Environmental Conflict Communication

Tarla Rai Peterson & Rebecca Royer Franks. The Handbook of Conflict Communication. Editor: John G Oetzel & Stella Ting-Toomey. Sage Publications. 2006.

We live in a world relatively filled with human activity, to the extent that humans are capable of irreversibly altering ecological systems on a global scale (Costanza, d’Arge etal., 1997; Daly & Cobb, 1989). In addition, the temporal and spatial scales at which environmental changes occur are rarely synchronized with institutional structures and political cycles (Grant, Peterson, & Peterson, 2002; T. R. Peterson, Peterson, & Grant, 2004). This mismatch is not surprising, given the relatively short window of time and narrow confines of space experienced by the human organism, and the related fact that political and legal frameworks favor linear causal explanations rather than dynamic perspectives (Ehrlich, 2000). The lack of incentives to close these gaps is predictable, yet problematic (Costanza, Cumberland, Daly, Goodland, & Norgaard, 1997).

This phenomenon is especially relevant to conflict studies because human and natural systems are linked in complex ways that result in interdependency. Worldwide human population expansion, coupled with increased awareness of drastic disparities in the standard of living experienced by people in different places, has brought environmental conflict to the attention of international institutions ranging from the United Nations to Amnesty International. Conflicts rage over the relative risks and benefits associated with industrial processes, with exposure to toxins taking a central position. The increasing human population also puts pressure on wildlife (both plant and animal) and its habitats. Even access to natural resources required to sustain life (such as relatively clean air and water) is insecure. For example, natural resource economists are fond of stating that “water does not run downhill; it runs toward money.” Environmental conflict is among the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Although these conflicts sometimes can be characterized as simple problems of distribution, they also implicate communication.

In many nations, legal requirements to include the public in environmental decision making render environmental conflict increasingly difficult to ignore. Yet, even when public participation is mandated, technical experts continue to accumulate disciplinarily bounded knowledge, leaving stakeholders out of the decision-making loop. This causes environmental conflicts to escalate. Because communication in environmental conflict is tied closely to public participation, we use the concept of public participation as a central organizing construct in this chapter. We first provide an overview of legal requirements for public participation in environmental issues, with an emphasis on the influential National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 in the United States. Second, we review research on the social demand for public participation in environmental policy making, providing an overview of common approaches. Within this section, we include a brief summary of sustainable development, which has been instrumental in shaping practices for managing environmental conflict since at least 1987. Third, we review critical research on two models that have gained significant public currency. Here we summarize critiques of the public hearing, which is the most commonly used method of public participation. We also provide a summary of the more recently emerging research critiquing consensus-based processes. Finally, we discuss especially promising research directions, including suggestions for how they might impact practice. We follow most research on communication and environmental conflict in its emphasis on the United States and other industrialized, nominally democratic nations. Within this framework we also attempt to highlight research that explores global cross-cultural and domestic diversity issues.

Legal Mandate for Public Participation

Numerous nations have laws requiring stakeholder identification and invitation for involvement in planning addressing significant environmental issues. Most of these laws, however, do not specify how to structure public participation in such conflicts, nor do they provide guidelines on how information gathered from the public should be incorporated into management decisions made by regulatory agencies. As society has become increasingly aware of environmental issues and has expressed a desire to participate in the regulatory process, the problems of structuring appropriate public participation opportunities, identifying appropriate stakeholders, and constructively incorporating public interests has become a central concern for many natural resource agencies, industries, interest groups, and individual members of the public.

NEPA probably is the most significant national law requiring public participation. Although its legal jurisdiction is limited to the United States, “NEPA’s influence has been far-reaching, with its progeny in the statute books of 19 states and over 130 of the world’s nations” (Salzman & Thompson, 2003, p. 275). NEPA was preceded by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) of 1946, which required agencies to allow public comment on draft rules. The APA also allowed citizens access to the courts to request judicial review of actions taken by federal agencies, generally referred to as the citizen suit provision of the APA (Doremus, 1999).

In his study of the evolution of U.S. environmental policy, Hays (1987) argued that economic growth and lifestyle changes following World War II created the conditions for intensified environmental conflict in the United States. He claimed that, between 1957 and 1965, increased concern for recreation, wetlands, park-lands, and other aesthetic pleasures of the natural environment led to the first phase of federal legislation addressing environmental conflict. In the midst of this phase, concern also began to increase regarding adverse effects of industrial development, especially air and water pollution. These concerns marked the beginning of a second phase in environmental policy development, between 1965 and 1972, in which the focus shifted to the relationship between ecological integrity and human health and safety.

NEPA was signed into law on January 1, 1970, creating the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). President Richard Nixon stated in his first State of the Union Address (January 22, 1970) that the environment, “next to our desire for peace, may well become the major concern of the American people in the decade of the seventies.” On February 10, 1970, he delivered a special message to the Congress on environmental quality in which he asserted the goal of fighting pollution and touted the CEQ as “the keeper of our environmental conscience and a goad to our ingenuity.” Then, the White House transmitted Reorganization Plan 3 of 1970 to Congress in the summer of the same year, calling for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would demonstrate “a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man” (Nixon, 1970). As President Nixon approached the end of his second full year in office, NEPA had been passed, the White House CEQ had been established and had presented its first report to the Congress, the EPA was almost a year old, and the president had used his first State of Union address to mark the environment as a centerpiece of his administration’s domestic agenda.

NEPA dictates that “every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” must prepare detailed statements regarding the “environmental impacts of proposed action” (42 U.S.C. § 4332c). These detailed statements, called draft environmental impact statements (EIS), are to be provided to the public for comment, whether through a public meeting or a solicitation of written public comments (Steelman & Ascher, 1997). While the earlier APA had required that citizens take the initiative to become involved in public participation, NEPA requires that agencies actively solicit input from the public on any federal decisions that might significantly affect the environment. Both industrialized and developing nations have used NEPA as a model for public participation in the development of environmental policy.

Members of the public vary in their interest and willingness to participate in environmental policy making, though all members of the public are assumed to provide valuable information pertinent to the decision-making process. Yosie and Herbst (1998) categorized citizen-stakeholders into four groups: those who are directly affected by a decision; those who are interested in the issue at hand and wish to become involved and provide input; those who seek information on the issue from a general interest; and those who are directly impacted by a decision and are unaware of, or choose not to participate in, any public participation process. The challenge to federal agencies, as required by NEPA, is to identify this last group of stakeholders and actively solicit their input.

Agencies also are required to respond formally to any concerns and comments submitted by the public on a draft EIS (Doremus, 1999). NEPA requires

publication of a notice of intent, a scoping process, publication of a draft document identifying alternatives and impacts, a public hearing, preparation of a formal record, a record of decision specifying what had been decided and on what basis, and adequate notice for all the above. (Creighton, 1999, p. 250)

Though the law is prescriptive in requiring agencies to solicit and respond to public comment, NEPA-type processes have failed to satisfy public demands for a variety of reasons. Members of the public complain that the documents required by NEPA are too technical, that agencies have frequently determined the outcome of the situation before the public is allowed access to the process, and that agencies do not make sufficient effort to identify and involve affected stakeholders. The initial scoping stage of the NEPA process is the point at which potential environmental impacts are determined by the relevant agency, and many members of the public argue that by the conclusion of this phase agencies already have made their decision regarding outcomes. Involving the public in scoping activities before creating the draft EIS could provide more meaningful opportunities for stakeholders to influence the process and help to prevent “premature agency decisions” (Spyke, 1999, p. 278). Public involvement, however, often begins with an opportunity to comment on the draft EIS. The NEPA process also lacks specification regarding how much weight public comment should be given in the decision-making process. Essentially, public involvement still spans a broad gulf ranging from the right to know what information was used to arrive at a decision, to direct participation in the decision-making process itself.

Regulatory agencies in the U.S., Canada, and the European Union are now required in most cases to identify and invite impacted stakeholders and other members of the interested public to provide comment on significant actions that will modify the environment. How these public participation processes should be structured and how the information gathered from the public should be incorporated into the management decisions regulatory agencies are mandated to make has been at the center of environmental controversies since long before public participation was mandated.

Social Demand for Public Participation

Cvetkovich and Earle (1994) defined public participation as “direct involvement of individual citizens and citizen groups in the seeking of information about decision making related to and the management planning regarding land issues” (p. 163). One reason public participation is so central to environmental conflict is that it is considered a critical component of democratic society, “an unassailable good” (Steelman & Ascher, 1997, p. 73). Arnstein (1969) posited that public participation is essentially a redistribution of power, from government to citizen. Supporters of broad public participation posit that the public can best judge and represent its own interests and that participation will further enhance the public’s ability to participate in the democratic system of government, reduce public feelings of powerlessness and alienation, and increase the legitimacy of the governing body (Fiorino, 1990). Public participation and deliberation can benefit society by creating public policy that is reflective of public values and opinions and that nurtures social, psychological, and political empowerment of the public. Conflict over how public participation should be constructed occurs on a regular basis, however. Steelman and Ascher (1997) noted that “the general public may not be particularly competent, interested or knowledgeable participants… the preferences expressed by the public can be inconsistent and may lead to conflict, leaving decision makers with confusing data on which to base their policies” (p. 73).

Given the regulatory context for environmental conflicts and the expectation for civic participation, government agencies are tasked with gathering data from diverse groups and individuals and incorporating that data into policy decisions. These data often are internally conflicting, with competing claims of validity dependent upon multiple goals for participating in the process, as well as multiple ideologies for resource management. Dustin, Schneider, McAvoy, and Frakt (2002) used the controversy between rock climbers and American Indians at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming (USA) to point out that conflict over something so apparently mundane as outdoor recreation pits people with fundamentally different world-views against each other. A special section of American Indian Quarterly (Martin & Piper, 2001) provides an extended description of current environmental conflicts between American Indians and other land users, and also argues that public participation processes must improve opportunities for self-representation among American Indians. Gericke and Sullivan (1994) noted that if the public does not feel its concerns have been adequately addressed in the resulting decisions, the attempt to reduce conflict through public participation will have been for naught. Yet, it is nearly impossible for agencies to address all public concerns and create decisions that align with the ideologies of all stakeholders.

