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The role of social and policy learning in changing forest governance: An examination of community based forestry initiatives in the U.S.

May 2015

Renee O’Connell


Community based forestry (CBF) refers to the management of forested landscapes by community residents for environmental, community, and societal benefits. In addition to data collected from over 200 survey responses, researchers used interviews, focus groups, and content analysis of documents from thirteen CBF initiatives in the United States to better understand CBF initiatives, their role in making forest policy, and common outcomes from CBF practices. Researchers found that CBF initiatives typically exhibit social learning, such as systems thinking and collective sense making, as well as policy learning, typically resembling the advocacy coalition framework. CBF tends to follow single-loop policy learning, meaning that current managers in CBF systems focus on whether or not the technique put in use worked and rarely focus on whether or not structural or institutional factors limited capacity to accomplish goals.

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Policy Implications

A variety of factors such as long-standing laws and policies, court rulings, the global forest products market, powerful government agencies, changing forest and land ownership, and interest group coalitions have controlled the U.S. forest industry for decades, putting pressure on the CBF system to stick to its core tenants in light of these pressures. Although there is a global trend towards more community involvement and local governance in resource management, there is limited evidence that CBF methods produce effective policy change. When implementing CBF management strategies, policy makers must consider the types of outcomes desired and decide whether policy change or participation from multiple stakeholders is most important.

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