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A Complex Tool for a Complex Problem: Political Ecology in the Service of Ecosystem Recovery

Breslow, Sara Jo
Coastal Management 2014 v.42 no.4 pp. 308-331
agricultural land, case studies, dimensions, ecosystem services, ecosystems, environmental health, habitat conservation, humans, managers, models, objectives, politics, salmon, social factors, stakeholders
Salmon recovery has been described as a “wicked” problem in that it is so complex it is seemingly impossible to solve. Through a detailed case study, this article models how the field of political ecology can provide rich insight into such problems, and can help managers navigate the complex human dimensions of their work. Protracted disputes over salmon habitat restoration have earned the Skagit Valley of Washington State a reputation for being mired in intractable conflict. Goals of recovering salmon and protecting farmland are seemingly pitted against each other in competition for the same land. Using ethnographic methods and a political ecology framework, I argue that social hierarchies and mistrusts, conflicting senses of place, prevailing cultural narratives, and legal and institutional constraints contribute to the dispute over habitat restoration. Closer attention to sociocultural factors such as these may help managers identify and implement locally supported recovery opportunities, facilitate cooperation among stakeholders, improve agency approaches, and reframe management agendas to better address collective needs. I conclude that ecosystem recovery requires not only the renewal of ecological health, but also the renewal of social trust and cooperation, new cultural narratives, and a richer language that can capture its complex social realities.