Yosie and Herbst (1998) identified the impetus for increased public participation in environmental conflict as (a) a lack of public confidence in government and lack of trust in its ability to manage resources effectively, (b) increased public demand for improved environmental quality, (c) increased public interest in participating in environmental issues, (d) increased regulatory requirements to provide environmental performance information to the public, (e) failure of governmental organizations to consider the values and opinions of stakeholders, and (f) increased commitment by governmental agencies to include public participation in their environmental management decisions. Walters, Aydelotte, and Miller (2000) argued that the public expects elected and appointed decision makers within government to represent the public interest and to protect the public good when addressing environmental resource issues. When the public perceives that environmental policy has not addressed the public interest, dissatisfaction arises.

Public expectations for participation in environmental policy deliberations, then, suggest that it should provide an opportunity to examine scientific and technical information and result in well-informed governmental decisions that are accepted by most stakeholders. Public participation could set up a collaborative dialogue among stakeholders to achieve understanding of perspectives and jointly constructed public policies. As it applies to environmental policy, however, public participation is much more likely to be competitive than collaborative. The existence of scarce, and sometimes fragile, nonrenewable resources and the distributive negotiation structure of most public participation processes results in disputes “centered around the distributive allocation of a fairly fixed set of resources” rather than the pursuit of mutually beneficial and satisfactory decisions for all stakeholders (Walker & Daniels, 1996, p. 80). Communication researchers and practitioners, then, are challenged to develop processes that enhance collaborative potential without ignoring material realities such as correlations between childhood asthma and air pollution, the rates of human population increase and species extinction, and low-income neighborhoods and toxic waste facilities. In this section, we discuss types of participation processes available to the public and the theoretical constructs used to evaluate the participative nature of these processes.


Various methods have emerged to engage stakeholders in the public participation process. The most common are written public comment periods, public hearings, listening sessions, workshops, negotiated rule making, and consensus-based decision making. The degree of involvement may range from providing a spontaneous reaction to specific questions, such as to a telephone survey, to engaging in extended consideration and study of an issue over time with direct power and influence over the final decision.

The least interactive participation methods are the written public comment period and listening sessions. Written public comment periods are mandated under NEPA and provide the public an opportunity to review draft EISs and give written comment that must be formally addressed by the regulatory agency in the final record of decision. The written public comment period does not allow dialogue between the agency and public, and the agency can simply indicate, “we disagree,” in the final decision, without offering further detail (Ratliff, 1998). Public hearings are more formal opportunities for the public to address their comments on draft decisions verbally to agency officials; this method has been heavily used and has been subjected to extensive critique. Listening sessions are less formal opportunities for the public to voice their concerns and opinions to agency officials. The officials are obligated to listen, but are not obligated to respond to the public or to engage in dialogue regarding the issues and concerns.

Workshops, negotiated rule making, and consensus-based decision making engage the public in more interactive, sustained communication and provide members of the public potentially greater influence over the final decision. Workshops of various kinds involve small groups of stakeholders engaged in working sessions designed to complete a task such as identifying problems to be addressed by a study or action, developing alternatives from which the agency will choose, evaluating alternative action plans, or identifying the potential impacts of action plans (Creighton, 1981). In negotiated rule making, an agency solicits representatives from diverse stakeholder communities and forms a panel that is tasked with collaboratively defining an acceptable industry standard for an environmental issue (e.g., air quality levels for certain chemical compounds). The premise is that if diverse representatives can agree, it is highly probable that the agency would agree with the standard as well. Their agreement becomes the draft regulation that is presented to the public for comment (Creighton, 1999). Consensus-based decision making is a process whereby stakeholders and agency officials negotiate a consensual agreement for the management of an environmental issue. As such processes have become more popular, the definition of consensus has become increasingly vague (Peterson, Peterson, & Peterson, 2005). Walker and Daniels (1996) argued that, at best, all of these approaches are based on joint learning and fact finding, exploring underlying value differences, encouraging constructive dialogue, and direct communication among stakeholders to address issues, concerns, and interests openly. In the next section, we evaluate the participative nature of these processes according to various theoretical models of citizen participation and the issue of legitimacy.


Several researchers have used legitimacy as a unifying construct for evaluating public participation. Mascarenhas and Scarce (2004) drew on the concept of legitimacy, as articulated in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) theory, to study natural resource planning in British Columbia and found that successful public processes must have fair representation, appropriate government resources, and be consensus driven. They stated that the most fundamental criterion for a successful public process was legitimacy. This does not necessarily translate into broad agreement on how to achieve legitimacy. Webler, Tuler, and Krueger (2001) found that residents in northern New England and New York emphasized a diverse and internally conflicted set of factors as essential to legitimacy. Different respondents indicated that a public participation process was legitimate if it (a) was popular, (b) facilitated an ideological discussion across interest groups, (c) highlighted the reality of power struggle, or (d) provided strong leadership leading toward compromise. Drawing from decades of process work in environmental conflicts throughout the state of New York, Senecah (2004) argued that a legitimate conflict management process must provide all stakeholders with access, standing, and influence, requiring that conflict resolution practitioners have a broad expertise in ADR principles (see Lipsky & Seeber).

Arnstein (1969) developed a model of citizen participation based on the analogy of a ladder. As citizens climb the ladder, their participation gains increased legitimacy as it empowers them to determine the outcome of policy deliberation. At the bottom of the ladder are methods of non-participation for educating stakeholders in order to cure them of their misconceptions. One rung up the ladder is tokenism, which allows participants to speak, though without power to ensure their voice will have any impact. Cvetkovich and Earle (1994) referred to tokenism as simple voice. Examples of this level of participation are written public comment periods and listening sessions. Placation allows stakeholders to advise decision makers but does not provide any power to enforce their advice. Stakeholder workshops often exemplify this advisory role. Arnstein’s ladder then moves into degrees of citizen power. At these levels, stakeholders have the authority to negotiate with those in power and may even move into the position of a powerful majority where they take full managerial control of the issue. Some types of negotiated rule making and consensus-based decision making allow this level of participation.

Waddell (1996) took a different approach to categorizing public participation modes. He defined four models, differentiating among them by their approach to information transfer and their attitude toward values and emotions evidenced by participating experts and the public. The technocratic model allows environmental decisions to remain under the full authority of the experts in science, engineering, industry, and government without providing any formal opportunity for the public to monitor implementation of the decisions. Under this model, the only information that must be transferred between the experts and the public is the final decision. The experts must inform the public of their decision so the public can follow the rules. The one-way Jeffersonian model allows the public to participate in decision making by listening when experts provide them with technical information. Within this model, the purpose of public participation is to educate the public so that it will agree with decisions reached by experts. Public hearings generally exemplify the one-way Jeffersonian model. The interactive Jeffersonian model requires that experts provide technical information to the public, and allows members of the public to share their opinions, values, and emotions with the experts. Thus, resulting decisions should integrate technical information drawn from the experts with opinions, values, and emotions drawn from the public. Workshops where members of the public have an opportunity both to learn technical information from the experts and to share their opinions with those experts exemplify the interactive Jeffersonian model. Most public participation processes fall someplace along a continuum between the one-way and interactive Jeffersonian models.

The fourth possibility elaborated by Waddell (1996), the social constructionist model, recognizes that both technical experts and members of the general public have access to technical information that may be valuable in making decisions. Further, it assumes that technical experts, as well as members of the public, are influenced by opinions, values, and emotions and allows “an interactive exchange of information during which all participants also communicate, appeal to, and engage values, beliefs, and emotions” (p. 142). The approach results in policy that is jointly constructed by all participants. Although the social constructionist model is rarely practiced, it is more likely to occur in negotiated rule making and consensus-based decision-making efforts where stakeholders are viewed as equals with agency officials (Fiorino, 1990).

Sustainable Development

No term associated with environmental conflict has enjoyed more widespread public legitimacy than sustainable development. Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987), which linked sustainability to development and intergenerational and international equity, suggested sustainable development as a concept that could resolve environmental conflict (M. J. Peterson etal., 2004; T. R. Peterson, 1997). This capitalized on the famous definition of sustainable development as that “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 43). It was further legitimated by the fact that conservation biologists had long advocated sustained use of natural resources (Allen & Hoekstra, 1993; Leopold, 1949). Perhaps because its definition allows proponents to simultaneously endorse both environmental protection and economic development, governments, private industries, natural resource agencies, conflict resolution professionals, and many environmental advocacy groups wholeheartedly embraced sustainable development. Mazmanian and Craft (1999) argued that sustainable development enables people to move beyond the conventional focus on biological well-being, to the inclusion of psychological, sociological, economic, political, and cultural well-being. Its potential to build a sense of community among disputants makes sustainable development especially attractive to ADR professionals.

Organizations ranging from the World Wildlife Fund to the World Bank have embraced the term. One of its most attractive features is that each community can create its own reality for the concept (T. R. Peterson, 1997). Initially, academics, public policy makers, and industry vigorously endorsed sustainable development (Aguirre, 2002). As supporters vociferously petitioned for interpretations complementary with their own ethical perspectives, multiple meanings evolved (M. N. Peterson, Peterson, & Peterson, 2005). Following the widespread acceptance of sustainable development, these diverse groups attempted to co-opt the meaning of the concept for their idiosyncratic purposes. For example, the concept became popular with advocates for indigenous groups, some of whom argued that because such groups have always used their natural resources in a sustainable way, they should not be denied access to them in the name of protecting wilderness or pristine nature (Nabhan, 1995), while others argued that such groups should not be denied the right to protect nature in the name of economic development (Amnesty International and Sierra Club, 2000). Business interests used sustainable development in marketing campaigns designed to persuade the public that purchasing green merchandise (ranging from electric cars to organic salad mixes) would do away with environmental conflicts associated with consumerism (Stauber, 1994; Woollard & Ostry, 2000). This melee led to an array of perspectives on sustainable development rooted in vastly different values and beliefs.

