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Adapting wildland fire governance to climate change in Alaska

Tait K. Rutherford, Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO
Courtney A. Schultz, Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO


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We use concepts drawn from the adaptive governance literature to examine challenges and opportunities for fire management in Alaska, where rising average summer temperatures over the past several decades are associated with statewide increases in wildland fire activity. Alaska’s unique interagency fire management structure, rapidly changing climate, and natural resource dependent communities provide a valuable context for study. Our research sought to understand (1) current and future fire management challenges and responses to those challenges; (2) governance structures and processes that act as enablers of and barriers to changes in management approaches; and (3) the institutionalization of new practices. We explored these questions in a qualitative analysis of 41 interviews with fire managers. Participants perceived protection of communities, enhancement of subsistence hunting opportunities, and protection of remote points on the landscape as the most pressing current management challenges, with protection of ecosystem carbon sinks as a possible future challenge. Interviewees identified existing bridging organizations and boundary-spanning work as enabling factors in the governance system. At the same time, they indicated that federal agency budgeting processes, prescriptive laws that mandate the protection of certain values, and divisions across fire and land management personnel and planning processes can inhibit effective responses to management challenges. We found evidence of several types of institutional changes, some underway, and some perceived as necessary in the future. Our research suggests that in a thick institutional context, existing institutions that serve to bridge across actors likely can be repurposed to meet new challenges, while more prescriptive institutions may be less adaptive to changing conditions. This work provides an empirical investigation of adaptive governance in a rapidly changing system and contributes to theory building on institutionalization by shedding light on the nuances and complexities of institutional work.

Key words

adaptive governance; Alaska; climate change; institutional work; institutionalization; public lands management; wildland fire

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087