Expanding vulnerability assessment for public lands: The social complement to ecological approaches

This report addresses how to measure the social vulnerability of rural populations in the context of public lands management, with an focus on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Recognizing the need to better understand the climate vulnerabilities of those individuals and communities that depend upon resources managed on public lands, and the array of public land uses, federal agencies are asked to take into account both the needs and environmental impacts of human activities. The paper highlights existing approaches to social vulnerability assessments and presents design principles for holistic social-ecological vulnerability assessments. The authors argue for the necessity of including social vulnerability in a more integrated social-ecological approach in order to better inform climate change adaptation.

Develop vulnerability assessments that take into account the fact that rural lands are used for cross-purposes that can create a complicated relationship with climate stressors. 

The report explains that because of the:

“relative marginality of these lands, the social and ecological systems that have developed alongside BLM managed lands are both diverse in character and highly variable within specific landscapes with mining, logging, livestock ranching, hunting, and recreational users all taking on roles of differing importance depending on local geology, geography, and vegetation. For example, in Colorado, livestock ranching, hunting, and oil and gas extraction dominate, while in Idaho and Oregon, logging of those areas’ relatively more forested BLM lands plays a much more important role.”

Climate vulnerability assessment methods for BLM and other public lands are detailed. The section “Applying a social lens to climate change vulnerability assessment on public lands” describes approaches to understanding social vulnerability including social indicators, mixed methods that complement indicators with qualitative data, scenarios, and case studies.

The report presents three design principles that are found most appropriate for conducting social-ecological vulnerability assessment on public lands, which include:

  1. Iterative and participatory stakeholder engagement,
  2. Consideration of institution-actor networks and the role of boundary organizations, including the barriers and opportunities for adaptation, and
  3. The integration of “top-down” indicator approaches with “bottom-up” case studies that integrate local knowledge and observation. 

The research found that there are limitations for fully understanding vulnerability in complex social-ecological systems in and around multiple-use lands, especially when considering climate impacts. Climate-driven stressors for rural communities can be severe as well as highly variable year to year. Many communities depend on public lands for economic, social, and cultural well-being; while at the same time, their uses impact the environment and ecosystem services (e.g., production of food and water, maintenance of nutrient cycles and pollination to crops, and recreational or spiritual uses) that public lands agencies manage. The research finds that public land users’ vulnerability is not solely the product of climate stressors, but more the confluence of climate, management, and social, cultural, and economic stressors, which necessitates a comprehensive investigation of each of these factors in determining social vulnerability.   


Publication Date: January 25, 2017

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Shannon M. McNeeley
  • Trevor L. Even
  • John B.M. Gioia
  • Corrine N. Knapp
  • Tyler A. Beeton

Related Organizations:

  • Colorado State University
  • Western State Colorado University


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Academic research paper

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