Open Access
How to translate text using browser tools
1 May 2003 Taking the Mystery out of Natural Resource Policy
Author Affiliations +

The Policy Process: A Practical Guide for Natural Resource Professionals. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2002. 215 pp. $35.00 (ISBN 0300090110 cloth).

How is natural resource policy made? “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Some years ago, Winston Churchill's famous quote about Russian foreign policy went through my mind as I sat in a meeting in the Old Executive Office Building listening to a heated discussion about science and policy with respect to dam operations and their impacts on salmon. After reading Tim Clark's book about the policy process, I thought back to that meeting and wondered if the course of our discussion might have changed had all the participants had an opportunity to read The Policy Process. The question is, as they say, academic, but I would like to believe it would have.

Tim Clark has been a keen observer of the natural resource policy process for many years. And to his credit, much of what he has seen has not been from the vantage of a desk in the rarefied atmosphere of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies but from direct observation and participation in policy discussions throughout the country. In fact, much of his perceptive thinking about policy stems from his experiences in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, home of some of the most complex and challenging natural resource issues in the United States, if not the world.

Clark is to be credited for rationally explaining what often appears to be an irrational process. The book is a must-read for students, observers, and practitioners of natural resource policy. Those who make natural resource decisions, whether they represent government, nonprofit organizations, or corporations, should be required to demonstrate a working knowledge of the fundamentals described in the first two chapters of his book. Considerable time is wasted in natural resource policy discussions because of a lack of awareness of how and why human behavior and values drive these discussions. Contrary to the idealized model of science-based policymaking, the process is a messy, nonlinear undertaking often driven more by preconceptions and misconceptions than by science. Clark correctly points out that we must have a “sound understanding of how not only natural systems but also human systems function.” His book reflects this critical observation.

After reviewing the fundamentals, Clark examines the elements of the decisionmaking and problem-solving processes in chapters 3, 4, and 5 and then turns in chapter 6 to a perceptive discussion of the way professionals can guide and participate in these processes. Clark states that professionals must “use knowledge and skills to aid other participants in finding common ground.” They are in a position to transcend the special interests of stakeholders and therefore “explicitly establish and maintain an observational standpoint for themselves that serves the common interest.” It is the responsibility of policy professionals to “formulate problems, focus inquiry…and carry out orderly problem-solving tasks.” The important role of policy professionals in catalyzing the resolution of natural resource issues is increasingly recognized by natural resource decisionmakers.

That policymaking is more a social than a scientific process is perhaps the single most significant reason why scientists struggle with it. Schooled in a search for truth that begins with the formulation of a hypothesis, scientists who enter the realm of policymaking often find it to be at odds with all they have learned about the logic of problem solving. Nonetheless, there is an interesting—and necessary—alliance between the policy process and the scientific method. In chapter 6, Clark describes the connections and tensions between the positivism of science and the pragmatism of policymaking. Positivism is grounded in empirical research. The answers to a problem lie in the logical discovery of facts. Clark points out that professionals tend to draw on positivism “automatically and unconsciously,” because it is the approach to problem solving taught in higher education. Yet policymaking is a pragmatic activity that focuses not only on scientific fact but also on uncertainty and ambiguity. Often there is no one solution to a problem. Typically, there are multiple viable “solutions.” The policymaking process involves trying to understand the implications of taking one path versus another. It requires a willingness to learn along the way and adapt the management approach to accommodate new information. This is the basis for the concept of adaptive management that is increasingly being employed in the natural resources arena.

Clark touches on adaptive management and the ideas of C. S. Holling and others, but he does not give them the degree of attention that I believe they deserve in a book on this subject. Holling points to the value of a broad “systems view” of problems, the importance of integrated science, and the need to maintain flexibility in natural resource management, as more is learned about a system through scientific discovery. Logically, a chapter on adaptive management and its practical application could have fit well toward the end of the book. The two concluding chapters in the book, chapters 7 and 8, are dedicated to an analysis of the policy process and the range of methods that can be employed to address an issue, including the incorporation of rights, ethics, and values. These chapters will be particularly helpful to those seeking practical approaches to applying the principles described earlier in the book. A future edition could also include a discussion of the way powerful new geographic information and decision-support tools are aiding the policymaking process by making it easier to identify, organize, and make use of scientific data.

The Policy Process will be an important addition to university curricula, for it fills a clear void in the coursework of most graduate students in the sciences. It will be particularly useful to students in science, technology, and society programs, as well as to others with a broad interest in natural resource and environmental issues. As its subtitle accurately states, it is indeed a practical guide, in large part because Clark draws on his own experiences to effectively balance the discussion of theory with real-world examples of natural resource issues. He dissects the policy process into its elements and helps bring logic to what often seems obscure and confusing to the observer. Throughout the book he uses case studies effectively to drive home key points. Lively discussions about issues range from the impacts of ecotourism on mountain gorillas in Rwanda and ozone pollution in Baltimore to park planning in Canada and logging in the American West.

Even those who consider themselves experienced participants in and observers of natural resource policy will find The Policy Process an illuminating excursion through the complex human interactions driving the high-stake decisions that determine the quality of our natural resources—and of our own lives.

MARK SCHAEFER "Taking the Mystery out of Natural Resource Policy," BioScience 53(5), 520-521, (1 May 2003).[0520:TTMOON]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2003
Back to Top