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Chapter 6 - Techniques for resolving conflict in natural resource management

Edwin E. Krwnpe and Lynn McCoy

Set guidelines for selecting task-force members
Define responsibilities and procedures
Use the "four levels for support" to reach consensus
Use a positive approach to identify issues and set goals
Use a team rotation technique to develop management actions


Managers of parks and protected areas are faced with mounting pressures to make resource decisions that balance the competing needs of a growing population with a dwindling base of natural resources (Crowfoot and Wondolleck, 1990). It is only natural that conflicting viewpoints should arise about how to manage and utilize these resources. Successful long-term management of public lands requires a degree of trust between government agencies, private interests, and the public that can be developed through a public participation process that is truly accessible, responsive, and interactive.

The five techniques discussed in this paper were use by several public task forces created to develop management plans and solve conflicts between competing uses in United States parks and protected areas. These include areas such as the Snake River in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in Idaho (Krumpe and McCoy, 1991), the Metolius River Conservation Area in Oregon, the Arkansas River Recreation Area in Colorado (BLM, 1988), and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness in Wyoming. The conflicts addressed included competing recreation uses, grazing, timber harvest, fish and wildlife, mineral extraction, and historic preservation. The techniques described can be used in any regional planning exercise that looks towards a logical resolution of conflicting needs and interests.

Experience in the United States has shown that a public task force or advisory group is often a very useful way to resolve conflicts and to assist managers in making planning and management decisions. The techniques for task-force decision-making outlined in this paper are designed specifically to provide members of the public with an opportunity to shape planning decisions for parks and protected areas. These techniques include setting guidelines for selecting task-force members, defining responsibilities and operating rules, using a four-level approach to consensus decision-making, using a positive method for identifying issues and mutually acceptable goals, and rotating small groups to develop management actions and solve contentious issues.

Set guidelines for selecting task-force members

Selecting the members of the task force is an important first step. Quality decision-making depends upon the participation of a full spectrum of public interests. It is important to first identify interest groups (those who have a stake in the future of the resource) and then identify specific people who can represent those groups on the task force.

Task-force members should be selected to represent diverse groups even though they will have varied views on management objectives and the methods of achieving them. This is important because decisions that are developed and supported by a diverse task force will usually be acceptable to the public at large. The following guidelines should be followed to select task force members:

(1) Ensure that a diversity of interest groups are represented, including recreation user groups, affected government agencies, nature enthusiasts, tourism operators, local business interests, academia, and others.

(2) Include those with veto power (the power to block management decisions) and those who have the authority to represent their group.

(3) When possible, allow the interest groups to choose their own representatives; when this is not feasible, consult with a variety of groups representing a given interest.

(4) Select people who are well known within their organizations and among other groups as well.

(5) Select people who are willing to listen, negotiate, compromise, and communicate.

(6) Select a group that is well balanced and has equal or balanced representation of different interests.

(7) Limit the size of the task force, to permit an easy exchange of personal and technical knowledge (20 people or fewer, not including alternates).

Define responsibilities and procedures

The responsibilities of the task-force members need to be defined, so as to avoid wasting time and energy discussing topics outside of the responsibility of the planning effort. It is also important for task-force participants to understand what their responsibilities are before committing to participate.

At the first meeting, the task force members should review a list of responsibilities and procedures that will guide their conduct. They should be free to either adopt or modify the list. By doing so, all members will know and agree to what is expected of them. As a set of guidelines for their meetings, past task force groups have agreed to:

(1) Represent their interest groups and report back to their constituency.

(2) Attend the meetings, keep their alternates informed, and tell the facilitator if they cannot attend a meeting.

(3) Be willing to work in a team setting and be open to discussion and understanding a wide range of viewpoints.

(4) Give everyone a chance to speak and withhold judgment on an idea presented by others until it has a chance to be developed.