The failure of sustainable development to meet the expectations of conflicting interest groups generated at least as much conflict as it promised to resolve (M. N. Peterson et al., 2005). Many advocates discarded the concept when the conflicting value-based assumptions of competing views of sustainable development became apparent (Aguirre, 2002; Jacob, 1994; Lélé & Norgaard, 1996). Environmental ethicists such as Callicott and Mumford (1997) rejected anthropocentric versions of sustainable development in favor of “ecosystem sustainability.” Faced with the surge in green marketing, many environmentalists determined that sustainable development was “code for perpetual growth… force-fed to the world community by the global corporate political-media network” (Willers, 1994, p. 1146) and repudiated the term.

Critical evaluation of sustainable development as a foundational concept for managing environmental conflict can be summed up in the claim that, at best, it is an unproven concept and, at worst, it has failed to slow the inexorable shrinkage of the habitats needed to preserve environmental health. No one has yet figured out how best to reconcile environmental protection with temporally and spatially immediate human preferences. Successful strategies will require far more commitment and far more difficult choices than have been made to date. Those who would manage environmental conflict must discover and implement social processes that enable humans to overcome our current inability to make many small consistent decisions that lead to a broad sustainable outcome.

As these frameworks illustrate, various approaches to public participation provide diverse combinations of opportunities to voice opinions, participate in dialogue with decision makers, and influence the outcome of environmental dilemmas. Moreover, multiple communication processes can be present in a single public participation venue. For example, a public workshop may involve soliciting and gathering information, consulting with stakeholders, and direct negotiation leading to a final decision.

Critiques of Public Hearing and Consensus-Based Processes

The most commonly used approaches to public involvement in disputes over environmental policy are public hearings of various sorts and consensus-based processes. Despite the fact that public hearings produce almost universally negative public reaction, they are the regulatory agencies’ method of choice for nearly every environmental issue requiring public involvement. We use the terms public hearing and public meeting interchangeably in this chapter to describe a formal gathering of regulatory agency officials and members of the public to address an environmental policy concern. Consensus-based processes have emerged in response to negative reactions among both the general public and technical experts to public hearings. While not so ubiquitous as public hearings, consensus-based processes are enjoying a wave of popularity among both natural resource management agencies and ADR practitioners. In this section, we review critiques of public hearings and consensus processes from the perspectives of communication functions, conflict dynamics, and (social and ecological) effectiveness.

Public Hearings

Ideally, the public hearing represents “such democratic principles as the rights of assembly, free speech and representation… [and] seem[s] to provide ideal opportunities for people to gather, confront issues, and work toward finding solutions” (McComas, 2001a, p. 135). In practice, however, the public hearing rarely achieves this ideal (Arnstein, 1969; Fiorino, 1990; Heberlein, 1976; Kasperson, 1986; McComas, 2001a, 2001b; T R. Peterson, 1997; Rosener, 1981). Despite having the lowest outcome acceptance and process satisfaction ratings of any regularly used public participation method (Rowe & Frewer, 2000), public hearings remain the most frequently used approach to public involvement in environmental policy formation (McComas, 2001a, 2001b).

The typical public meeting involves a technical presentation by agency officials, limited opportunity for the members of the public to ask questions for clarification, and then a formal comment period. During the formal comment period, members of the public are given a certain amount of time to present their comments and concerns to agency officials. Their comments and concerns are recorded so that agency officials may formally respond on the record in the final decision (Ratliff, 1998). A fundamental problem with the use of public hearings is that agency officials and citizen stakeholders attending the meetings often have different goals and use different forms of discourse to present their ideas and concerns—thus often exacerbating rather than ameliorating conflicts.

All stakeholders involved in public participatory processes have goals for their involvement. Broad goals shared by most stakeholders include improvement of government, sharing power among relevant stakeholders, increased positive regard for the government by the public, enhanced public policy, and incorporation of multiple perspectives into environmental policy decisions. Community-based goals include empowering the citizenry to take action and have a voice in public policy, strengthening community relationships, and fostering local leadership in environmental issues. The primary goal of most citizen stakeholders is to handle the immediate concern affecting their interests. Stakeholders also may attempt to persuade decision makers to adopt their perspective toward the issues or to increase the public’s share of control in democratic government (Spyke, 1999). According to NEPA, governmental decision makers are mandated to enter this process with several goals. They are to use the meetings to improve the decision-making processes, share information with stakeholders, reach diverse communities, respond to public concerns, and lobby for public acceptance of their decisions. From the perspective of all stakeholders, the success of public hearings typically is defined by whether participant goals are achieved.

Chess and Purcell’s (1999) synopsis of studies evaluating the success of public hearings reported that standards for evaluating public participation focus on the efficacy of the process itself and on satisfaction with the outcome based on theoretical values imposed by the researcher and/or the goals of the agencies and stakeholders. Fiorino (1990) identified four criteria for evaluating public participation processes based on democratic principles. He argued that participation processes should (a) allow amateurs (nonexperts) to participate directly in decision making, (b) allow the public to work collaboratively with agency officials to determine policy, (c) provide a means for direct interaction over an extended period of time, and (d) allow the public to participate in the process with standing equal to agency officials. Fiorino found that, in public hearings, members of the public typically are permitted only limited and indirect participation in discussion and are subordinated to agency officials.

Cvetkovich and Earle (1994) found that even when a public participation process meets Fiorino’s (1990) democratic principles, the public remains dissatisfied with public meetings if the outcome (or final decision) fails to protect their individual interests or is incompatible with personal values. T. R. Peterson’s (1997) analysis of discourse and political outcomes from hearings over whether Agricultural Canada should destroy all bison in an area where most human residents were members of Cree or Dene Metis bands indicated that public participants found the hearings satisfactory only to the degree the public was able to subvert the hearing process. Dispute resolution professionals are challenged to find a process that will allow the public to participate meaningfully in a self-determinate manner, yet also create a sense of legitimacy for the process and the outcome—so that a broad range of outcomes will be accepted by most stakeholders—even when the decision fails to meet their interests completely.

Given the research indicating that public hearings rarely help agencies accomplish their public involvement goals, and often create further conflict, it is puzzling that they remain the most widely used method of public participation in environmental decision making. Checkoway (1981) suggested this occurs because public meetings serve various needs for the agency in addition to allowing public involvement in the final decision. Checkoway argued that natural resource agencies use public hearings to satisfy the minimum legal requirements for public participation under NEPA, to prove that information was disseminated, and to demonstrate that required public participation occurred, without focusing on the process or outcomes of that participation. Heberlein (1976) described this purpose as the informational function of public meetings, where information is disseminated and public opinion is gathered without any plans to incorporate it into the final decision. Another reason to use public meetings is to build support for agency decisions. Public meetings often are sites for persuasive communication designed to influence the public to support the plan recommended by the agency and industries that stand to benefit from the preferred alternative (Kaminstein, 1996; Ratliff, 1998). Checkoway argued that public meetings are also used to defuse community antagonism through a controlled, orderly display of concern for the public interest. This display of concern is intended to legitimate a priori decisions.

Heberlein (1976) claimed that public meetings serve a co-optation function when “the goal of the hearing is to let irate citizens and interest groups let off steam and complain about the project” (p. 200). In such cases, agency officials use the hearing to indicate that they are concerned about the needs of the public; however, they remain in control of the final decision. Though the agency decision may not be influenced by public comments, allowing the public to voice their concerns in a formal setting negates the public’s ability to win a lawsuit against the agency for not allowing public participation. Cvetkovich and Earle (1994) noted that by allowing the public to have its say, those in power are avoiding possible claims of injustice, and thus maintaining the power imbalance between agency officials and members of the public. Conversely, Heberlein asserted that public meetings could serve the beneficial function of encouraging meaningful interaction if agency officials used them as opportunities to genuinely listen to, and understand, the needs and concerns represented by the public, particularly if they then attempted to incorporate those concerns into the final decision. Heberlein did not indicate how such an interaction could be facilitated, however. In fact, in most studies the communication and conflict dynamics of public hearings are not specifically identified, let alone discussed.

A review of the literature addressing public hearings suggests that such meetings often exacerbate the very conflicts they attempt to resolve and do not encourage meaningful dialogue between regulatory agency officials and members of the public. Citizens perceive a significant power imbalance between agency personnel and expert consultants on the one hand, and members of the public on the other (Kaminstein, 1996; Ratliff, 1998). This is evidenced by the scientific language and other jargon used by agency personnel and their expert consultants, agency control over the agenda—including definition of relevant issues, the formal atmosphere established and maintained by agency officials, and the retention by the convening agency of sole determination of the final decision or outcome. Though public hearings may be referenced as opportunities for dialogue between agency officials and members of the public, empirical research on public meetings indicates that rather than realizing these opportunities, public meetings typically inhibit dialogue and reinforce existing positions and competition among stakeholders. The following sections address the ways power imbalances between the public and agency officials are established and maintained.

Scientific knowledge and language. Pearce and Littlejohn (1997) noted that one of the stressors acting upon public discourse is the “hegemony of experts and an increasing gap between expert/technical discourse and the discourse of the electorate” (p. 96). In the case of public meetings, two forms of discourse typically occur, technical/scientific discourse and emotional/personal rights discourse. Agency officials and expert consultants open the meeting with a formal presentation about the environmental issue couched in a barrage of technical language, including scientific facts, chemical names, and statistics, that can overwhelm the public (Kaminstein, 1996). Kaminstein also noted that although scientists are required to support any assertion with data, the form in which these data are presented often is confusing.

