportunities for collaboratively managing forest ecosystems at the landscape scale
4. Evaluate different institutions, authorities, and policies for collaboration on landscape scale forest restoration and wildfire risk management
5. Develop policy strategies for enhancing landscape scale approaches to forest restoration and wildfire risk management

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance: 

Managing forests at the large spatial scales is important for promoting ecosystem health and productivity, conserving biodiversity, and sustaining critical ecosystem services. Management at large spatial scales is especially important for mitigating wildfire risk and incursions by invasive plants, pests and pathogens, and sustaining animal species that move across property and other administrative boundaries through contiguous vegetation. Managing at large spatial scales is a challenge, however, as ecological dynamics at such scales at not well-understood. Social dynamics, however, are arguably the biggest barrier. Managing common pool resources (e.g., habitat, water) in the context of mixed-property rights regimes—federal, state, individual, corporate, tribal—each with their own management values, objectives, and practices, and financial and regulatory constraints, is complicated and can lead to conflict. This is especially true in the American West where the institution of private property ownership is strong, tensions between federal and private landowners are high, and the benefits and costs of acting collectively are unclear. At the same time, the American West stands to benefit greatly from collaborative landscape scale approaches. Large wildfires alone destroy thousands of homes and millions of acres of forestland in the region each year by burning across property boundaries. A collaborative landscape scale approach to restoring fire-prone forests and mitigating wildfire risk could help reduce damages from unnaturally large wildfires.

The proposed project aims to examine the social dynamics of managing forests at the landscape scale in a wildfire-prone, mixed-ownership setting: the high desert ranch and timber country of Eastern Oregon. The project team will examine one case of landscape scale management in which a diverse set public and private landowners are jointly planning and implementing forest practices to restore fire-prone ecosystem while mitigating the risk of large wildfires. The case is a project of the US Forest Service (USFS)–Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership (Joint Chiefs), a federal program established in federal fiscal year 2014 to improve forest health and resiliency where public and private lands interface. From a science perspective, the project will contribute to knowledge about ecosystem management, common pool resource management, collective action, and cross-boundary cooperation. From an applied perspective, the project will identify strategies including institutional arrangements and policy tools to enhance the success of fire-prone forest restoration and wildfire risk management. it will shed light on the complexity of the challenge, and ways forward to implement it on the ground.

Specific Activities & Duration: 

The project team will conduct (1) background research on the project and its social and ecological context, (2) fieldwork at the study site to learn from the key stakeholders, and (3) a follow up questionnaire to gather additional information and solicit feedback on preliminary insights. The background research will entail a review of ecological and geo-spatial data, socio-economic and demographic information, and policy documents. The on-site fieldwork will consist of individual and/or focus groups with key stakeholders. The follow up questionnaire will be a combination mail-internet survey. Background research will take place in the winter and spring term of 2018, on-site fieldwork will occur in the early summer of 2018, and the follow up survey will be administered in early fall 2018. Late fall 2018 and winter 2019 will be dedicated to making sense of results and communicating lessons learned with the client and practitioners in the field.

Integrative Approach: 

This research project is interdisciplinary in nature. Investigating social and ecological factors in managing forests at large spatial scales requires ecological knowledge and ecosystem analysis skills, knowledge and methodological skills regarding human behavior, and policy analysis and planning knowledge and skills.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Landscape Architecture
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology: Individuals with interest in or knowledge of forest landscape or terrestrial ecosystem dynamics will contribute to an understanding of the management practices that are appropriate for restoring fire-prone forests and mitigating the risk of large wildfires. Such individuals will be key to the team’s ability to communicate with environmental organizations and natural resource managers in the study area and make appropriate policy recommendations.

Environmental Informatics: Individuals with interest or skills in geo-spatial analysis will support the team’s ability to gain an understanding of the social and ecological context of the project case, create maps for science communication, and generate a sample for the follow-up questionnaire.

Environmental Policy and Planning: Individuals with interest or skill in environmental policy analysis and planning will be critical for understanding the institutional factors that influence the project, as well as opportunities and constraints for incentivizing and enabling landscape management and collective action among stakeholders.

Behavior, Education, and Communication: Individuals with interest in and/or knowledge of human behavior at individual and institutional levels will be critical to conducting the field work, designing the data collection instruments, conducting fieldwork, and interpreting findings for policy.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Students will have the opportunity to develop environmental management, geo-spatial analysis, policy analysis, environmental plan development, and social data collection and analysis skills. Students will also have opportunities to interact with federal and state natural resource agencies and environmental organizations that work in the field of forest restoration and natural hazard mitigation. Students will develop a webinar to share findings, which will provide valuable skills in science communication and environmental media. Students will also have opportunities for presenting the project findings at professional meetings and co-authoring a publishable journal article.

Funding Sources: 

Confirmed funding from the USDA Forest Service for student travel and supplies.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


The outputs of the project will include (1) a webinar and virtual meeting with stakeholders including natural resource agencies and environmental organizations involved in the case project as well as those working in other regions; (2) an article for publication in an interdisciplinary journal; and (3) a presentation at professional meeting. Students are also invited to suggest other types of science communication, media and education deliverables that they feel will further the project goals as well as their own professional development goals.


The US Forest Service seeks to identify strategies, policy tools, and governance institutions that may enhance the success of collaborative landscape scale strategies to restore fire-adapted forest ecosystems and reduce wildfire risk. The Forest Service also aims to evaluate the potential of the US Forest Service (USFS)–Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chiefs’ Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership (Joint Chiefs) to improve forest health and resiliency. The expected impact of this research is to make it more socially feasible to implement science-based forest restoration, thereby increasing the health of forest ecosystems and reducing the destructive effects of large wildfires on forests and human communities.

Contact full name: 
Susan Charnley
Job title: 
Research Social Scientist, USDA Forest Service
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Paige Fischer
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
U-M faculty member
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Benjamin Block 
  • Patrick Canniff 
  • Meghan Carleton 
  • Sarah Kalikow 
  • Jack (John) Pritchard 
Project Status: 
In Progress