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

This paper appears in the July 2014 issue of the journal Coastal Management, which focuses on the role of social sciences in Puget Sound ecosystem recovery.

Coastal Management journal cover
Coastal Management journal cover

Extended Abstract

Salmon recovery has been described as a “wicked” problem that is so complex it is seemingly impossible to solve. Through an ethnographic case study, this article models how the field of political ecology provides holistic, multi-faceted explanations for such problems, and can help managers navigate the complex human dimensions of their work. 

Restoring salmon habitat along the Skagit River of Washington State is considered essential to recovering the Puget Sound ecosystem as a whole. Yet protracted disputes over salmon habitat restoration have earned the Skagit Valley 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. At stake are some of the healthiest remaining wild runs of Pacific salmon in the contiguous United States, some of the richest arable soils in the world, and the future of local indigenous and agricultural communities.

Local public discussions regarding salmon habitat restoration largely concern its biophysical and technical details. Yet the dominance of techno-scientific discourse masks deeper social, cultural, and historical roots of the problem. In interviews, tribal members, farmers, and restoration advocates constructed the problem, its causes, and its rightful solutions in mutually incompatible stories, blaming each other for the causes and consequences of salmon decline and farmland loss. They referred to different sets of concerns, realms of experience, and notions of legitimate knowledge. Disagreements and perceptions of unfairness were complicated by broader mistrusts: farmers of outsiders, Native Americans of white people, and restorationists of people in general. A 15 year legal dispute hinging on “Best Available Science” (BAS) rarely acknowledged the deeper meanings and injustices inherent in the drama over restoration.

A closer interpretation of the ethnographic evidence suggests that the contestation was not centrally about science, the causes of salmon decline, or farmland loss. Rather, these were tangible proxies for defending more fundamental stakes: the places, identities, communities, and meanings that salmon and farmland make possible. Interviewees ultimately disagreed about who should be responsible for creating and maintaining the landscape’s productivity. For farmers, it was farmers; for Native Americans intent on cultural revitalization, it was traditional tribal land managers; and for restorationists, it was nature herself.

These divergent views are not necessarily new or unique to the Skagit Valley. Rather, they have identifiable historical roots, they resonate with broader cultural narratives, and some have been institutionalized in governmental policies. For example, restoration advocates inherit the discourses of romantic environmentalism and scientific managerialism. Farmers’ narratives reflect a larger American anxiety about loss of the family farm, and a sense of moral responsibility to create and farm arable land – an ethic that has been promoted by the U.S. government since the colonial era. Tribal interviewees evoke a story of profound loss of land, people, culture and spirit that has already occurred, while also taking pride in an indigenous revitalization movement that is occurring worldwide.

The Skagit Valley shares key features of social-ecological complexity and conflict that have been identified by a cross-disciplinary range of environmental social scientists:

  1. Social hierarchies and injustices divide local communities in ways that complicate ecosystem recovery
  2. Scientists and managers are also local actors, and their expressed values can support or hinder intended conservation goals
  3. Disagreements and mistrusts between locals and environmental professionals limit cooperation and support for conservation
  4. Senses of place are real and can have powerful effects on how people respond to conservation measures
  5. Environmental disputes may be the artifact of complex and conflicting governmental policies, institutional approaches, and legal standards
  6. Language and discourse can significantly shape public opinion, conservation strategies, and the landscape itself

Environmental managers can gain insight into the human dimensions of their work by employing ethnographic approaches, reading historical and ethnographic accounts of their field sites, and hiring environmental social scientists. Closer attention to the sociocultural factors of ecosystem recovery 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. 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.


Breslow, S. J. (2014). A Complex Tool for a Complex Problem: Political Ecology in the Service of Ecosystem Recovery. Coastal Management, 42(4), 308-331.


About the Author: 
Sara Jo Breslow is with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Seattle, Washington, USA