In environmental conflicts, science often is portrayed as the neutral authority within the political fray. Ozawa (1996) noted that, because of the authority given to the scientific method, scientific results often are presented as indisputable facts. These results typically are characterized as having been discovered in a manner free from research biases and as forming the appropriate foundation for decisions. This leads to the presumption in the minds of some that, by advocating results supported by science, decision makers are able to step out of the political milieu and render value-free judgments. Science is thus used to shield decision makers from criticism because science is portrayed as the arbiter among multiple perspectives. Ozawa emphasized that, because Western culture tends to accept scientific fact as immutable and unquestionable, the fact that science also is used as a tool of persuasion to support and attack positions is masked. Kaminstein (1996) also noted that agency officials and scientists present technical information as though it were unarguable. When members of the public attempt to question the science of experts, the responses generally are in the same technically complex language that sparked the question in the first place, thus shedding no more light on the subject than the initial presentation. The use of complex, technical, and scientific language by convening agencies and their consultants effectively discourages participants from asking apparently naïve questions.

In addition to the jargon used by experts, members of the lay public often are blocked from understanding the technical and scientific content of the meetings because they lack access to critical data (Wondolleck, Manring, & Crowfoot, 1996). Kaminstein (1996) noted that participants often remain silent because they feel they do “not have the technical background to question, contest or disagree with the scientists as they presented their battery of facts” (p. 460). Often, participants simply fear they will be ridiculed. Ratliff (1998) observed a Department of Energy representative tell a public hearing participant that the information the participant requested could be found in any health physics textbook, “insinuating that the information either is, can or could be, easily available to anybody, as though anyone can understand a health physics text, or have one laying around to consult whenever a question comes up” (p. 12). Ratliff asserted that, though members of the public should try to inform themselves before coming to public meetings, they also should be able to expect respectful answers to questions about confusing technical material presented by agency officials and scientists.

The language disparity between agency officials and their consulting scientists, and members of the public discourages questions and comments from the public and limits the appropriate discourse for the meeting. Members of the public often speak a discourse of rights, emotions, concerns, and personal interests. Tauxe (1995) noted that when members of the public use local rhetorical conventions to address planning issues, they are at a significant disadvantage as compared to those who speak within the bureaucratic, rationalistic conventions of the decision makers. Kaminstein (1996) suggested that, because the language of scientific discourse does not leave room for the language of emotions, members of the public are unable to express themselves fully in public hearings. This inability to communicate results in frustration and anger that, when expressed, is even more inappropriate within the scientifically rationalized discursive environment of the public hearing. Pearce and Littlejohn (1997) asserted that if conflicts of this sort are to be resolved, the parties must use a common discourse to express and settle differences. Agency officials establish the dominant scientific discourse, however, which effectively silences most members of the public.

Agenda setting and definitional hegemony. Wondolleck et al. (1996) asserted that public meetings reinforce power imbalances between agency officials and members of the public in that the public has no influence or control over the agenda or structure of the meeting. Chess and Purcell (1999) claimed that scheduling public meetings toward the end of the planning process places members of the public in a reactive mode rather than allowing them to contribute ideas to the development of the draft plan. Agency officials also exert control over the participation process by structuring the meeting and setting the agenda. Participants in public meetings often are required to register their request to comment prior to the beginning of the meeting and are given a preset amount of time (e.g., 3 minutes) in which to present their comments (Ratliff, 1998). Often, agency officials retain the right to change the structure of the meeting or the agenda at any point. For example, Ratliff (1998) observed officials instructing a meeting participant that he was barred from asking any more questions in the question-and-answer session before the formal comment period of the meeting. These officials also decided to end the session early without explanation to the participants.

In addition to structural control, agency officials control the scope of pertinent issues for discussion and how those issues are defined. They use a rhetorical device that Dionisopoulos and Crable (1988) termed definitional hegemony, where parties in power establish the definition of issues and then obtain influence over the outcomes by the very fact that they established the definitions in the first place. Chess and Purcell (1999) found that agency officials limit the scope of discussion in public meetings so that non-technical topics, including social issues and concerns, are outside the scope of discussion and therefore do not warrant comment from agency officials. Kaminstein (1996) observed that “how a problem is defined by public officials, and what public officials are willing and unwilling to talk about, drastically shapes the ensuing dialogue at public meetings” (p. 462). Once a problem or issue is defined, that definition establishes boundaries for what can and cannot be included in discussion, thus ruling out topics that others might see as pertinent. For example, Ratliff (1998) recounted how agency officials announced in their technical presentation that the scope of the discussion included only how nuclear waste would be contained and transported to an area, not whether the area should be chosen as a dumpsite. Subsequently, members of the public were not able to voice their concerns over having a toxic dump in their backyard to the agency officials—that was outside the scope of discussion.

Kaminstein (1996) asserted that what is left unsaid in public meetings often is of great concern to participants. Agency officials seem to operate from the notion that to avoid conflict, they must avoid discussing controversial issues with the public. Suppressing environmental conflict through avoidance strategies, however, tends to produce deeper intractability (M. N. Peterson, Peterson, Peterson, Lopez, & Silvy, 2002; T R. Peterson & Horton, 1995). Members of the public may feel that the agency is withholding crucial information, or that they are being “pushed aside and patronized” (Kaminstein, 1996, p. 463). Chess and Purcell (1999) found that when agencies used a public meeting to avoid responding to public concerns and worries, those same agencies often found themselves faced with bitter opposition and conflict.

Formal atmosphere. The atmosphere of the public hearing itself is set by the physical arrangements of the meeting room, the formality of the event, and the ground rules for participating in the public comment period. The typical public meeting is arranged with a panel of agency officials and experts at the front of the room, a lectern and microphone facing the panel at which members of the public may speak, and auditorium-style seating for the public behind the lectern. Presentations by agency officials generally are calm and rational, with responses to questions offered in the same tone even if the questions are hostile and emotional. This communication style establishes an atmosphere in which it is inappropriate to respond to the presentations in an emotional manner or to admit that the issue causes emotional trauma. The formal atmosphere and apparent rationality of agency-sponsored presentations interact to discourage open discussion of personal opposition to preferred alternatives. It can inhibit discussion of deeply felt concerns and issues between agency officials and members of the public. Kaminstein (1996) observed that it is “difficult for residents to gripe, complain, disagree, or dispute [the information presented], since they [are] treated in such an ostensibly kind and respectful way by the government officials” (p. 461).

Final determination. Regardless of the majority opinion expressed by the public in a hearing, the agency retains the right and responsibility to make the final decision. The NEPA process requires only that they respond formally to each of the comments offered during the public comment period. Kaminstein (1996) offered an illustration when describing a situation where the EPA continued to follow existing protocol for cleaning up a Superfund site even though there was overwhelming public opposition expressed in public meetings. Agencies leading the public meetings studied by Cvetkovich and Earle (1994) and Ratliff (1998) also decided against public opinion and continued with the plans they had originally offered for public comment. Ignoring public opinion that has been clearly expressed in hearings perpetuates the notion that public participation is futile and that agencies conduct public hearings simply to avoid lawsuits, to gauge public support for predetermined projects, or to legitimate previously made decisions.

Through the NEPA process, agencies determine policy, either making use of public comment or ignoring it. As Ratliff (1998) noted, “assessing comments as meaningless” sends a message that public participation is mere window dressing (p. 14). Kaminstein (1996) asserted that “public officials not only have the power to define problems, but they also have the legal power to decide solutions, regardless of citizens’ reservations and concerns” (p. 462). Research on social justice has shown that giving people the opportunity to voice their concerns, whether or not their concerns have any significant effect on the outcome, will lead to greater perceived fairness in the process (Lind, Kray, & Thompson, 1998). Cvetkovich and Earle (1994) argued, however, that the salience of fair process is severely minimized if the outcome of the public participation process appears to ignore the public interest.

Summary. These four characteristics of public hearings (emphasis on scientific jargon, agency control of the agenda and scope of issues, formal meeting atmosphere, and agency authority to determine outcomes without adhering to public opinion) all combine to discourage effective dialogue. Littlejohn and Domenici (2001) laid out the requirements for creating dialogue as constructive conversation. They asserted that dialogue does not occur without “treating people like people” (p. 33), or taking their concerns seriously. Even though agency officials may treat members of the public with formalized respect, failure to address their personal concerns and worries, ignoring their opinions, and bombarding them with technical information does not constitute treating them “like people” (p. 33). Instead, this behavior objectifies the public and makes it easier to ignore personal concerns and opinions. The question-and-answer format of the public meeting, rigid scheduling of the public comment period, and control over the scope of the issues to be discussed all work against meaningful opportunities for dialogue to occur within the traditional public hearing format.

Public meetings generally treat communication as a mere conduit through which discrete packets of preexisting information can flow—technical information from experts to members of the public, and opinions and values from members of the public to the experts. Technical experts have information they believe would help make the public more tractable if members of the public could just learn it. Agency officials also believe that, by understanding public opinion and values, they can explain agency policy in a way that will encourage greater public acceptance. Public hearings occur within a system that combines severe power imbalances among parties, a constrained environment for dialogue, and a strong likelihood that interdependence among parties will be ignored. All these factors combine to yield a public participation process that fails to realize significant dialogic potential. Still, public hearings are a common, though generally ineffective, means for managing environmental conflict.

Consensus Building

Media attention and public outcry over environmental issues have occurred since at least the beginning of the 20th century (Neuzil & Kovarik, 1996), and environmental policy and regulations have been rooted in conflict and argumentation (M. N. Peterson etal., 2005). Public hearings, which are common in North America and Western Europe, offer the potential for increased dialogue, but that potential has not been realized. Rather, hearings have largely excluded legitimate discussion of non-technical dimensions of environmental disputes. Consensus-based processes have emerged as an alternative to the acrimonious exchanges constructed with zero-sum outcomes that have led increasingly to gridlock and citizen outrage. In the following sections, we discuss the rationale for, and challenges to, consensus-building processes.

