By Carena van Riper, Devin Goodson, Riley Andrade, Miguel Cebrián-Piqueras, and Mark Hauber.
The inclusion of people in protected area management is at the heart of successful conservation initiatives. Surprisingly, researchers have yet to establish a way to measure perceptions of inclusivity and few have pinpointed the factors that affect why people do or do not believe they are meaningfully represented by government agencies. Therefore, we engaged residents across the state of Alaska to understand how their viewpoints could be better represented in the decisions being made about federal lands. This was an ideal study context, because almost two-thirds of the land in Alaska is managed by the federal government. A contentious history of land acquisition and current regulations on resource use in the state have also affected the deep-seated relationships between federal agencies and local communities.
Trust and the array of information sources used to learn about land management were key for understanding how included residents believed they were in decision-making. We conducted a state-wide household survey and learned that, on average, residents were not disposed to trust others, tended to not trust the federal government, did not believe federal land management agencies shared their values, and did not believe these agencies adhered to a moral code of conduct. Specifically, beliefs about agencies making decisions based on a moral code of conduct were most important in explaining the extent to which residents saw opportunities for them to be involved and contribute to public land management in Alaska. Groups of information sources (i.e., professional, community-based, and environmental advocacy) that people used to learn about protected areas were also instrumental in explaining perceived levels of inclusion in how resource management decisions were reported.
To develop a more inclusive model of protected area conservation, in-depth discussions and evidence of how agencies respond to stakeholder input are urgently needed in Alaska. Encouraging and facilitating an open dialogue about the future between agencies and people that have a stake in the management of federal lands will create greater opportunities for co-learning and adaptation. Integrating community concerns into future management decisions and sharing that information through community valued networks will also address the root causes of inclusivity in protected area conservation.