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Rutherford, T. K., and C. A. Schultz. 2019. Adapting wildland fire governance to climate change in Alaska. Ecology and Society 24(1):27.

Adapting wildland fire governance to climate change in Alaska

1Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO


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


Global climatic changes are driving a need to reevaluate and improve environmental governance approaches (Cosens et al. 2014). The concept of adaptive governance synthesizes knowledge from multiple areas of scholarship to inform understanding of the governance of linked social and ecological systems (social-ecological systems) in the face of uncertainty and rapid change (Dietz et al. 2003, Folke et al. 2005). In this study, we sought to understand governance challenges and opportunities in fire management in Alaska, particularly in light of the effects of climate change. Fire regimes in Alaska are closely tied to large-scale climate patterns, and relatively rapid increases in area burned and fire frequency have occurred in the boreal forest and tundra regions of the state in recent decades (Duffy et al. 2005, Kasischke et al. 2010). These changes, an anticipated continuation of these rapid increases going forward, and the associated impacts to natural resource-dependent communities across Alaska make the area an early example of the effects of climate change on a fire governance system. We drew upon the adaptive governance literature to understand the emergence of new governance approaches and processes of institutionalization in Alaska as fire managers respond and adapt to new challenges and conditions (Chaffin and Gunderson 2016). We offer this work as further empirical application of adaptive governance concepts and theories, which allowed us to gain greater insight into current governance opportunities and challenges in Alaska fire management. We also aim to contribute to theory building through the examination of emergent and evolving institutions.


The adaptive governance literature builds upon multiple traditions and lines of inquiry (Chaffin et al. 2014). In this paper, we draw from recent literature that considers the collective impact of this work and recognizes adaptive governance as an emergent form of environmental governance that supports collective action, the ability of actors to learn and respond to change, and the evaluation of governance strategies over time (Cosens et al. 2018). We use the term governance to mean the processes of decision making to choose and meet goals regarding the use of a public good (Cosens et al. 2018).

In adaptive governance systems, scholars have observed that multilevel, networked organizational structures are linked with learning and collective action (Wyborn and Bixler 2013, Morrison et al. 2017). In a network, authority is spread across multiple governing levels through nested, diverse, and sometimes redundant organizations that, ideally, are strongly coordinated and collaborative and have a free flow of information (Olsson et al. 2004, Huitema et al. 2009, Koontz et al. 2015). Collaboration and the flow of information through such a network depend on connections both within organizations (Bodin and Crona 2009) and among organizations (Berkes 2009). Specialized groups, including both bridging organizations and boundary organizations, are often integral to successful interorganizational connections. The concept of bridging organizations broadly refers to institutions or bodies that facilitate collective action, deliberation, and transfer of information among actors (Berkes 2009, Crona and Parker 2012). In contrast, the term boundary organization more narrowly describes groups that facilitate coordination between members of different epistemic communities, such as those of science and policy making or management (Cash and Moser 2000, Crona and Parker 2012). Collaboration and connections in a network are requisite for institutional learning processes and collective action, both of which are conditions for adaptive governance because they allow for the development and use of knowledge to provide legitimate solutions to governance problems (Folke et al. 2005, Koontz et al. 2015). Several scholars have described case studies in which multilevel networks and associated bridging organizations have been observed as critical components of emerging adaptive governance systems (e.g., Olsson et al. 2004, 2008, DeCaro et al. 2017).

Allowing for improved fit between governing institutions and ecological scales in a complex network is another critical aspect of adaptive governance (Rijke et al. 2012). Different environmental challenges require different spatial coordination of actions, necessitating some scale flexibility and multilevel institutions; in addition, organizations operating at different levels may have comparative advantages with various tasks (Cash and Moser 2000). Because on-the-ground management of ecological units, e.g., plant communities, fisheries, watersheds, firesheds, etc., occurs at local levels, adaptive governance necessitates space for the self-organization of local-level governance networks. Scale-related challenges arise, however, when local governance networks must grapple with climate change and other issues where the scale of the problem and its assessment are distinct from that of management. Scale mismatches, meaning disconnects between the temporal or spatial scales of social organizations and ecosystem processes, are particularly prevalent in wildland fire management in the western United States, where changes in climate and fire regimes are occurring at regional scales, but many decisions regarding budgets, research, land-use, and the designation and prioritization of valued resources occur at the level of individual governments or private entities (Abrams et al. 2015). Boundary organizations are particularly important for addressing such scale-related challenges because they facilitate coordination between groups that work at different scales, such as researchers and fire managers (Crona and Parker 2012).

To create space for local-level governance networks within existing hierarchical structures of regional or national bureaucracies, adaptive governance systems require a degree of reflexivity between local collective action and higher level certainty and stability within the governance system (Craig et al. 2017). State-run bureaucracies are entrenched actors in many countries and serve as the framework for democratic accountability, legitimacy, and stability (Huitema et al. 2009, Morrison et al. 2017). Top-down bureaucracies, however, are commonly plagued by rigidity, and coordination with local actors in multilevel systems is critical to allowing the flexibility necessary for the emergence of adaptive governance (Craig et al. 2017). In a multilevel system, the nesting of networks can support collaboration among organizations at local scales within the hierarchical structure of regional or national bureaucracies, allowing for some flexibility to respond to challenges and needs that occur at different spatial levels (Folke et al. 2007, Wyborn and Bixler 2013).

More recent literature on adaptive governance focuses on processes of emergence and institutionalization. Chaffin and Gunderson (2016) explain that adaptive governance emerges often in response to crisis events, after which new governance approaches become institutionalized during periods of greater stability. Institutions are the formal and informal rules that guide actor behavior in a governance system, and practices are institutionalized if they become commonly accepted ways of doing things (Abers and Keck 2013). In the United States, any form of adaptive governance will necessarily emerge among bureaucratic structures and environmental laws that create a series of formal institutions, which collectively emphasize government management of environmental resources and regulation of actor activity in the system (Cosens et al. 2017). This raises an important question as to how new governance activities emerge within a constrained system and how new institutions come to be.

