The Old West, the New West, and the Next West?

Brent S. Steel; Erika Allen Wolters; and Rebecca L. Warner


With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many commentators have argued that the key to his success was the mobilization of rural and Rust Belt constituencies that felt disenfranchised, disconnected, and threatened from the current socioeconomic and political system (Cramer 2016a; Kurtzleben 2016). Rural communities arguably felt threatened by their perception of an establishment of political and media elites in urban areas dominating the national policy agenda that ignore their more traditional and conservative values and beliefs. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016b) and Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Morning on the American Right (2016) both document the resentment and anger of many on the right and within rural communities with governmental and media elites. As Cramer (2016a) comments after some follow-up research for her book,

since 2007, I have been inviting myself into conversations in rural Wisconsin to try to understand how people in such communities are making sense of politics. I have been listening in during early morning coffee klatches in gas stations that serve coffee, in diners, and in churches. The resentment I uncovered predates Trump, but it set the stage for his ascendance . . .What I found was resentment of an intensity and specificity that surprised me. The pervasiveness of resentment toward the cities and urban elites, as well as urban institutions like government and the media, was inescapable after several visits to these groups.

Cramer found that the politics of resentment in rural communities is “fueled by political strategy . . . more casually called notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ ” (2016a, p. 8). This rural consciousness can lead to resentment toward the urban “liberal elite” (them), who they believe make policy decisions that disadvantage and exclude rural voices (us). Cramer (2016b) argues that place-based identity is a strong driving force, with three major perceptions coming together to form rural consciousness: (1) that policymakers ignore rural areas, (2) that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources, and (3) that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles that are misunderstood and disrespected by urbanites. As discussed in many of the chapters in this book, rural consciousness takes on an especially anti-government perspective in the western United States, where the rural-urban divide over the management of public lands has led to timber, water, ranching, and salmon “wars” the last several decades, often with government agency scientists and managers at the center of the conflict (Clucas et al. 2011; Johnson and Swanson 2009; Wolters and Steel 2015). The anti-science themes evident in Trump’s presidential campaign along with his pro-resource extraction cabinet appointments have resonated well in many western rural communities that feel as though they are under siege by environmental laws and policies (Volcovici 2017).

Two competing natural resource management paradigms resonate throughout most of the chapters in this collection and reflect the rural-urban divide concerning the management of western public lands (or what Lybecker calls the “Old West” versus the “New West” in chap. 1). These conflicting management paradigms have been labeled by Brown and Harris (1992) as the “Dominant Resource Management Paradigm” and the “New Resource Management Paradigm” (see table 16.1). The Dominant Resource Management Paradigm—often found in western rural communities—advocates the anthropocentric belief that the management of public lands ought to be directed toward the production of services beneficial to humans. The New Resource Management Paradigm has emerged more recently and grown in popularity since the 1970s. It has a more biocentric view toward public lands management that emphasizes maintaining intact all the elements of forest and rangeland ecosystems.

Table 16.1. Conflicting Natural Resource Management Paradigms

New Resource Management Paradigm [Biocentric] Dominant Resource Management Paradigm [Anthropocentric]
Nature for its own sake. Nature to produce goods and services primarily for human use.
Emphasizes environmental protection over commodity outputs. Emphasizes commodity outputs over environmental protection.
General compassion for future generations (long-term perspective). General compassion for this generation (short-term perspective).
Less intensive rangeland management; stream protection, less grazing, etc. Intensive rangeland management; maintain traditional grazing practices.
Less intensive forest management; selective cutting, prescribed fire, watershed protection, etc. Intensive forest management; clear-cuts, herbicides, slash burning, road building, fire suppression, etc.
Limits to resource use and growth; earth has a limited carrying capacity. No resource shortages; science and technology will solve production problems.
New politics, consultative and participative. Old politics, determination by the experts.
Decentralization and devolved decision making (e.g., collaborative governance). Centralized and hierarchical decision making.

Source: Revised from Brown and Harris (1992).