Rationale for consensus building. The search for alternative approaches to environmental decision making and regulation has led governments at all levels and in multiple nations to involve citizens in ways other than voting, contacting representatives, and participating in the formal public hearings encouraged by legislation such as the APA and NEPA. This trend emphasizes facilitation of diverse sets of individuals in long-term relationships, where they establish mutually agreed upon goals and seek solutions to complex problems. These approaches promise to enrich the overall quality of democracy by endowing governments and their regulatory agencies with additional legitimacy and providing communication channels for generating agreement on environmental policies.

Susskind, McKearnan, and Thomas-Larmer (1999) argued that addressing today’s complex environmental conflicts requires a greater sharing of information across time, space, and institutional jurisdictions, or consensus building in a broad sense. They pointed out that consensus building is important in all environmental domains, from local to regional to global, and ultimately to developing a clear vision of what a sustainable future encompasses for all humans.

The shift to consensus-based models as a foundation for environmental decision making gained rapid momentum during the late 1980s (M. N. Peterson et al., 2005). This change was facilitated by the meteoric rise of sustainable development. Sustainable development’s focus on local conditions, diversity, participation, and locally produced development strengthened this link (de la Court, 1992; Kothari, 1990; T. R. Peterson, 1997), particularly because consensus is more readily attainable at smaller, local scales (T R. Peterson et al., 2004).

Bingham (1985) noted that although environmental controversy was not a new phenomenon, the fact that “consensus-building processes show considerable promise for resolving environmental disputes,” was (p. 291). She identified consensus-building processes as especially useful for situations where parties needed to maintain a “continuing relationship” to “solve future problems with one another” (p. 291). Bingham cautioned, however, that general discomfort with controversy evidenced in the “enthusiasm for the word nonadversarial” should not be allowed to overshadow awareness of the basic assumptions on which consensus processes are based, “in particular, how the issues are defined, and how well all parties are represented” (p. 291).

Consensus models usually are linked to some type of community building. Although the process often inspires initial conflict involving the diverse interests that make up a community, it can lead to greater support for environmental policies (Lin, 1996; Turner & Rylander, 1998). Greater support within the local community carries benefits, including lower enforcement costs, higher compliance rates, less conflict, and higher community satisfaction. Consensus-based approaches to environmental conflict promise to reduce implementation costs through the creation and use of social capital and more efficient use of natural and human capital (Costanza & Ruth, 1998; Farley & Costanza, 2002). Social capital is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 248). The ability to secure benefits through membership in communities and other social structures (social capital) motivates observance of group norms. Community-based approaches promise to reduce administrative costs by paying for management at least in part with social capital (Kollock, 1998; Ostrom, 1990).

The transition to consensus-based resolution of environmental conflict has been facilitated in the United States by presidential support of Community-Based Conservation Planning (CBCP) for the purpose of developing Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP) (M. N. Peterson et al., 2004). To enable landowners to protect property rights when their land is identified as critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, a 1982 amendment to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 made it possible to apply for a permit that allows incidental taking of a listed species on private lands. To obtain this permit, an HCP must be submitted to the Secretary of the Interior for approval. The plan must show how incidental takings will be minimized and that actions taken by the applicant will not significantly reduce the likelihood of species survival (Allison, 2002; Salzman & Thompson, 2003). Communities sharing space with endangered species have recognized that community-based HCPs can benefit the entire community by pooling resources, including money, land, scientific information, and time. As a result, CBCP has become increasingly popular (Chase, Schusler, & Decker, 2000; Lin, 1996; Reilly, 1998; Tuler & Webler, 1999). Although CBCP often encounters initial resistance, it increases the chances that the final management decision will be accepted by those involved in the process and the rest of the community (Laird, 1993). This acceptance occurs because programs that develop local consensus gain broad support and therefore result in more effective conservation plans (Turner & Rylander, 1998). The ideal result of CBCP is an acceptable decision for all parties, including the endangered species (Lin, 1996).

The possible creation of economic and social capital by CBCP “engaged the attention of administrators and managers—extending to U.S. presidents—who sought less costly alternatives to traditional privatization, command and control, and subsidy-based approaches to” management of environmental conflicts (M. N. Peterson et al., 2005, p. 263). In the 1992 presidential race, George W. H. Bush called for amending the ESA to give more weight to economic concerns. He suggested that species endangerment should be jointly determined by natural and social sciences, rather than primarily by natural sciences. For example, even if a certain plant had become extremely rare, if preservation of the habitat needed for its recovery was economically detrimental, that plant should not be listed as endangered. Bill Clinton countered by claiming Bush posed a false choice between environmental protection and economic growth, and promised to move the country beyond that dichotomous thinking. The ensuing Clinton administration attempted to use the HCP process to achieve the necessary flexibility to fulfill this pledge (Doremus, 1999). Reconciliation of the fundamental schism between property rights and environmental protection on private lands was implicit in the Clinton administration’s attempts to enhance public participation (Cox, 2004; T R. Peterson et al., 2004). The HCP process was used “selectively” and “experimentally” for the first 10 years of its existence (Schoenbaum & Rosenburg, 1996, p. 564), but its potential to transcend the environmental protection versus economic growth dichotomy encouraged overuse in recent years. While only 14 permits were issued prior to the 1992 U.S. presidential race, 425 had been approved as of July 2003 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2003).

Gwartney, Fessenden, and Landt (2002) found that the positive relationships developed through a consensus-building process used to resolve a dispute over human population growth and sustainable development in an Oregon community disseminated beyond actual participants and remained in existence over time. They concluded that the enhanced working relationships among previous adversaries were largely the result of the consensus-building process. Appelstrand (2002) argued that the fundamental purpose of public participation is to build consensus. He claimed that, by engaging in consensus-building processes with members of the public, agencies responsible for managing natural resources should be able to produce more sustainable environmental policy. Singleton (2002) examined several community-level consensus-building processes and concluded that the increased regulatory flexibility and decentralization, coupled with broadly based accountability, offers opportunities to enhance democratic practice as well as to improve the quality of environmental decision making.

Consensus-building approaches to environmental conservation also have become more common in developing countries known for their biodiversity and unique landscapes, such as Costa Rica, Nepal, Belize, and parts of Africa (Donovan, 1994; Fabricius, Koch, & Magome, 2001; Few, 2000; Gbadegisin & Ayileka, 2000; Metha & Heinen, 2001; Wells, 1994). Case studies suggest that community-based attempts to build consensus have led to relatively more effective environmental conservation policies than those dictated by either national or international bodies. Fabricius et al. (2001) found the increase in locally based environmental decision making was especially pronounced in southern Africa following a wave of democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Working relationships between national governments, industry, and local communities improved; participants identified common goals; and conflict management tactics became less violent.

As is typical for fashionable notions experiencing a collective surge, consensus models are loosely defined (T R. Peterson et al., 2004). They generally purport to engender win-win outcomes, educate participants, and foster a sense of community. They also have a variety of labels, including community-based conservation (Western & Wright, 1994), co-management (Chase et al., 2000), collaborative resource management (Wondolleck & Yaffee, 2000), and community-based initiatives (Brunner, Colburn, Cromley, Klein, & Olson, 2002). Although each consensus model defines success somewhat differently, all share varying degrees of commitment to mutual agreement as an end goal and the assumption that resolution lies someplace in between the positions taken by disputants (Dahl, 2003; T. R. Peterson et al., 2004).

Challenges to consensus building. Ironically, about the time consensus was gaining momentum among environmental practitioners, its theoretical weaknesses were being thoroughly deconstructed by social theorists (Hikins, 1989; Russman, 1987; Tukey, 1988). The theoretical debate over consensus theory and its philosophical antecedents is by no means over, but its implications are decidedly unfavorable for environmental conservation. Consensus processes are philosophically rooted in social constructionism. From a radical constructionist perspective, no reality constrains decision making other than consensus among community members (Hikins, 1989). An approach to environmental decision making rooted in this epistemology seems intuitively irresponsible and has been used to legitimize existing patterns of environmental degradation. For instance, the dubious claim that sustainable development can occur indefinitely alongside current economic growth patterns (Czeck, 2000; Gowdy, 2000) is valid only if reality is socially constructed so as to ignore ecological research (T. R. Peterson et al., 2004). The fundamental premise of HCPs—that current development patterns can continue without impairing biodiversity conservation—relies on similarly unsubstantiated assumptions (Redford & Richter, 1999).

Peters (1999) and Ivie (1998, 2002, 2004) argued that communication is most productive when it enables humans to respect others without reducing them to ourselves. Ivie (2002) stated, “The illusion of consensus and unanimity is fatal to democracy because a healthy democratic process requires the vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests” (p. 277). He advocated that public participation should celebrate the diversity of participants, languages, types of reasoning, and evidence involved in public debate. His analyses of political rhetoric (1998, 2002, 2004) have demonstrated how the absence of argument allows elites to control deliberative processes, leading to his claim that the existence of vociferous debate is not a “sign of hostility, alienation, misbehavior, inefficiency, or even impending chaos and ruin” (2002, p. 278) but rather a sign of a healthy, pluralistic democracy. Ivie’s (2004) claim that “democratic dissent… is as alarming to the purveyors of prevailing opinion as it is critical to a nation’s political welfare” (p. 21) is particularly relevant to environmental groups seeking to change existing patterns of development (Blumberg & Knuffke, 1998; Lange, 1990).