Institutionalization, even in response to national policy changes, is affected by microprocesses at the local scale that may lead to differing practices among locations (Moseley and Charnley 2014). Although many authors have conceptualized institutions as structures that constrain practice, some recent literature takes a more critical perspective on institutionalization, emphasizing the role of agency and noting that a variety of actors engage in “institutional work,” or the creation, maintenance, or disruption of institutions to meet emergent needs in environmental governance (Beunen et al. 2017). The result is a process of “creative syncretism,” in which actors regularly recombine and reshape the system of institutions in which they work, making institutions less a series of structures and constraints, and more a series of instruments or playing cards that can be played or reshuffled in myriad ways (Berk and Galvan 2009, Moseley and Charnley 2014). Consequently, institutionalization depends on numerous historical, political, economic, and psychological factors, and institutions at different times and places are variably resistant or susceptible to change (Moseley and Charnley 2014). A key aspect of our research was to contribute to the adaptive governance scholarship with a close look at the role of institutions and institutionalization in the governance system for wildland fire in Alaska.


Alaska’s ecological and social context provides a particularly valuable opportunity to explore adaptation to climate change in fire governance (Brunner and Lynch 2010). Rapid climatic changes at high northern latitudes have caused the intensification of fire regimes across boreal and tundra ecosystems in Alaska since the 1980s (Duffy et al. 2005, Kasischke and Turetsky 2006, Kasischke et al. 2010, Kelly et al. 2013). Likewise, several scholars have used climate models to project future increases in fire activity over at least the next few decades. Temperature is the strongest determinant of fire occurrence in Alaska, and future increases in fire frequency will likely occur as climate change causes exceedance of certain temperature thresholds (Young et al. 2017). Warming average temperatures will also likely increase the average dryness of fuels in boreal ecosystems regardless of changes in precipitation, causing a heightened probability of large fire events (Flannigan et al. 2016). Climate projections for Alaska have predicted increases in statewide average annual fire frequency, area burned, and fire season length during the first half of the 21st century (Mann et al. 2012, Rupp et al. 2016). These projected future increases in fire activity will likely exacerbate the costs of fire management or, alternatively, leave managers in a position where they are no longer able to maintain fire management activities at current levels (Melvin et al. 2017).

Numerous authors have explored the implications of these past and potential future changes for social-ecological systems in Alaska. Alaska’s isolated and diverse communities are vulnerable to the rapid climatic changes occurring in the region because of their reliance on natural resources for subsistence use (Kasischke et al. 2010, Knapp and Trainor 2015). In combination with climate change, high severity and high frequency fires in the boreal forest can cause lasting shifts toward more early-seral vegetation, and some regions may experience relatively permanent transitions between forested and grassland states (Johnstone et al. 2010, Scheffer et al. 2012, Alexander and Mack 2017). Declines in age class diversity of dominant vegetation with increased burning will likely alter the availability of food for subsistence species such as caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and moose (Alces alces; Jandt et al. 2008, Joly et al. 2012, Mann et al. 2012). Elevated greenhouse gas emissions caused by greater fire activity present another challenge, as carbon release from melted permafrost in tundra ecosystems may cause a substantial positive feedback to the global atmospheric greenhouse gas effect (Schuur et al. 2008, Mack et al. 2011, Pastick et al. 2017). Melting permafrost has also contributed to increased subsidence of land in the tundra, creating an additional positive feedback to carbon release (Jones et al. 2015).

In response to these challenges, prior studies have examined climate change vulnerabilities in Alaskan communities and identified potential adaptations in fire management approaches at the community and statewide scales (Chapin et al. 2008, Trainor et al. 2009). Climate change projections show that the number of days that support fire intensities that exceed suppression capabilities will become more frequent in the boreal forest, rendering suppression infeasible at times, regardless of the availability of suppression resources (Wotton et al. 2017). Recent literature has shown that creating breaks in the most flammable boreal fuel types can aid suppression and reduce risk to valued resources; consequently, the use of fuel management by both Alaska’s land and fire management agencies has grown (Beverly 2017, Melvin et al. 2018). Fuel reduction treatments, however, do not effectively change area burned or reduce the occurrence of higher intensity fires when assessed at large spatial extents (Cary et al. 2017). In general, fire management agencies across the United States are facing similar challenges and will likely need to shift management focus away from suppression to a diversity of management tools that directly address the reduction of risk to values and support both social and ecological resilience (North et al. 2012, Calkin et al. 2015, Schoennagel et al. 2017). Existing evaluations of the need for adaptation to climate change in management in Alaska have suggested the need for risk mitigation on private properties, changes to the initial attack prioritization system, and community organization and cross-boundary collaboration for increased fuel management (Chapin et al. 2008, Trainor et al. 2009).


A unique set of fire management organizations and institutions is in place to address the complex social and ecological context of fire management in Alaska (Chapin et al. 2008). The organizations involved in fire governance in Alaska include local governments, Alaska Native organizations, and federal and state land and wildlife management agencies. Three specialized “protection agencies” are responsible for fire suppression on all public and private lands in Alaska. These protection agencies work in coordination with federal and state land managers and Alaska Native organizations, collectively called “jurisdictional agencies” (see Fig. 1). The protection agencies are the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Alaska Fire Service (AFS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS), and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry (DOF). The AFS and the DOF manage fire in several cross-jurisdictional protection units, while the USFS manages fire primarily on USFS lands (AWFCG 2017; see Fig. 2). The protection agencies are separate from the jurisdictional agencies because, in the 1960s and beyond, newly designated federal management units generally elected to use existing BLM or DOF infrastructure for fire suppression (Hull and Leask 2000, Todd and Jewkes 2006). This allowed for operational coordination on remote and cross-jurisdictional fires in a large state with relatively few fire management staff (Todd and Jewkes 2006).