As the New West becomes increasingly urbanized, urban populations are inclined to develop sympathy for wildlife, wilderness, old-growth forests, deserts, and other amenities found on public lands (Wolters and Steel 2015). Too often, however, we forget about the families and communities of the western rural periphery, about the value they attach to the rangeland, forests, and fish habitats that have provided for their livelihood. For their part, the residents of the rural periphery too often refuse to believe that the inexorable forces of societal change will require a fundamental change in how they will have to relate to the public lands and waters around them. Both sides in urban and rural spheres have much to learn and think through with respect to the management of public lands; there is ample room for better understanding in this relationship as well.

The editors of this book hope these essays will promote an informed and productive dialogue on the trade-offs associated with the rural-urban divide. Change has come rapidly to the West, showing little mercy for those caught in its grip. When we think of the state of Nevada being the most rural state about fifty years ago and now being one of the most highly urbanized, we begin to get a good sense of the scale and scope of change affecting our lives as citizens of the American West. Under the pressure of this type of change, we need to encourage and support efforts to promote public deliberation and dialogue.

The Next West: Collaborative Processes?

The New Resource Management Paradigm suggests that decentralization and devolved decision making are essential today given the complexity of natural resource management issues. One such approach is collaborative governance. Collaborative processes have had some success in mediating western US natural resource disputes between rural and urban interests concerning forest and rangeland management, public lands management, endangered species, and renewable energy siting (Weber et al. 2017). Collaborative approaches that involve significant public engagement with scientists, managers, and other stakeholders have been effective in helping to resolve conflict and integrating science into management decisions (Ansell and Gash 2008; Leach and Pelkey 2001; Weber 2003).

More specifically, Ansell and Gash (2007), Ostrom (2007), and Weber et al. (2017) have identified antecedent conditions necessary for robust collaborative processes to develop as well as a list of principles that lead to effective collaborative network approaches to problem solving. Collaborative governance, as outlined by Ansell and Gash (2007, p. 543), is a governing system reliant upon “consensus-oriented decision making” while bringing together a variety of stakeholders—both private and public. Implicit in this definition is that networks of stakeholders instead of a singular entity make decisions for the public good (Ansell and Gash 2007, p. 3).

The frameworks created by Ostrom (2007), Ansell and Gash (2007), and Weber et al. (2017) each identify antecedent conditions for the collaborative process, respectively, including (1) sense of community, (2) historical context, and (3) a level playing field. Ostrom (2007, p. 28) identifies the first step in analyzing a situation is to identify the “action arena,” which “refers to the social space where individuals interact, exchange goods and services, solve problems, dominate one another, or fight.” Once the action arena is defined, such as a collaborative, Ostrom emphasizes the importance of understanding the physical and material conditions that affect the action arena. The physical world may dictate the possibility of certain actions and the probability of certain outcomes. Additionally, the physical world may also influence how actors (or stakeholders) act in certain situations (Ostrom 2007, p. 39). Finally, Ansell and Gash (2007), Ostrom (2007), and Weber et al. (2017) state that a level playing field is necessary for stakeholder networks to be functional. Inequality between stakeholders on the basis of capacity, organization, status, or resources can often lead to control by and bias toward the powerful. It is of utmost importance that stakeholders have the foundation and ability to be fully represented in a collaborative setting. Resource asymmetries are seen when stakeholders are unable to address highly technical problems owing to poor communication skills.

Credible commitment to the collaborative network, as defined by Weber et al. (2017), is necessary for successful collaborations because stakeholders are voluntarily cooperating with one another to reach a certain goal. One aspect of credible commitment is that participants are dedicated to facilitating meaningful action while considering and including existing livelihoods into planning. Additionally, Weber et al. (2017) identify eleven factors that contribute to effective collaborative networks: (1) inclusiveness, (2) technical expertise and beyond—integrating and applying a broad knowledge base, (3) formal binding of collective choice rules, (4) ongoing or repeat games, (5) credible commitment to collaboration, (6) a commonsense strategic approach to early problem-solving choices, (7) appropriate participant norms, (8) collaborative capacity-building leadership/champions, (9) shared expenses / cost sharing, (10) a focus on real-world results, and (11) sufficient autonomy of action.