Toker (2004) argued that the pursuit of an ideal public sphere grounded in consensus has encouraged uncritical acceptance of models that promise facilitation of open and free public deliberation according to principles of equality, representation, openness, and consensus. In these forums, stakeholders from all walks of life theoretically come together and engage in open and free deliberation. Through such deliberation, individuals overcome differences to unite in the spirit of the common good and reach a rationally determined consensus. Because decision making occurs through an open exchange between interests, the results will be legitimate and fair. Critics of consensus-based processes claim that management by consensus is dangerous because the attempt to placate everyone risks the attenuation of any impetus for change and reifies the status quo (Mouffe, 2000; M. N. Peterson et al., 2005; T. R. Peterson et al., 2004). Further, although many consensus conveners and facilitators affirmatively attempt to expand the diversity of people involved in public processes and create an atmosphere that promotes egalitarian participation, such processes necessarily occur within existing political structures where some groups have more power than others (Ivie, 2004; Mouffe, 2000). These groups have the advantage in shaping group consensus so as to favor continuation of existing hierarchical relationships. For this reason dominant elites generally prefer consensus building to debate. The emphasis on civility and reason in consensus-based models is problematic in part because the illusion of objectivity and universal reason requires bracketing or masking conflicts among participating groups and individuals. We thus treat as truth that which could just as easily be understood as hegemony.

Given the strong social preference for agreement noted by Bingham (1985, 1987), it is difficult to prevent consensus processes from degenerating into the hyper-rationalized atmosphere of the public hearing. Singleton (2002) argued that consensus-building processes aimed at enhancing public participation in environmental decision making are limited by failure to confront core conflicts over equity, distribution, and valuation of nature. This difficulty is further exacerbated because natural resources such as air, land, and water do not start and stop at political boundaries, whether those boundaries surround a private residence or a nation. Because environmental disputes rarely sort out according to political boundaries, it is difficult to procure sufficient institutional support to stabilize consensus-based environmental agreements.

Toker’s (2004) analysis of a stakeholder group created by the Georgia Port Authority documented a consensus process that held members of the public hostage while allowing powerful institutions to use legal and legislative channels with little disruption. She found the implicit goal of agreement made the stakeholder process especially vulnerable to stalemate by veto of a single powerful group. She argued that public participation would be better served through an exploration of rhetorical strategies that disenfranchised groups can use to redefine situations, disassociate dysfunctional relationships, and introduce new perspectives.

Gregory, McDaniels, and Fields (2001) argued that the focus on consensus building impedes critical thinking and leads to the development of inferior policy. Poncelet (2001), who studied environmental partnerships in Europe and the United States, found that all were characterized by conflict avoidance and diffusion of difference. His analysis of the partnerships’ sociohistoric contexts indicated that this proclivity grew out of a prominent cultural model that conceptualizes the partnership process as fundamentally consensual. Detailed analysis of one partnership, a European Union initiative aimed toward encouraging sustainable development throughout member states, led to the conclusion that consensus-based environmental partnerships inadvertently engender a retreat from radical thinking and innovative environmental solutions.

When scientific information regarding an environmental issue has high predictive power, and infrastructure needed for implementation is well developed and thoroughly integrated into the community, consensus-based approaches may be appropriate. Daniels and Walker (2001), however, suggested that these conditions rarely exist in environmental conflicts; and acting as though they do simply increases apathy and cynicism among the public. Stakeholders who enter a public participation process believing that consensus will emerge generally come away disenchanted by the inexplicably contrary behavior of those with opposing views (M. N. Peterson et al., 2005; T. R. Peterson et al., 2004). This leads to increased cynicism regarding participation in efforts designed to improve the quality of environmental decisions and further minimizes possibilities for progressive environmental policy (Ehrlich, 2003; Freyfogle, 2003; Orr, 2003).

Margerum (1999) noted that, in the United States and Australia, stakeholders often reach consensus on environmental problems and objectives but then fail to implement that consensus because they lack strategic direction, a limited set of the public participates, and stakeholders lack commitment to implementation. Participants then experience dissonance between an apparently successful process and a failed outcome. T R. Peterson et al. (2004) used an ethnographic approach to critically review the consensus-building processes used in partnerships formed to develop regional HCPs that would enable cooperation between community development needs and habitat needs for the endangered Houston toad (Texas, U.S.) and the Florida Key deer (U.S.). In both cases, they found the process was framed as a search for the optimum solution through consensus building; and in neither case was the solution achieved. Failure to find the optimal solution led to disillusionment and pessimism among participants. Based on their analysis, they suggest that, within democratic political contexts, approaches to conservation planning that encourage vigorous debate are more likely to produce satisfactory environmental policy than are consensus-building approaches.

Fabricius et al. (2001) cautioned that consensus-based processes are not a panacea for environmental conflict in developing nations. Political instability in these locations means it is difficult to predict changes in political regimes, which can spawn new power struggles, many of which threaten the stability of environmental agreements reached through consensus. They noted that citizens who had participated in these consensus-building processes in southern African nations during the early 1990s are deeply invested in the resulting environmental policies and felt betrayed by the threat of change. The high expectations that consensus-based approaches will yield significant benefits for the community are a further cause for concern. Fabricius et al. argued that the conventional wisdom that devolution of power to the smallest local group will inevitably result in good governance and sustainable resource management is flawed. To be effective, devolution of power must be accompanied by appropriate strategies such as mediation services at the local level, the creation of locally developed and enforced rules, and training in monitoring environmental outcomes. Gbadegisin and Ayileka (2000) also cautioned against overgeneralization of positive results in community-based environmental management in developing countries, suggesting past successes may have resulted from the community’s direct reliance on natural resources for food, shelter, and clothing— a relationship that is undergoing rapid change.

Summary. Environmental managers and dispute resolution professionals are embracing consensus-based approaches in an attempt to enhance public participation and facilitate the potentially incompatible goals of environmental protection and economic growth. Although such approaches may produce positive results in immediate spatial and temporal contexts and under some forms of governance, their overuse could have potentially dangerous implications for conservation. This critique suggests that consensus often is purchased at the cost of legitimizing current power hegemonies rooted in unsustainable social constructions of reality. Despite increased awareness of the direct link between human society and nature, environmental policy makers appear curiously unaware of the uneasy political atmosphere within which their decisions are accepted or rejected, implemented or ignored. A model for managing environmental conflict rooted in debate rather than consensus may facilitate both positive working relationships and progressive environmental policy by placing the environmental agenda on firmer epistemological ground and legitimizing challenges to current power hegemonies.

Over-reliance on consensus processes jeopardizes both democracy in general and conservation specifically by legitimizing existing hegemonic configurations of power and precluding resistance against dominant elites. It artificially reduces power relationships to conflicts of interest, presumably reconcilable through mutual good will. Public cynicism increases when positive expectations created through consensus-building processes are not met. In the absence of debate, existing hierarchies become naturalized as uncontested reality, closing off consideration of their implications for sustainable environmental policy. Precipitous reliance on consensus precludes essential debate over the sustainability of any environmental practice.

Promising Links between Research and Practice

Although general principles of dispute resolution are applicable to environmental conflict, we focus on research related directly to environmental conflict. Bingham (1985) noted that ADR models were drawn largely from labor-management conflict, which differs significantly from environmental conflict. Most significantly, “the rules of the game and who gets to play are clear” in labor-management disputes, but not in environmental disputes (p. 291). Walker and Daniels (2004) and Senecah (2004) added that environmental conflicts are necessarily multidimensional, with numerous interconnections between multiple parties and across multiple jurisdictions.

One of the earliest applications of dispute resolution constructs to the environmental context was Creighton’s (1981) basic manual for those who were required to develop and implement public involvement venues. Others offered suggestions for specific approaches. Mernitz (1980) provided straightforward direction for mediating environmental disputes. Buckle and Thomas-Buckle’s (1986) analysis of failed mediations indicated that environmental mediation might be more complex than Mernitz’s presentation suggested. Blackburn and Bruce (1995) presented a more nuanced description that did a better job of integrating mediation theory and practice. Susskind, Levy, and Thomas-Larmer (2000) produced a thoroughly documented handbook where they applied many of the consensus-building concepts detailed in earlier work (Susskind et al., 1999). Selin and Chaves (1995) offered straightforward suggestions on how to develop a collaborative approach to environmental conflict. Dukes and Firehock (2001) produced a user-friendly guidebook for environmental advocates who want to shift from an adversarial to a collaborative approach. Wondolleck (1988) and Brick, Snow, and Van de Wetering (2001) described applications of this approach in the western United States, with its vast public lands.

It is clear that, over the past two decades, researchers and practitioners have heeded the call for attention to environmental conflict. We highlight here three especially promising research directions that seem likely to enhance our understanding of how environmental conflicts are delineated, who has a stake in that process, and how conflict interveners can improve the situation.

Frame Analysis

Dingwall (2002) suggested that, unless it directly confronts the frames parties bring to a conflict, environmental dispute resolution research threatens to be irrelevant. Frame theory contends that parties or negotiators bring experiences with them that shape their respective frames for conflict. These experiences include, but are not limited to, previous negotiations of any kind, past interactions with other participants in the dispute, and attitudes toward the issue under negotiation (Drake & Donohue, 1996; Putnam & Holmer, 1992; Tannen, 1995). Since past experience helps determine what is important and shapes future expectations, participants are likely predisposed to consider certain elements of the conflict as more important than others. By analyzing communication interactions of dispute participants, third-party interveners can discover the operative frames parties bring to a negotiation (Tannen, 1993) and can use that knowledge to encourage more productive relations among stakeholders (Gray, 2003). Pinkley (1990) and Pinkley and North-craft (1994) identified the following dominant frames parties tend to bring to conflict interactions: (a) substantive frames, or what the conflict is about; (b) loss/gain frames, or how the parties view the risks associated with particular outcomes; (c) characterization frames, or how the parties view other stakeholders; (d) outcome frames, or what goals the parties bring so far as achieving a specific result or outcome from the negotiation; (e) aspiration frames, or what predispositions the parties have toward satisfying a set of interests or needs that extend beyond the current negotiation; (f) process frames, or strategies and techniques the parties expect to use for resolving the dispute; and (g) evidentiary frames, or facts and evidence that parties offer in support of claims they use to justify arguments for or against the legitimacy of a particular outcome or loss-gain frame.