This organizational structure shaped current statewide fire governance institutions. In the late 1990s, to simplify translation of land management goals to the protection agencies, the agencies wrote a consolidated Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan (AIWFMP) for unified operational direction. In 2010, the agencies also combined prior bilateral interagency contracts into a single Alaska Master Cooperative Wildland Fire Management and Stafford Act Agreement (Master Agreement; USDOI BIA et al. 2016). The agencies delegate representatives to a committee that coordinates interagency meetings and planning, called the Alaska Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (AWFCG 2017; see Fig. 1).

The AIWFMP outlines an initial attack plan that classifies the entire state into four levels of priority for suppression, called management options, including “critical,” “full,” “modified,” and “limited” (see Table 1). The jurisdictional agencies, with consultation from the protection agencies, prioritize values under these options from “critical” for the highest priority areas for suppression, down to “limited” for areas where the agencies will let fires burn unless they threaten higher priority sites (AWFCG 2017).

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) also shape fire policy. The ANCSA created the Alaska Native Corporations and stipulates that the federal government must sponsor fire suppression on all Alaska Native Corporation and Native allotment land conveyed under the ANCSA (43 USC 1620(e)). The ANILCA mandates that use of federal public lands should have as little impact as possible on subsistence use by rural Alaskans, indicating that the agencies must take into account subsistence hunting, gathering, and timber use values when designating fire management options (16 USC 3112(1)).


This research was part of a larger project funded by the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) to integrate fire and climate modeling with fire manager interviews and workshops to understand how the Alaska fire management community anticipates responding to changes in fire activity as the climate changes. Regarding positionality, we note that, as a funded JFSP project working with the Alaska Fire Science Consortium (AFSC), we were operating as actors conducting research within the Alaska fire governance system through existing bridging organizations. For this paper, we focus on three research questions based on our interviews with managers. First, we ask: What are the primary challenges and responses managers envision as they adapt to climate change? We recognize that much has been written on this, and our effort here is simply to update existing knowledge as needed (e.g., Chapin et al. 2008, Trainor et al. 2009). Second, we build upon this existing work by asking: What governance institutions do managers think will support or impede necessary activities going forward? Third, we ask: What types of institutional work are managers undertaking or envisioning?

Our data collection consisted of interviews with the primary land and fire managers working in the Alaska fire governance system; thus, our work provides only the perspectives of these actors rather than the entirety of the governance system. We purposively sampled from contact lists provided by the AFSC. These contact lists included fire managers and other fire management agency staff who have recently attended AFSC presentations and meetings or have elected to receive AFSC communications for any reason. Purposive sampling is a qualitative sampling method by which researchers intend to recruit participants who are most likely able to contribute to the answering of research questions (Patton 2015). We prioritized our recruiting of participants from the AFSC lists based on knowledge provided by our collaborators at the AFSC, who were familiar with managers who would be able to provide diverse and informative perspectives. As part of our prioritization, we recruited individuals from as diverse a set of organizations and set of roles and responsibilities as possible within the overarching criterion that they participate in decision making regarding fire management in Alaska. Although we were able to interview individuals from nearly all organizations represented on the AFSC lists, some organizations had greater representation than others because of their higher volumes of fire management staff. We interviewed individuals from the following organizations (we omit some specifics to maintain participant confidentiality): the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry; Alaska Native organizations; borough emergency services departments; other state-level agencies involved in the management of land and the environment; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS); the USFS State and Private Forestry; the U.S. Department of Defense military bases’ fire operations sections; the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Bureau of Indian Affairs; the DOI Bureau of Land Management (BLM); the BLM Alaska Fire Service; the DOI Fish and Wildlife Service; and the DOI National Park Service. We recruited some interviewees additional to the initial AFSC lists using snowball sampling, meaning we contacted further prospective participants based on recommendations by prior interviewees (Patton 2015). By sampling across types of actors within every organization involved in fire management in Alaska, we intended to reach saturation of information within the scope of our research questions and sample. Ongoing analysis of our data during the data collection process allowed us to determine that additional interviews past approximately 35 did not generate new themes or insights and that we could assume that we had reached a reasonable degree of saturation (O'Reilly and Parker 2013). We recognize, however, that additional interviewees may have provided some additional details or nuances. In addition, broader sampling would be needed to gain a deeper understanding of the perspectives of private citizens, members of Native tribes, and community-based organizations. Throughout the participant sampling and data collection processes, we adhered to protocol approved by our Institutional Review Board to maintain participant confidentiality.

We conducted and recorded 41 semistructured, hour-long interviews. We conducted our interviews using an interview protocol that consisted of a set of open-ended questions that allowed interviews to flow conversationally and participants to fully articulate ideas from their own perspectives (Yin 2016). Our interview protocol asked about four major topics: (1) current priorities and challenges in fire management; (2) potential future fire management strategies and approaches; (3) needed policy or planning changes to address challenges; and (4) general science needs and feedback regarding our fire and climate model projections. Not all the questions we asked necessarily informed our research questions for this paper, which stem from themes specific to adaptive governance that we identified during our data analysis. We recorded and transcribed each interview.

