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Growth and Collapse of a Resource System: an Adaptive Cycle of Change in Public Lands Governance and Forest Management in Alaska

Colin M. Beier, University of Alaska-Fairbanks; SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Amy Lauren Lovecraft, University of Alaska-Fairbanks
F. Stuart Chapin, III, University of Alaska-Fairbanks

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Abstract

Large-scale government efforts to develop resources for societal benefit have often experienced cycles of growth and decline that leave behind difficult social and ecological legacies. To understand the origins and outcomes of these failures of resource governance, scholars have applied the framework of the adaptive cycle. In this study, we used the adaptive cycle as a diagnostic approach to trace the drivers and dynamics of forest governance surrounding a boom–bust sequence of industrial forest management in one of the largest-scale resource systems in U.S. history: the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. Our application of the adaptive cycle combined a historical narrative tracing dynamics in political, institutional, and economic subsystems and a longitudinal analysis of an indicator of overall system behavior (timber harvests). We found that federal policies in concert with global market changes drove transformative change in both forest governance (policy making) and forest management (practices), through creation and dissolution of subsidized long-term lease contracts. Evidence of the systemic resilience provided by these leases was found in the analysis of industry responses to market volatility before and after Tongass-specific federal reforms. Although the lease contracts stabilized the Tongass system for a period of time, they fostered a growing degree of rigidity that contributed to a severe industrial collapse and the subsequent emergence of complex social traps. Broader lessons from the Tongass suggest that large-scale changes occurred only when the nested economic and policy cycles were in coherence, and a systemic effort to minimize social and ecological variability ultimately resulted in catastrophic collapse of governance. This collapse resulted in a pervasive and challenging legacy that prevents Tongass reorganization and limits the adaptive capacity of the larger social–ecological system of southeastern Alaska. Although this legacy has inhibited system renewal for two decades, recent trends indicate the emergence of new opportunities for progress toward sustainable governance of the Tongass National Forest.

Key words

adaptive cycle; Alaska; forest management; resource governance; rigidity traps; U.S. National Forests
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087