Collaborative governance and partnerships may not be appropriate for all disputes over public lands given the large scale of issues and regulatory frameworks in place. In addition, academics, practitioners, and potential participants alike have harshly criticized collaboratives (Blumberg and Knuffke 1998; Britell 2019; Duane 1997; McCloskey 1996). For example, some environmental groups have been skeptical of collaboratives because of power and economic imbalances between themselves and industry as well as skepticism about local control over federal lands and the optimal use of science for sound management decisions (Britell 2019; Moldavi 1996). There is also a concern of becoming “co-opted” by other interests, thus leading to suboptimal management plans (Moldavi 1996). Further, with policies favoring mobility and lack of permanence of many agency staff, long-term collaborative work and community relationship building can become challenging. Finally, Bodin (2017, p. 1) states that “no single blueprint exists for how to succeed by using collaborative approaches to solve environmental problems,” making each situation unique and requiring buy-in, trust building, and a development of a collaborative roadmap to facilitate a collaborative process to address public lands debates.

With the onslaught of climate change, however, the possibility of increased conflict over public lands as a result of drought, wildfire, insect outbreaks, higher temperatures, habitat loss, and other associated disturbances may require new ways of thinking and problem solving. As Beschta et al. (2013, p. 474) have warned:

Climate change affects public land ecosystems and services throughout the American West and these effects are projected to intensify. Even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, adaptation strategies for public lands are needed to reduce anthropogenic stressors of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and to help native species and ecosystems survive in an altered environment.

Many commentators argue that collaboration involving a wide variety of stakeholders has the potential to produce more innovative and creative approaches to natural resources management than standard top-down approaches (Wondolleck 1991; Yaffee 1998). As Keiter (2004, p. 25) has observed, “central authority has also exacerbated federal, state and local tensions over public land policy. While such conflicts are not surprising . . . they can create unnecessary management inefficiencies, frustrate legitimate local interests, and promote jurisdictional fragmentation.”

The potential trust building that collaboratives can produce will also be essential to adapting to climate change effects, as they create what Yaffee and Wondolleck (1995) call “knowledge pools and relationsheds.” An example of such an effort is located in Harney County, Oregon, home of the infamous Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation discussed in chapter 15. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, local ranchers, environmental groups, and other stakeholders formed the Harney County Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) to develop a program and management plan “that would implement sage grouse conservation measures while providing assurances of regulatory protection to local landowners” (Taylor 2016, p. 39). The impetus for the Harney County CCAA was a possible listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act on Bureau of Land Management lands. While there were many disagreements between stakeholders, the efforts were ultimately successful as the group adopted a science-based management plan developed by the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, which is a cooperative effort between Oregon State University and US Department of Agriculture. These efforts were so successful that the Harney County CCAA became the model adopted by all other Oregon counties with sage grouse populations (Taylor 2016). In fact, while some Harney County residents sympathized with some of the messages by the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the collaborative survived the occupation and continues to operate successfully today.

After examining several successful and unsuccessful sage grouse management efforts in three western states, Taylor (2016) concludes that collaborative approaches were much more effective than the traditional top-down “expert” approach. Taylor (2016, pp. 186-187) also has the following advice for collaborative processes:

Building trusting relationships takes time and effort. It requires effective communications and agencies that are able and willing to engage with stakeholders in an open and flexible manner about the nature of the problem, the constraints involved in addressing the problem, possible actions that could be taken, and the potential consequences of those actions. It requires taking the experiences and perspectives of diverse stakeholders seriously, and giving them fair consideration. That does not mean that decisions must be universally supported by all stakeholders, which is not feasible in cases with competing values and policy priorities. However, although some stakeholders may not be happy with a particular decision, most should be satisfied that their needs and interests were taken into account.

Although collaboration is not a panacea for all of the conflict surrounding western public lands and other approaches may be more effective, listening to each other and trying to find common ground will be essential as the climate changes and the potential for heightened conflict increases. Further, as it is in everyone’s best interest to protect the West’s valuable environment to ensure that all needs including ecosystem health, cultural values, and economic values are met, westerners will need to push back against divisive politics and work together to protect a landscape that all westerners value.


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The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands Copyright © 2020 by Brent S. Steel; Erika Allen Wolters; and Rebecca L. Warner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.