Our data analysis process was a thematic analysis, which is a method for identifying, interpreting, and reporting patterns in qualitative data (Braun and Clarke 2006). We carried out the thematic analysis using qualitative coding and memoing techniques (Yin 2016). We began by coding each interview using the online software Dedoose to organize our data according to themes, or common patterns or ideas related to our research questions (Braun and Clarke 2006). Some of these themes derived from the practical questions in our interview protocol (e.g., challenges, priorities, future management strategies or tactics, needed changes in policy or planning, etc.) because of the practical nature of our overarching research objective as a JFSP-funded project. Other themes we identified during the coding process (e.g., interorganizational relationships, communication between epistemic communities, issues related to governing level and scale, etc.) derived from our positionality as scholars of public policy and environmental governance. Throughout the coding process, we wrote memos to iteratively collect our interpretations of the data and develop an understanding of the thematic relationships among the excerpts. This memoing process allowed us to inductively identify new, emergent themes. Once we had fully organized our data excerpts, we referenced all these themes using potential explanatory concepts in the public policy and environmental governance literatures. Among these literatures, we found themes in the adaptive governance literature to be most explanatory of the themes we identified during our coding and memoing process. We then returned to our excerpts to reassess them in relation to concepts in the adaptive governance literature (e.g., bridging organizations, multilevel approaches, scale-fit, networks, institutional barriers, institutional emergence and change, etc.) and gain deeper insight into how our data related to these concepts. To analyze our excerpts according to adaptive governance themes, we wrote a further set of memos regarding the relationships between our data and the adaptive governance themes.

In our results, we report the range of themes discussed in interviews that relate to adaptive governance. We have aggregated these into three overarching topics. Although interviewees sometimes had differing emphases in response to our questions, they seldom expressed opposing perspectives. In the results, we note any opposing viewpoints or instances when participants gave alternative suggestions for governance solutions.


We address each of our research questions in turn and present a subset of our data for illustrative purposes; fuller versions of those excerpts and additional excerpts can be found in our supplemental appendix (Appendix 1). We have organized our findings in the subsections for each of our primary research questions, with a presentation of themes generally from most to least common. For ease of interpretation, we provide some discussion of our findings in this section, leaving our conclusions and connections to the broader literature for the closing section.

Management challenges and needed responses

Participants consistently mentioned that increases in fire activity are causing major management challenges, as we would expect based on previous work. These increases strain the system’s finite suppression capacity during large fire years and elevate risk to some valued resources (see Appendix 1.1). An interviewee said that managers have a “sense of nervousness as far as not being able to handle this new fire load” (see Appendix 1.2). Interviewees identified three primary management challenges related to limited capacity, which have been identified previously by Chapin et al. (2008) and Trainor et al. (2009), indicating their persistence over the past decade. These areas are the following: improving community protection and risk reduction in the wildland-urban interface, i.e., areas of human development that experience elevated wildland fire risk because of their proximity to undeveloped lands; facilitating subsistence use opportunities, primarily through the enhancement of moose and caribou habitat; and exploring ways to improve policy or management tools for the protection of remote or undeveloped Native allotments and remote private cabins (see Table 2). The frequency of discussion of these issues during our data collection indicated that these have become a common focus in the fire management community. Our interviewees additionally discussed the nascent consideration in the fire management community of the potential use of fire management to protect ecosystem carbon sinks in permafrost or timber (see Table 2). Though the loss of permafrost carbon sinks due to wildland fire has drawn attention in the literature for over a decade, climate change mitigation via fire management is a relatively new topic in discussions among the fire management agencies in Alaska.

With each of these current and potential priorities, participants discussed associated management approaches. Participants identified continued suppression, the creation of large-scale fuel breaks, and increased preparedness measures as approaches to ensure protection and risk reduction for communities in the wildland-urban interface. Where managers anticipate an increase in fire danger and the likelihood of large fires moving quickly across the landscape because of the continuity, warming, and drying of fuels, some participants saw the need to expand “critical” and “full” initial attack suppression areas around communities to “accommodate the additional frequency and potential size” of future fires (see Appendix 1.3). In addition, many participants emphasized the benefits of large-scale fuel breaks near communities to aid suppression. Some interviewees indicated their “frustration” with the relatively small amounts of funding for fuel management in Alaska, saying fuel reduction “funding has ... been leaner and leaner” (see Appendix 1.4-6). Participants also frequently discussed the need for community preparedness through the creation of defensible space around homes and the use of nonflammable building materials, which can strengthen “the integrity of the community from a fire resilience standpoint” (see Appendix 1.7-8). As an example of successful implementation of these needs, many participants talked extensively about a formal collaborative group called the Kenai Peninsula All Lands/All Hands group, which uses cross-boundary pooling of resources to implement large-scale, cross-jurisdictional fuel breaks around communities. Two of the group’s fuel breaks have proven instrumental in mitigating the effects of two large fires on the peninsula (see Appendix 1.9). Beyond the implementation of fuel breaks, an interviewee described the collaborative group as a forum for diverse organizations to “talk about how [they] can help each other achieve ultimately very similar objectives” (see Appendix 1.10). The collaborative group has also engaged in public outreach and education regarding defensible space and the fireproofing of structures (see Appendix 1.11). A few participants said that the agencies are promoting similar collaborative efforts in other areas of the state but that such arrangements are only possible in the most densely populated regions, where organizations and communities share landscape and fire management challenges (see Appendix 1.12).

Regarding subsistence use opportunities, participants indicated that the maintenance of wildlife habitat will require both using fire to meet resource objectives and fire suppression to support a diversity of age classes and forest cover types on the landscape within the hunting ranges of rural Alaskan communities. Some participants said that they would like to see an increase in fire on the landscape to promote early seral moose habitat near communities, either through broadcast burning, i.e., prescribed fire, or management of natural ignitions (see Appendix 1.13). To reconcile the need for fire on the landscape with the goal of community risk reduction, interviewees again explained the need for fuel breaks around communities to increase decision space for fire management officers and to give them “the ability to manage a fire for multiple objectives,” rather than immediately putting it out (see Appendix 1.14). For caribou, on the other hand, many participants indicated concern among many fire managers about declining caribou hunting opportunities because of increased burning of caribou winter forage lichens in certain areas (see Appendix 1.15). Participants said that some jurisdictional agency units have moved areas of tundra and old-growth black spruce (Picea mariana) in which the lichens grow into the “modified” management option near communities traditionally dependent on caribou hunting; by doing so, the jurisdictional agencies intend to improve “the sense of well-being that native subsistence hunters have when they’re out on the landscape” (see Appendix 1.16-17). This action has designated large swaths of land as priority for initial attack to suppress fires for roughly the first half of the fire season. An interviewee indicated that this management option change was “fairly controversial” because many managers wanted to allow the continuation of natural processes (see Appendix 1.16). In summary, the issue of subsistence hunting has resulted in shifts toward both more suppression and more fire use, depending on locally specific needs for wildlife habitat.