Many parties come into environmental disputes with a sense of their own moral rectitude that is not amenable to negotiation (Dingwall, 2002). Killingsworth and Palmer (1992) argued that ecospeak, which they defined as “a way of framing arguments that stops thinking and inhibits social cooperation rather than extending thinking and promoting cooperation through communication,” compounds environmental conflict by oversimplifying issues and polarizing communities (p. 9). Killingsworth and Palmer argued further that ecospeak controls an audience by discouraging its members from perceiving commonalities among perspectives. Driedger and Eyles (2003) used frame analysis to examine a debate over chloroform and human health risks. They focused on how participants framed acceptability of scientific claims that were used in a U.S. Court of Appeals. They argued that understanding how disputants frame scientific knowledge is valuable because it has important implications for science policy agendas not only in the United States, but also in other, similar jurisdictions such as Canada and Western Europe.

Riemer (2004) demonstrated how frame analysis can help make sense of intercultural conflict. Reimer interviewed 55 participants in a conflict over Chippewa spearfishing in northern Wisconsin to discover the primary frames used by disputants and offered suggestions for how to begin the reframing process. Much of the conflict centered around the increasing scarcity of the walleye (a fish sought by sports fishers). Non-native people framed spearfishing as a fundamentally selfish activity that causes depletion of a natural resource (walleye). They argued that by continuing this practice, the Chippewa are failing to fulfill stewardship responsibilities that should be a condition of receiving the privilege of spearfishing. The Chippewa, on the other hand, view spearfishing as a sacred activity that should continue whether or not there are any walleye. From their frame, walleye depletion is an angler problem. Without significant reframing, this conflict remains intractable. Reimer noted that legitimization of multiple possibilities for framing the situation is a basic component of any reframing strategy.

Lewicki, Gray, and Elliot (2003) offered framing as an especially promising approach to apparently intractable environmental conflict. Their rationale is that, since frame analysis opens possibilities for more complete understanding of the interaction dynamics involved in conflicts, it can pave the way for frame shifts. Framing research demonstrates how an understanding of “framing dynamics can provide a richer understanding of the reasons why many environmental disputes become so polarized and difficult to resolve” (Davis & Lewicki, 2003, p. 205). In better understanding these dynamics, third-party interveners can provide disputants with opportunities to reframe conflicts in more productive ways and provide space for the design of intervention techniques especially formulated for each situation.

Practical application. Frame analysis suggests that conflict interveners should plan on devoting relatively more time and other resources to assisting parties to conceptualize alternative frames and relatively less resources to developing other dispute resolution strategies and techniques. Putnam, Burgess, and Royer (2003) pointed out that intractable conflicts require reframing. They suggest that environmental practitioners can encourage reframing by helping disputants develop more realistic expectations, identify potential shifts within the conflict, and identify potential shifts outside of, yet related to, the conflict. As they learn to interpret their situations differently, disputants become more open to possibilities for resolution. T. R. Peterson (2003) added that practitioners need to develop a deep understanding of conflict participants’ social control frames before they suggest possibilities for improving the situation. For example, it is counterproductive to extol a conflict management approach that relies primarily on federal regulation to people whose social control frame indicates a strong preference for low interdependence among members of society and requires strong opportunities for individual voice. Conflict participants who prefer high social interdependence, and do not require strong opportunities for individual voice, however, may find such an approach appealing.

Critical-Cultural Analysis

The language of critical, cultural, and rhetorical analysis provides a rich basis for examining questions about the sources and social dynamics of reflexivity with which we might transform environmental conflict. For example, Lange’s (1993) and Moore’s (1993) analyses of a dispute over old-growth forests and spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest illustrated how rhetorical and cultural criticism can provide complementary understandings of the complex dynamics involved in environmental conflict.

Hamilton (2003) analyzed the rhetorical strategies participants in the Fernald (Ohio, U.S.) radium debate used to articulate tensions between technical and cultural understandings of risk. She used a concept of framing similar to that described earlier to structure her analysis of public meetings designed to enable local residents and technical experts to discuss alternative possibilities for managing nuclear waste. Hamilton’s analysis revealed that individual frames of acceptance shaped both technical and cultural rationality, which then acted as competing sources of rhetorical invention. As such, they influenced participants’ interpretation of the situation, the strategies they used to develop persuasive messages, and their receptivity of persuasive messages developed by other participants. She found that residents not only framed the case as a local issue (while technical experts framed it as a global situation) but also exhibited a social constructionist frame for public participation (while technical experts exhibited a one-way Jeffersonian frame). Hamilton’s analysis suggests that, prior to attempting facilitation of public participation processes designed to resolve environmental conflicts, interveners should critically examine the fundamental process assumptions of all participants, taking nothing for granted.

Moore (2004) expanded upon this claim when he identified multiple incongruities in a Pacific Northwest timber controversy in the United States. He argued that President Clinton’s campaign promise to resolve the issue probably stemmed from the optimistic belief that, as with other political problems, all that was lacking was a sense of community. The presidential candidate assumed that if someone (and who better than a newly elected president) provided an opportunity for key disputants to come together, they would develop a consensus enabling a rational compromise. Following his election, Clinton devoted valuable time and energy to an activity that eventually alienated him from both timber and environmental interests, at the same time it solidified existing hostilities. Moore pointed out the irony associated with the timber companies’ dire warnings that environmentally motivated stoppages of logging on public lands would destroy the economy of the region, environmentalists’ predictions of total ecological devastation, and loggers’ self-righteous paranoia. By ignoring the cultural complexity of the controversy, Clinton ensured disastrous results. Similarly, M. N. Peterson et al. (2002) used critical ethnography to explore how moral culture (see Littlejohn) applies to environmental conflict. They found that temporary solutions to superficial problems that were maladapted to the moralized nature of the conflict exacerbated it. These analyses highlight the danger of precipitously attempting to reach consensus and suggest the utility of cultural analysis of environmental conflicts prior to designing management strategies.

Prelli (2004) examined the largely unrealized potential of rhetorical analysis for environmental conflict. He examined the rhetoric of the New Hampshire Forest Sustainability Standards Work Team, a group of stakeholders charged to implement sustainable forestry on 26 million acres across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. His analysis demonstrated how rhetorical analysis can clarify general structures of decision making that constrain judgments. Prelli called attention to three discursive moves that structured the group’s decision points: (a) appeal to a foundational standard, (b) bifurcation, and (c) interdependence. He emphasized that these discursive moves yield possibilities for arguments that may or may not prove useful in other circumstances. Rather than argue that effective public processes enable people to replace personal preferences with community goals, Prelli suggested using rhetorical constructs to enhance practical environmental communication and advocacy and to contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of public processes— one that enhances participants’ abilities to transcend personal preferences through collaborative action. Toward this goal, he explained how an awareness of discursive moves could be incorporated into training to complement the standard education currently provided to environmental managers.

Hellström (2001) extended critical analysis beyond national borders by conducting comparative analysis of conflict cultures manifested in environmental conflicts in Finland, France, Minnesota (U.S.), Norway, the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), Sweden, and Germany. She used observation and in-depth interviews with participants at all of these locations to identify culturally grounded frames for producing and managing environmental conflicts in forestry that were associated with social, political, economic, and resource characteristics. Using an interpretive analytical framework, she constructed models of conflict cultures characterized by mild versus intense conflicts, individualistic versus cooperative relationships among participants, and preference for stability versus change in natural resource policy. She also identified preferences for distinct conflict management strategies characterized by the relative emphasis on conflicting subcultures within the society versus the society’s overall conflict culture and interactive versus institutional management of conflict.

Critical analyses such as these remind us that public participation in the environmental policy context is intensely political and always linked to power relationships and value conflicts (Depoe, Delicath, & Elsenbeer, 2004; Linnros & Hallin, 2001). The conditions of public participation always privilege some interests over others. This makes them necessarily incomplete rather than fully representative. They call our attention to the disturbing reality that, rather than creating a safe space for genuine public deliberation, third-party interveners could inadvertently create a dangerous space where participants expend their energy articulating public ideals of freedom, equality, and openness while decisions are made elsewhere.

Practical application. Given that management of natural resources increasingly depends on securing cooperation of culturally diverse groups of people, it is essential to develop cultural understanding. Toward this end, environmental conflict practitioners can use critical/cultural analyses to develop frameworks within which to design responses to the conflicts that emerge out of concern for how to prevent, minimize, dramatize, or focus the risks and hazards systematically produced as part of modernization. Conflict management practitioners should not look to this approach for formal algorithms, however, so much as for guiding principles. Critical inquiry addresses challenges disputants confront as they deliberate about the plurality of goods and the most efficacious means to their attainment within complex and disputed situations. Their attention to the cultural milieu responds to the practical necessity of working to minimize polarization and establish a collaborative pursuit of acceptable (and necessarily) temporary resolution to environmental disputes.

Systems Analysis

Systems analysis offers a promising approach to integrating the study of biophysical processes and social practices that converge in environmental conflict (Grant et al., 2002; T. R. Peterson et al., 2004). Despite increasing awareness of the complexity inherent to environmental conflict, environmental policy (and the underlying research and decisions leading up to it) is often accomplished through compartmentalization. Since the values assigned to cultural, environmental, economic, and other activities may have different conceptual and empirical bases, weighing one against the other results in a competitive win-lose situation. In an attempt to avoid hostility, decision making is often compartmentalized and fragmented into economic versus environmental versus social and cultural spheres. The bigger, integrated picture gets lost, and potential tradeoffs are difficult to discover.

Responses to these challenges include the development of public participation processes that incorporate integrated assessment, ecosystem management, and adaptive environmental management (van den Belt, 2004). Adaptive management, which evolved from the research at the Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, emphasizes how policies can be designed to cope with uncertainty in environmental decision making and management (Holling, 1978; Lee, 1993; Walters, 1986; Walters & Holling, 1990). Policy is viewed as a hypothesis-driven experiment that is informed by learning. One of the most important assumptions of the approach is that understanding system-level behavior is essential for designing better policy. The stress on taking a system wide perspective leads to consideration of ecological, social, economic, and cultural factors early in environmental decision making and the management process. In addition, constant interaction between scientists, managers, and other stakeholders is encouraged as a form of social learning that improves the policy-making process and builds robust consensus (Costanza & Ruth, 1998). By way of illustration, we now explain two distinct yet closely related approaches to managing environmental conflict through systems analysis.

