Managing the Yellowstone River System with Place-based Cultural Data



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This project aims to create new research tools within the human dimensions (HD) of the natural resources field to improve environmental policy decision making. It addresses problems that arise from the recent trend towards decentralized natural resource management (NRM) and planning (e.g., community-based planning, watershed-based and collaborative management, others). By examining one decentralized riparian management planning effort along the Yellowstone River (Montana), this study finds that decentralization forces new needs such as localized information requirements and a better understanding of the rationales behind local interests. To meet these new scale demands and to ensure that policy best fits the social and biophysical settings, this project argues that local cultural knowledge can serve as an organizing framework for delivering the kinds of understanding needed for decentralized planning. This was tested by interviewing 313 riverfront landowners, recreationalists, and civic managers to understand how residents conceptualize the river?s natural processes, its management, and their desires for the future of the river. Analysis of the transcribed in-depth interview texts?the Yellowstone River Cultural Inventory (YRCI)?found that: (1) altering decision venues places more significance upon interpersonal working relationships between managers and citizens; (2) while local expertise can provide higher quality information to managers, local decision making cultures still retain power dynamics that can inhibit or advance conservation policies; (3) how natural resource places are symbolically communicated has a material impact upon resource uses; (4) how residents conceptualize the ownership of land is complicated along a dynamic river; and (5) this dynamism impacts planning efforts. In sum, this project argues that for social research to provide the data and analysis appropriate, a modification in scale and a commensurate shift in the lenses used for social inquiry is necessary. An in-depth understanding of local cultures?like the YRCI?enables agencies to best manage in decentralized scales of planning by calling attention to site-specific nuances such as power dynamics and place representation which are often missed in traditional large-scale HD methods and lenses. This research also functions as a preemptive way to engage the public in environmental planning helping decision makers? best fit policy to particular socio-cultural and ecological settings.