To protect remote points on the landscape including Native allotments and private cabins, participants suggested the need for both improved data and more efficient point protection tactics. In the planning process, many interviewees indicated that the interagency database of small points on the landscape, called the Known Sites Database, is not complete, making it difficult for the protection agencies to know what action to take on remote fires. An interviewee also related that the protection agencies must “be constantly checking with the jurisdictional agency and the land management agency about their position on whether they want [a] cabin protected or not, because their policies change over time” (see Appendix 1.18). In addition, some participants acknowledged that point protection is often not efficient because of aversion to risk of property damage among fire management officers (see Appendix 1.19). Participants said that some managers place suppression resources on point protection for long periods of time, when quick burnout methods could be more efficient and more commensurate with the value of the protected point (see Appendix 1.20).

The final major issue identified by participants was the protection of carbon sinks. Participants said that this is not currently an actionable priority for the agencies, but that recent research on carbon emissions from permafrost and the sale of timber as carbon offset credits in the California carbon market by some Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Native Corporations has generated “background talk” among managers regarding the potential need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from ecosystem carbon sinks (see Appendix 1.21-22). Participants explained that this would require a significant suppression effort in tandem with constant monitoring of the location of and risk to permafrost. One person explained that even if the agencies were to implement a policy to protect permafrost, management “wouldn’t change as much as [one] would expect, because it’s not likely [the agencies would] get ... more resources or money to put all those fires out” (see Appendix 1.23).

Adaptive structures and processes

Our next research question focused on what aspects of the governance system managers identified as supportive or problematic as they address current fire management challenges. Participants emphasized that formal and informal face-to-face interactions, both in biannual meetings and as a result of the concentration of fire management offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks, facilitate relationships critical for fire management. “Working relationships” among the agencies, said an interviewee, are very good because personnel constantly communicate (see Appendix 1.24). Actors from the protection and jurisdictional agencies meet face-to-face biannually in pre- and postseason interagency meetings in Fairbanks. Interviewees said that these spring and fall meetings allow actors to “talk when things aren’t on fire” and resolve issues as a group (see Appendix 1.25-26). Participants noted that formal documentation systems also provide a baseline for effective communication by keeping actors aware of updates to planning and decisions. These systems, such as the Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan (AIWFMP) and the Known Sites Database, are regularly reviewed and refined to improve communication (see Appendix 1.27-28). In collaborative groups, such as the Kenai All Lands/All Hands group, which works at a regional level, i.e., the Kenai Peninsula, to plan fuel treatments, connections exist across governing levels, from the state and federal agencies to the local borough governments to the public (see Appendix 1.29). In the biannual meetings, connections span types of actors, from land managers to fire managers at multiple levels and with different responsibilities. Our interpretation of this data is that these formal and informal systems exhibit elements of governance networks at both statewide and more regional scales. The Alaska Wildland Fire Coordinating Group, which oversees the AIWFMP, and the Kenai All Lands/All Hands group act as bridging organizations at the statewide and regional levels by coordinating communication and action among the actors at those levels and, in the case of the Kenai group, also across levels as part of a multilevel network with support from national and state bureaucracies.

Participants also described a strong relationship between the management and research communities, facilitated by the Alaska Fire Science Consortium (AFSC). Through connections with resources external to this system, the AFSC acts as a boundary organization to facilitate the flow of information between research and management. According to participants, the AFSC is helpful to managers because of a process in which the managers communicate their research needs annually to the AFSC, which then hosts presentations on current science and connects managers to researchers and new scientific information throughout the year (see Appendix 1.30-32). An interviewee talked about the importance of “having a robust fire science” program involved in fire management to improve agencies’ capacity to respond to uncertainty under climate change (see Appendix 1.33). Participants often indicated that managers integrate relevant research into management considerations whenever appropriate. Current discussions regarding caribou and moose habitat enhancement and the prevention of large-scale permafrost melt stemmed from attention to those issues within the scientific community after several large fire incidents in the 2000s (see Appendix 1.34). Interviewees also often said they are actively seeking information regarding the effectiveness of fuel breaks to be able to adapt them to changing conditions and community needs (see Appendix 1.35). The awareness of current science has allowed managers to understand both new priorities and the appropriate approaches to those needs. For example, participants frequently referred to the need to adapt fire management to a changing climate. One interviewee said that “the effects of climate change ... [are] definitely something that’s taken very seriously [in Alaska]” (see Appendix 1.36). This attention to science has spurred discussions within the fire management community about their anticipated capacity limitations and future priorities, and the need to foster local collaboration and integrate land and fire management to improve climate change adaptation outcomes. Based on interviewee comments, the AFSC has played a key role in spanning the boundary between researchers and managers.