(5) Focus on ideas and issues, not on people or their personalities. Be open-minded and not take firm positions as a starting point for discussions.

(6) Strive to reach consensus at decision points.

(7) Allow their names to be made public so that other people with similar interests can relay their views.

(8) Speak concisely and listen without interrupting.

(9) If problems or concerns arise about how the task force is operating, make these known to the task force or facilitator first and attempt to resolve them within the task-force structure.

The ninth guideline is particularly important because when individuals air their concerns or complaints to outsiders it often serves to undermine the mutual trust and respect among members that is important to the process of reaching consensus on decisions.

Use the "four levels for support" to reach consensus

The task force should not ordinarily vote, but should attempt to decide by consensus. The basic tool for reaching consensus should be a group learning process where participants gain an appreciation of the needs and views of others (Friedmann, 1987). The best strategy will be to identify points of agreement and build upon these. Points of disagreement should be isolated and dealt with within the task-force setting in a straightforward and positive manner.

The idea of consensus is central, because taking votes implies that a simple majority rules and thus that almost half of the members may not support the decision. This hinders progress toward developing mutually acceptable goals (A very et al., 1981). Furthermore, people tend to notice who is voting "against" them, and compromise or cooperation may then be blocked. It is far better for people to work together until they can reach a decision that all can accept, even if it is not their first choice.

At key decision-making points, it is helpful to ask task-force members to express their level of support for consensus on an issue or proposed action by indicating one of four levels of support:

(1) I can easily support the action.
(2) I can support the action but it may not be a preference.
(3) I can support the action if minor changes are made.
(4) I cannot support the action unless major changes are made.

This technique allows the group to assess quickly how close they are to reaching consensus. If the members have Level 4 concerns, discussion will continue. Level 3 concerns will have to be addressed so that they do not become Level 4 concerns at decision points. Consensus will be defined as no one's having a Level 4 concern about the action in question.

Where disagreement occurs on an issue, the member with a Level 4 concern should be asked to focus on the wording--tell the group how he or she would reword the decision to make it more acceptable. By concentrating on wording, the group must focus on reaching a solution rather than dwelling on philosophical points of disagreement.

Use a positive approach to identify issues and set goals

Conflict in natural-resource management often results from people's focusing on differing viewpoints regarding what is the best way to use resources associated with parks and protected areas. The key to conflict resolution is to have individuals reach a shared viewpoint. The first step in achieving this is to build upon the positive values that people bring to the task force.

All too often the typical scenario for resolving conflicts is to have everyone identify what he or she thinks are the issues. The manager then attempts to develop management actions that will address these issues. The problem with this approach is that by first identifying issues, the task force will be likely to focus on negative aspects of problems and the differences among members. This may lead to polarization and to labeling or stereotyping other members, which in turn deters the cooperation, mutual understanding, and trust upon which consensus decisions can best be made. An alternative approach is to start by pointing out to members why they are meeting together--because they all care about the resources of the park or protected area. This shared value can become the cornerstone from which to build understanding, respect, and eventually cooperation and consensus.

One approach to building mutual understanding among members is to use a technique that emphasizes their common values. Begin by requesting that task force members silently write down a list of things that they like or value about the park or protected area. Particularly, they should identify values they feel should be maintained, protected, or achieved. It may be helpful to ask them to envision their ideal for the future of the protected area.

The next step is to go around the group and ask each member, in turn, to present one value from his or her list. Continue going around the group until everyone's values have all been read out. These values are written on large paper in front of the group. Although this seems like a simple process, it is important because members discover that people from different interest groups share some of the same values they do. Task-force members quickly realize that the resource is valued by many people for many reasons. Furthermore, this list is useful throughout the entire conflict resolution process to refocus people on the values they want to see maintained, protected, or achieved.

Only after the members have identified the values they hold about the park or protected area should they begin to identify issues. The identification of issues can be developed in a positive manner by asking members to list what they think could be potential threats to their values. Having listened to what each other's values are, members will be more likely to understand what other people believe to be issues or threats.