Computer models, especially systems simulation models, are an important technique for comparing the potential effects of policies and for including the input of stakeholders into the decision-making process (Walters, 1986; Walters & Holling, 1990). Mediated modeling, which is based on dynamic systems thinking, has grown out of an increasing awareness that humans are a part of the ecosystem and are capable of irreversibly damaging it (Costanza & Jorgenson, 2002; van den Belt, 2004). Van den Belt (2004) described mediated modeling as a tool for overcoming problems inherent in linear thinking and compartmentalized, non-participatory decision making. It provides a structured process for including the most important aspects of a problem in a coherent system simulation model. This structure enhances management of complex environmental conflicts by integrating culture, ecology, economics, politics, and any other relevant dimensions. It enables participants to envision the system as more multidimensional, dynamic, and interactive. Rather than experts’ dispensing answers or a discussion about the perceptions of a group of stakeholders, mediated modeling aims for a collaborative team learning experience to raise the shared level of understanding in a group as well as fostering a robust consensus. Dynamic systems thinking and supporting software is used to construct computer-based simulation models at a scoping level. The model construction process is used to structure the discussion and the thinking of stakeholder groups and foster team learning. This structure enables participants to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with consensus-building processes.

Yearley, Cinderby, Forrester, Bailey, and Rosen’s (2003) empirical analysis of public processes in three cities in the United Kingdom demonstrates how mediated modeling can be used as an effective means of obtaining and interpreting this information. Participation in mediated modeling enabled local residents to evaluate their individual perspectives against those of their neighbors and led to an integrated assessment of the problem. In all three cities, the modeling activity provided a structure within which high-quality public contributions to local governance of air quality were produced. Maguire’s (2003) evaluation of stakeholder interactions with water quality models and modelers in the Neuse River total maximum daily load (TMDL) process clarified the limitations of the current TMDL process, identified which limitations were most problematic, and suggested structural improvements that could enable a facilitator to respond more effectively to stakeholder interests.

Van den Belt (van den Belt, 2004; van den Belt, Deutch, & Jansson, 1998) has conducted extensive mediated modeling activities and has found that it enhances public involvement in controversial and complex environmental policy issues. Van den Belt et al. (1998) analyzed a mediated modeling process in Patagonia; and van den Belt (2004) analyzed similar processes in five sites: coastal zone management in the Ria Formosa (Portugal), futures planning in Banff National Park (Canada), decision support for watershed management in Wisconsin (U.S.), watershed restoration for a TMDL process in Texas (U.S.), and managing sage grouse populations in Idaho (U.S.). In all cases, building and manipulating simulation models enabled stakeholders to (a) perceive interconnections across sectors; (b) connect their own past, present, and future actions; and (c) respond systemically to the intrinsic complexity of environmental management. In all of these projects, mediated modeling helped stakeholder groups reframe their understanding of controversies and suggested multiple options for achieving a new course that promised benefits to all stakeholders.

Systemic approaches to environmental conflict are not limited to quantitative modeling (Checkland & Scholes, 1990). Fiorino (2001) suggested it could be valuable to reframe public participation in environmental conflict as an opportunity for systemic learning. As articulated by Daniels and Walker (2001), soft systems approaches to environmental conflict refer to combining multiple ideas, without reducing them to a single disciplinary perspective, to enable a public process with the emergent properties required for effective management of most environmental conflicts. They emphasized that useful insights into complex problems require numerous perspectives and various fields of expertise and articulate their claims in terms of basic communication principles. Brogden and Greenberg (2003) argued that apparently intractable environmental conflicts might actually be emergent properties of complex systems. They analyzed conflicts between grazing and urban growth in Arizona (U.S.) to illustrate this claim. Their analysis suggests that conflict management professionals should develop conflict resolution processes that systemically incorporate integrated assessment into existing decision-making structures. To be successful, such processes should foster collaboration and knowledge sharing between disputing stakeholders.

Community-based adaptive management integrates social and ecological suitability to achieve conservation outcomes by providing landowners the flexibility to use a diverse set of conservation practices to achieve desired ecological outcomes, instead of imposing regulations or specific practices. Daniels and Walker (2001) suggested soft systems as a means to involve communities in adaptive environmental management. They synthesized theory from systems thinking, adult learning, and ADR to derive principles and strategies for creating a social climate that enables participants to learn from each other and cooperate across divergent perspectives. Their emphasis on debate among diverse viewpoints responds directly to the critiques of consensus approaches. Through case studies drawn from several locations in the United States, they demonstrated that collaborative learning enables stakeholders to achieve measurable improvements in both biological processes and social practices involved in natural resource management. Their analysis included a conceptual explanation, a strategic guide for designing public process, and a set of learning activities adapted specifically for enhancing participants’ ability to work systematically through environmental conflict.

Whether using formal modeling or soft systems (Senge, 1990), systemic analysis of, and intervention in, environmental conflict should communicate the linkage between decision making, environmental impacts, and planning. Blumenthal and Jannink (2000) classified collaborative systems approaches to environmental conflict, using the criteria of participation, institutional analysis, simplification of natural resource, and scale of application. Their most interesting finding was the strong degree of similarity among the approaches. Key elements for success include integration of ecology, economics, and social and cultural aspects (Costanza & Daly, 1992); effective stakeholder participation at the appropriate scales (Chambers, 1997); and a linked understanding of past, present, and future relationships (Senge, 1990).

Practical applications. Habron (2003) suggested the systemic use of adaptive management for addressing entrenched tensions within both community-level and watershed-level approaches to natural resource management. He maintained that agencies could encourage public cooperation by understanding and working within landowners’ preferred cultural system. For example, by conceptualizing watershed policy within the constructs supported by landowners, agencies could capitalize on landowners’ belief in environmental resilience and acceptance of experimentation. They could then construct a framework for environmental policy that honors landowners’ independence and fear of government intrusion, acknowledges the benefits of community cooperation through watershed councils, and enables ecological assessment of landowner-preferred practices.


People involved in environmental conflicts invariably face difficult problems concerning the complex interactions between human systems and ecosystems (Costanza & Jorgenson, 2002; Walker & Daniels, 2004). Environmental managers, dispute resolution professionals, industry leaders, and concerned citizens regularly deal with existing or anticipated conflicts over alternative uses for natural resources, their economic implications, and the distribution of social impacts over the medium and long term. Although many people’s preferred visions of the future include sustainability of both natural and economic systems, few approaches to environmental conflict facilitate integration of these diverse preferences into a holistic vision. There is neither a single, simple answer nor a single discipline capable of adequately addressing these complex problems. However unwillingly, those who study biophysical processes both influence and are influenced by environmental conflict, just as those who study environmental conflict both influence and are influenced by biophysical processes.

Traditional organizational command-and-control strategies are not necessarily well suited for the interdependence within environmental conflicts. Interdependence implies that the parties in conflict need each other in some way, that they have interlocking goals, and that everyone’s actions affect everyone else. The public needs natural resource agencies to protect its interests. This need is interlocked with the goals of environmental agencies to manage natural resources effectively. Agencies need the public to provide input on projects so they satisfy their legal requirements. Beyond this minimal level of interdependence, an agency’s ability to manage natural resources effectively depends on public cooperation and support. The public can create such intense opposition to a regulation or even an entire project that an agency may be forced, at immense cost, to change its plans.

The widespread requirement for public participation in environmental decision making has developed out of an expanded awareness that environmental policy cannot achieve legitimacy (and therefore success) without broad public involvement. Awareness of the need to involve the public in decision making does not necessarily translate into successful process, however. Public hearings, the most common method for involving the public in environmental issues, have not proven successful. Faced with open hostility, environmental managers have turned to consensus-building processes, often facilitated by conflict resolution professionals. Research pointing out potential pitfalls associated with overuse of consensus-building processes has led some to differentiate collaborative from consensus-building approaches. Promising approaches to environmental conflict have come from a variety of research and practice traditions. Frame analysis, cultural analysis, and systems analysis offer innovative ideas for the practice of environmental conflict resolution.

Environmental conflict is woven into human society. These disputes have the potential to tear communities apart or draw them together. The three research trajectories identified in the last section of this chapter all indicate how concepts drawn from ADR can be used to enhance our ability to manage these conflicts more effectively. This juxtaposition offers numerous untapped opportunities for assisting in the creation of a more just society. We are not suggesting that communication can resolve all environmental conflicts. Unfortunately, unsustainable development practices and severe inequities are only too real (Amnesty International and Sierra Club, 2000; Payne, 1998). Effective conflict management can, however, minimize the damage that destructive environmental conflicts cause both individuals and communities.

By their very nature, environmental conflicts pit people against strangers—the northern hemisphere versus the southern, east against west, urban against rural. Within this milieu, research and practice in environmental conflict communication would do well to recall Peters’s (1999) recommendation that “instead of being terrorized by the quest for communication with aliens, we should recognize its ordinariness”; indeed, “there is no other kind of communication” (p. 257). Littlejohn and Domenici (2001) listed three requirements for developing healthy dialogue among people united only by their diversity: (a) taking time to explore experiences, ideas, concerns, and doubts; (b) listening for both differences and commonalities in the experiences and stories, as well as values expressed by all parties; and (c) asking open, nonjudgmental, and curious questions to learn more about the other. If public participation in the management of environmental conflict is to contribute to an increasingly sustainable and just world, it must be transformed into a joint social construction of policies, as noted by Waddell (1996), where the knowledge of stakeholders and experts is integrated into the development, implementation, and continued monitoring of environmental policy.