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Copyright © 2003 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Noon, B. R. 2003. Stakeholders in social-ecological systems. Conservation Ecology 7(1): r5. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss1/resp5/

Response to Walker et al. 2000. "Resilience management in social-ecological systems: a working hypothesis for a participatory approach"

Stakeholders in Social-Ecological Systems

Barry R. Noon

Colorado State University

Walker et al. (2002) discuss an approach to natural resource management that recognizes that the practice of resource sustainability occurs in the context of complex social-ecological systems (SES). They propose a framework containing four steps, each of which requires SES stakeholder involvement. My comments are directed to the process of stakeholder selection, which receives little discussion in this paper. Because the consensus arising from stakeholder groups is often used to justify policy decisions, it deserves careful attention.

Deliberations over forest management and biodiversity conservation on public lands by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the western United States frequently involve stakeholder groups. In my experience, however, I have often observed stakeholder groups that did not equitably represent those who were subsequently affected by policy decisions and management actions. Individuals who fully participate in the prolonged deliberations that characterize many stakeholder groups are often only those who can "afford" to participate. That is, they have the time and money to participate because they represent some agent that will have a direct financial benefit from a particular policy outcome. For example, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, stakeholder groups debating timber harvest practices on Forest Service and BLM lands in the Pacific Northwest were often dominated by representatives from the timber industry. This was true even when some of these individuals claimed that they were participating as independent citizens. As a consequence, stakeholder influence in identifying issues and assigning priorities to environmental goals often reflected nothing more than majority participation, i.e., the greatest number and the loudest voices.

It has also been my experience that there is no obvious relationship between stakeholders' influence over outcome and their degree of understanding of resource trade-offs or the resilience of complex SES. That is, the amount of influence exercised by particular individuals in stakeholder deliberations is often decoupled from their relevant knowledge or degree of commitment to long-term community welfare. The combined effects of the inequitable representation of the full stakeholder community in collaborative decision making and the lack of evidentiary standards for statements made by stakeholders can result in policy decisions that ignore the potential limits to resilience of ecological systems.

To fully realize the benefits of SES stakeholder involvement will require the judicious screening of potential participants. This should be done by an objective third party, so that the final collection of stakeholders proportionately represents the full stakeholder community. In addition, these individuals should be equally empowered to participate in all deliberations with no restrictions arising because of time or money. A more controversial requirement might involve screening candidates on the basis of their knowledge of the relevant issues and their commitment to the long-term sustainability of linked SES.

Published: March 11, 2003


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Walker, B., S. Carpenter, J. Anderies, N. Abel, G. S. Cumming, M. Janssen, L. Lebel, J. Norberg, G. D. Peterson, and R. Pritchard. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: a working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6(1): 14. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/Journal/vol6/iss1/art14

Address of Correspondent:
Barry R. Noon
Department of Fishery and Wildlife Biology
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523 USA
Phone: (970) 491-7905

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