Our interviews also revealed challenges stemming from current governance structures and processes. Some participants described issues with budget requests and prioritization of funding. An interviewee explained that state legislators meet with fire managers “to understand what [the fire management agencies] do, [and] how [they] do it,” and lawmakers “have been very supportive of the fire program ... but not to the point that it’s been a priority for them legislatively or budgetarily [sic]” (see Appendix 1.37). According to a few participants, it is the state legislature’s preference to fund fire suppression using supplemental funding to avoid increasing up-front budget appropriations. Some interviewees mentioned that national-level Department of the Interior (DOI) budgeting models allocate funds based on metrics of suppression priorities in the conterminous United States, such as minimization of area burned (see Appendix 1.38). These metrics do not apply well to suppression strategies in Alaska, which focus heavily on the protection of small points within areas where the agencies will otherwise let fires burn (see Appendix 1.39). Participants indicated that fire managers in Alaska are communicating to national agency leadership that Alaska requires a unique budgeting process because current national budgeting models have not allocated enough funding for the agencies to protect all valued resources during recent large fire years. These problems stem from scale-related mismatches. Federal and state agencies face a persistent temporal scaling challenge in budgeting for suppression capacity because legislatures often respond to fire funding needs reactively and annually, whereas sustained resource investments could extend the purview of choices about prioritization of resources for suppression and fuel treatment. Fitting Alaska into DOI national budgeting systems has created a significant spatial scale mismatch. The national budgeting system is designed primarily for the conterminous 48 states, where management units are organized at smaller spatial extents and characterized by different patterns of land use than in Alaska.

A second persistent issue mentioned by participants was the existing agency policies regarding prioritization of the protection of remote private properties, such as remote cabins and Native allotments, which demands significant suppression resources (see Appendix 1.40). Allotment protection policy, in particular, is prescriptive and allows little flexibility in resource prioritization, according to participants (see Appendix 1.41). A few interviewees expressed a sentiment that allotment protection has generated some controversy in the fire management community (see Appendix 1.42). We found, however, that our interviewees across positions and agencies generally supported the protection of allotments while expressing a desire for greater flexibility in prioritizing them against other values for initial attack or for allowing fire to burn on allotments when that might be desirable to allotment owners (see Appendix 1.40, 1.43). An interviewee indicated a preference to “balance the need and availability of resources to [suppress fire on or near allotments] versus the protection of these other things that are out there being threatened” (see Appendix 1.43). We suggest that allotment policy is another scale-fit issue, because the protection of small plots of land does not match the statewide scale of resource mobilization or the landscape scale of many boreal and tundra fires.

Our interviewees identified several other issues related to the fit of governance scales and the need for additional bridging work among agencies. Participants emphasized that the fundamental organizational division between the jurisdictional and protection agencies makes it difficult for the protection agencies to meet land management goals and identify values during extended attack situations and especially during large fire years. An interviewee explained this challenge (see Appendix 1.44):

[The protection agency fire management officers], as that fire gets larger, [have] to make sure that they have continued to recognize that these additional jurisdictions have possible values that are threatened, and that can be difficult if you’ve got a lot of fire on the landscape, just keeping track of every one of them and making sure that all the jurisdictions are appropriately notified.

Participants said that this divide makes detailed, preloaded information in the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) and good working relationships among fire management officers critical in Alaska (see Appendix 1.45-46). Many participants also described a problematic compartmentalization of land and fire management responsibilities among agency administrators (i.e., line officers), resource advisory staff, and fire management officers within the jurisdictional agencies (see Appendix 1.47-48). This divide, which occurs internally within agency units, inhibits the identification of fire management approaches that would benefit resources. With increasing fire activity across the landscape, participants said that jurisdictional agency administrators need to clarify for fire managers in both the jurisdictional and protection agencies the desired ecosystem conditions that might be threatened by future fire (see Appendix 1.49). An interviewee also described a need for “the agency administrators ... to learn some of the challenges [of fire management] and incorporate that into some of their wildland fire decision making” (see Appendix 1.48). Some participants mentioned that better communication between jurisdictional agency administrators and protection agency fire managers might help move protection agency culture toward a greater risk acceptance regarding burning near valued resources (see Appendix 1.50). This integration of land and fire management would require a shift in “personalities, and perspectives, and culture” both among and within agencies (see Appendix 1.51). An alternative change suggested by a few interviewees entails the shift of prescribed fire and fuel treatment responsibilities to the jurisdictional agencies (see Appendix 1.52). This would leave the protection agencies to remain focused on suppression and risk reduction. Interviewees disagreed in their suggested pathways, whether they were improved communication between jurisdictional and protection agency staffs or a shifting of fuel management responsibilities to jurisdictional agencies; nonetheless, interviewees consistently emphasized that greater integration of land and fire management will help agencies in the fire management system better meet objectives by increasing ecosystem resilience to fire.

In essence, the Alaska fire management community recognizes that the increasing presence of fire as a dominant ecological process necessitates greater linkages between fire and land management personnel and processes. This set of challenges regarding the integration of fire and land management planning relates to both scale mismatches and the importance of bridging organizations. There is temporal scale mismatch as land management and fire management planning proceed on different timelines. There are also spatial scale mismatches between fire processes, other ecological variables of interest, and the geographic extent at which different agencies are organized. Our data reflect that individual agencies are not organized at the variety of spatial scales at which ecological processes of interest occur, necessitating bridging structures with some scale flexibility and increased partnerships among agencies and actors working at different scales.

Emergent practices and institutional change

Finally, we looked for examples of emergent governance approaches and institutional change. The Alaska fire governance system consists of myriad long-standing institutions that developed over time as agencies and units were created in response to new challenges, laws, and land designations. The mismatch in spatial extent between the protection and jurisdictional agencies necessitated the formation of multilevel, bridging institutions, like the AIWFMP, the Master Agreement, and biannual interagency meetings, and other informal norms, including consistent phone communication and face-to-face meetings that allow for necessary coordination. In response to questions about the need for broad changes within the governance system, several interviewees talked about the robustness of the current system (see Appendix 1.53). One interviewee does not expect major changes in the system because the agencies “have a real good model, the Alaska model, and it’s pretty solid,” and the interviewee indicated that the model works because all the agencies are “working together” (see Appendix 1.54). Participants generally viewed the AIWFMP, the Master Agreement, and the biannual meetings as institutions that will allow them to adapt management strategies to climate change because they support multilevel and cross-actor communication within the governance system (see Appendix 1.25). In the words of an interviewee, the meetings allow communication “a little bit in the springtime [when] you’re thinking about what’s coming up ahead of you, and in the fall, you’re doing a little review of what happened during the season and what issues were there” (see Appendix 1.25). Based on the breadth of comments by interviewees about the importance of communication, interorganizational relationships, and bridging organizations, we suggest that effective coordination and information dissemination through these institutions has helped actors in Alaska to set cohesive priorities, understand new challenges such as climate change, and support new management approaches. These bridging institutions appear to be foundational to the current fire governance system in Alaska.