At this point the group is ready to begin developing goals and objectives which will lead to the formulation of management actions. This is accomplished by asking the group to write specific goals and objectives that address the threats identified and protect the values. For example, a goal may be to perpetuate a particular animal species that is valued by the public. Specific objectives might include reducing poaching and providing a better opportunity for visitors to view the animals. The task force can now begin to develop specific management actions to accomplish these objectives.

Use a team rotation technique to develop management actions

A team rotation technique can maximize opportunities for individual involvement. It is important to realize that the best decisions are reached when all the task-force members are involved in making the decisions. It quickly becomes apparent that not everyone's opinion on every topic can be expressed in a meeting of the entire task force. Some people may feel intimidated by the prospect of speaking in front of a large group while others may tend to dominate the conversation. One way to encourage individual participation, group discussion, and the expression of ideas is by using a team rotation technique.

The task-force members should be divided into small teams composed of varied interest groups. Each team will be assigned one or more of the different goals and objectives for which they must write suggested management actions. After a fixed time (20 to 30 minutes) the groups rotate stations, leaving their lists behind them. At the second station they examine the list from the initial group and then write additional proposals for management actions or suggest modifications.

They continue rotating in this fashion until they return to their original station. Here they study what the other groups have suggested and then rewrite the proposal to encompass comments from the other teams. These are brought before the full group for discussion and ratification. After participating in this rotation technique, it is much simpler for the group as a whole to discuss and ratify the suggested management actions.

The advantages of the small-team rotation technique are that all the participants are given the opportunity to express their opinion on every topic and to learn what other people's opinions are. This is in contrast to the traditional approach in which specialized subcommittees are formed to discuss one topic and develop recommendations in isolation. Rotating in mixed groups promotes fuller participation and a better sharing of information. This technique can be used at any point in the task-force process to discuss issues and develop solutions efficiently.


The preceding five techniques have proved helpful in resolving conflicts in the planning and management of parks and protected areas in the United States. Additional conflict resolution techniques can be found in Krumpe and McCoy (1991), Doyle and Straus (1982), Crowfoot and Wondolleck (1990), Avery et al. (1981), Auvine et al. (1978), Delbeque (1985), and Friedmann (1987).

Using a task force will ensure that better decisions are made and will increase the likelihood that these decisions will be acceptable to the public. Members should be selected who can represent and speak for a broad range of interests. The role and responsibilities of the task force should be clearly defined and agreed upon. Decisions should be made by consensus. Issues should be developed in a positive manner and opportunities should be provided for all members to participate fully. With these five techniques for conflict resolution, managers can build partners and advocates for better management of natural resources.


Avery, Michel, et al. 1981. Building United Judgement: A Handbook/or Consensus Decision Making. Madison, Wise. Center for Conflict Resolution.

Auvine, Brian, et al. 1978. A Manual for Group Facilitators. Madison, Wisc. Center for Conflict Resolution.

Crowfoot, James E., and Julia Wondolleck. 1990. Environmental Disputes, Community Involvement in Conflict Resolution. Washington, D.C. Island Press.

Doyle, Michael, and David Straus. 1982. How to Make Meetings Work. New York. Berkley.

Delbeque, Andre L., Andrew H. Van de Ven, and David H. Gustafson. 1975. Group Techniques for Program Planning: A Guide to Nominal Group and Delphi Process. Glenview, III. Scott, Foresman.

Friedmann, John. 1987. Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press.

Krumpe, Edwin E., and Lynn McCoy (eds.). 1991. Limits of Acceptable Change:

Recreation Management Plan for the Snake River in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Moscow, Idaho. University of Idaho. (Idaho Forest, Wildlife and Range Experiment Station, Publication No. 624)

BLM. 1988. Arkansas River Management Plan. Denver. Colorado State Office, Bureau of Land Management.

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