At the same time, in the face of changing fire regimes, interviewees sometimes mentioned a need for some tweaks to the system’s existing bridging institutions (see Appendix 1.55). With challenges spurred by climate change, such as the need for better integration of land and fire management planning, participants explained that the biannual interagency meetings may need to allow for more time for discussions among planners and administrators from both the jurisdictional and protection agencies (see Appendix 1.56-57). Alternatively, participants mentioned the possibility for creating specific forums or a specialized group for interagency planning discussions that would offer additional opportunities for updating management options to rapidly changing ecological conditions (see Appendix 1.58). Such a specialized group, said an interviewee, “would get pretty good at going through the process” of updating the AIWFMP (see Appendix 1.58). These comments by interviewees indicate that fire managers are in the process of envisioning needed institutional work to improve the effectiveness of existing bridging structures and processes.

Although existing bridging institutions are undergoing repurposing in response to the challenges of increasing fire activity, the Kenai Peninsula All Lands/All Hands group is an example of institutional emergence. The collaborative group coalesced in the early 2000s in response to several large insect-related mortality events. Existing actors could not provide fuel management at the necessary scale; therefore, at a regional scale, the agencies, Alaska Native organizations, and municipalities came together to address this management challenge. According to interviewees, the emergence of this institution on the Kenai Peninsula was successful because of local circumstances, including the large-scale morality events and the proximity of towns to one another, leadership from within the agencies, and initial top-down funding to address the issue (see Appendix 1.59). Since then, said interviewees, the group has shifted toward implementing “strategic fuel breaks, as opposed to dealing with bark beetles,” and has also expanded to assume responsibility for facilitating all interagency and public communication regarding fire on the Kenai Peninsula (see Appendix 1.10). This expansion has resulted from a continued commitment to the All Lands/All Hands group by local agency leaders (see Appendix 1.59). As new fuel management needs on the Peninsula emerge, the members of the collaborative group pool diverse funding sources to complete the needed projects (see Appendix 1.60-61). The All Lands/All Hands group serves as an example of an emergent and enduring regional-scale institution involving agencies organized at several levels. The institution has adapted to changing circumstances as a result of ongoing institutional work by those actors.

More comprehensive changes to institutions were recommended by interviewees regarding the prescriptive requirement to provide fire suppression for Native allotments and the formulaic approach to fire budgeting for the federal agencies in Alaska. Regarding allotment protection, a few interviewees mentioned the possible need to reassess the default “full” management option designation for all allotments. One interviewee said, “It’s a federal requirement, but it’s not achievable, really, and we need to look at doing something different with that” (see Appendix 1.62). According to this same interviewee, some fire management officers have chosen to withhold suppression resources from initial attack for remote allotments in cases when they have expected imminent fire risk to more populated areas because of projected weather (see Appendix 1.63). Another interviewee indicated that collaborative decision making might be an appropriate alternative to prescriptive law (see Appendix 1.43). In addition, while interviewees explained the scale-related issues with fire budgeting for the agencies in Alaska, they indicated that when they have attempted solutions within the existing national-level budgeting framework, they have found that budgetary needs for Alaska are “extremely difficult to model, if not impossible, and extremely expensive to do” (see Appendix 1.39). In general, interviewees said that improved communication between the agencies and lawmakers involved in appropriations would be the most useful tool to address the agencies’ financial needs (see Appendix 1.64). We observe that these two institutions, allotment policy and budgeting processes, may require substantial revision because they are prescriptive and formulaic and do not allow fire managers the flexibility needed to meet changing fire regimes.

Overall, our results show that participants identified three different types of institutional work occurring or that they believe should occur in Alaska in response to changes in fire regimes, including repurposing existing institutions, emergence of new institutions, and potential formal change to a subset of existing institutions. These show the range of institutional change processes that can occur in the development of adaptive governance.


Our research considers management priorities and governance changes and challenges in Alaska fire management. We present this work both as an empirical application of adaptive governance theories to an applied research project and specific governance context, and as an opportunity to look at the emergence and institutionalization of new governance approaches in Alaska where conditions are changing rapidly with significant implications for managers and communities. Other than a greater emphasis on fire management to maintain carbon sinks, the management challenges we identified have been discussed elsewhere to a large extent (e.g., Chapin et al. 2008, Trainor et al. 2009); therefore, we spend the bulk of this section discussing our findings on adaptive governance processes, structures, and forms of institutional work.

As we explored the governance factors that our participants said acted as facilitators and barriers to success, we identified several variables commonly highlighted in the adaptive governance literature that facilitated interpretation of our findings. For instance, we found that interagency networks are supported by bridging organizations at multiple spatial scales, including the Alaska Wildland Fire Coordinating Group and the Kenai Peninsula All Lands/All Hands collaborative group. Fire management now and into the future will require continued utilization of the existing collaborative networks and bridging organizations at multiple levels of the governance system. There may be a need for additional, regionally focused groups like the Kenai group to undertake the work of fuel management if this becomes a more common need in Alaska fire management, and these likely will need to integrate local, state, and federal agencies as part of a multilevel network. In addition, we found that connections to researchers through the boundary work of the Alaska Fire Science Consortium are critical components of successful fire governance in Alaska. Scholars note that such boundary work is important in a context where the ecosystem and climate change must be assessed at larger spatial extents than those at which individual managers act and at which actors are organized (Cash and Moser 2000, Kleindl et al. 2018). We also heard from managers that some institutions pose problems that arise largely from scale mismatches. For example, there are problems securing adequate annual appropriations for some federal agencies in Alaska, such as the Alaska Fire Service, through the nationwide Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management fire budgeting systems, which is perhaps a matter of spatial scale mismatch and the geographic disconnect between Alaska as a large, Arctic state and the contiguous 48 states. There also is some concern about the future ability of fire managers to sustain existing commitments to point protection and the need to overcome divisions between land and fire management planning, which result from both temporal and spatial scale mismatches.

An area of particular interest for us was to examine our data in relation to the emergence and institutionalization of new adaptive governance approaches. We saw evidence of the emergence of new governance approaches at the regional scale with the Kenai All Lands/All Hands group, which has remained in existence for several years. Regarding the reshaping of existing institutions, our evidence indicates that some governance institutions in Alaska are effective but may need updating to better fit the current context of fire management. Current interagency management networks need to do more to bridge the divide between the protection and the jurisdictional agencies to better connect land management planning processes with fire management. This kind of cross-sectoral work is essential as ecological disturbances become more common and affect multiple resources and values. Like other areas of public administration, this increased complexity, coupled with a limited capacity for any one agency to solve multifaceted problems, necessitates greater coordination across agencies and with nonstate actors (Kettl 2000). In addition, although individuals noted that existing interagency structures were useful, they said that objects like the Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan (AIWFMP) need to be updated through some concerted action beyond current existing, annual processes because of the challenges presented by increased fire activity. At the same time, as we noted above, many interviewees suggested that nationwide budgeting processes and prescriptive suppression policies may no longer be viable for Alaska.

We suggest, based on this work, that actors can repurpose and update existing institutions that allow for bridging across organizations; this is a kind of institutional work and form of creative syncretism, by which actors can shape institutions to serve new circumstances (Berk and Galvan 2009). To recap, the AIWFMP and the biannual meetings include mechanisms for regular updates to policy and initial attack planning, allowing for changes in strategies as fire regimes intensify. These were largely put in place to coordinate agencies that had disparate fire management responsibilities and existed to some extent as remnants of previous jurisdictional responsibilities, missions, and interrelationships. Although they were created during a different era of land management concerns, and despite the need for some updating, these interagency bridging forums are proving useful for addressing new challenges. Although these institutional changes may have been prompted by changing conditions and years with relatively large wildfire extent, they are occurring primarily as part of ongoing meetings, planned updates, and established processes in an incremental fashion. In a thick institutional context, many changes may be incremental, and emergent practices may become more quickly viable and institutionalized when they can be nested within the existing context of formal institutions. On the other hand, some institutions in Alaska are more prescriptive and static, and thus may require changes in policy or law. The existing policies that prescribe budget decisions and specific fire management responses may be less adaptive to changing conditions than other institutions in current contexts. If these institutions do not change, actors may choose to ignore formal institutional requirements when they conflict with constant guiding principles in the fire management community, such as firefighter safety or cost-effectiveness in the use of resources. In this case, changing conditions may set the stage for a disconnect between formal institutions and on-the-ground practice.

Our evidence reveals, as the literature on institutional processes suggests, that there is ongoing institutional work taking place in response to change or crisis events. This process of institutionalization is complex, with actors creating, reshaping, and potentially replacing institutions, often in an incremental fashion. Rijke et al. (2012) identified the importance of understanding to what extent existing and potential governance solutions are fit for their purposes. Existing structures that create bridging opportunities may be the type of governance institutions that can be repurposed in the face of ongoing change, while policies that prescribe specific responses from government may be less likely to be adaptive or to be “a good fit” as conditions change. We do not suggest, however, that all prescriptive policies conflict with adaptive governance. Others have noted that regulatory requirements, especially those that set baseline standards of compliance rather than prescribing specific responses to problems, can facilitate adaptive approaches (Cosens et al. 2017). An area for ongoing research is to understand how existing institutions are repurposed, reshaped, replaced, or sometimes evaded as social-ecological systems evolve, and how different emergent institutions may more or less successfully fit within existing contexts.

Lessons drawn from Alaska’s experience can be useful for informing broader issues in adaptive governance and fire management. Given the rapidity of change in the Arctic landscape, Alaska is a particularly valuable place to understand the emergence of adaptive governance (Brunner and Lynch 2010, Chapin et al. 2014). The pace of change and its direct effects on social-ecological systems present a distinct opportunity for researchers to observe the effects of governance change over time, which may prove relevant to fire management worldwide as the climate changes (Moritz et al. 2012, Stephens et al. 2013). Alaska’s management options map and approach to fuels management may inform approaches in the conterminous United States that will need to allow for more fire (Schoennagel et al. 2017). The challenges of integrating fire and land management planning more effectively and how to prioritize investments and suppression efforts are emerging issues in other parts of the United States (Schultz et al. 2019). More broadly, experiences in Alaska may be useful where others have seen opportunity to expand adaptive governance theory and practice to systems facing an array of natural hazards (Djalante et al. 2011).


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


This research was part of a project entitled “Impacts of Climate and Management Options on Wildland Fire Fighting in Alaska: Implications for Operational Costs and Complexity under Future Scenarios,” made possible by funding from the Joint Fire Science Program, Project 16-1-01-18, with additional support for TKR from the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Program at Colorado State University. We greatly appreciate the insight and ideas derived from numerous reviews and informal discussions with our collaborators, Paul Duffy, Nancy Fresco, and Randi Jandt, and the members of the CSU Public Lands Policy Group. We also thank the Alaska Fire Science Consortium for facilitating our involvement in presentations and workshops in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Finally, we are enormously grateful to the individuals who took the time to interview with us, participate throughout multiple stages of our project, and give us insight into fire management in Alaska.


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Address of Correspondent:
Tait K. Rutherford
1472 Campus Delivery
Fort Collins, CO
USA 80523
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