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Tackling the tangle of environmental conflict: Complexity, controversy, and collaborative learning


Environmental conflict situations are typically messy; a tangle of complexity, controversy, and uncertainty. As a means for addressing environmental conflict and decision situations and making progress on matters of substance, relationship, and procedure, Collaborative Learning integrates concepts and techniques from systems thinking, negotiation, experiential learning, and participatory communication. This essay establishes a context for understanding the creation and evolution of the CL methodology. Following that discussion, the Collaborative Learning approach is explained. A current comprehensive project in forest planning provides a case illustration.


A provocative research partnership has been cultivated between Norway’s University of Bergen and Spain’s Autonomous University of Barcelona. The program, “Management of Complexity, Scientific Uncertainty and Public Participation in Environmental and Landscape Governance in Nordland and Catalunya,” has sought “to produce, explore and compare innovative designs of processes of environmental and landscape governance in Catalunya (Spain) and Nordland (Norway)” (NORCAT). One core objective is “to develop methods to ensure meaningfulness for the local people, by improving the communication of scientific inputs (including their limitations in the form of uncertainties) into the governance process, but above all also improving the flow of local knowledge and local perspectives on values and resources into the environmental governance” (NORCAT).

Just as the NORCAT program researchers have recognized the importance of participatory governance, communication, and local knowledge when addressing complex environmental situations, we have sought to better understand and apply ideas from systems thinking, negotiation, and participatory communication in a model for conflict resolution and decision-making on environmental and natural resource policy issues. This model, “Collaborative Learning,” (CL) is the focus of this essay. CL provides an innovative methodology for participatory governance on matters of environmental policy, natural resource management, and sustainable development.

As a foundation for presenting the Collaborative Learning approach, this essay establishes a context for understanding the creation and evolution of the CL methodology. Following that discussion, the Collaborative Learning approach is explained. A current comprehensive project in forest planning provides a case illustration.

The Collaborative Learning Context

Collaborative Learning, both in theory and practice, has evolved over the past sixteen years and continues to change given the requirements and characteristics of policy conflict and decision situations. More specifically, Collaborative Learning has been designed in response to factors in the environment policy and natural resource management arenas that can be fashioned into elements of two triads: The “Tangle Triad” and the “Progress Triangle.” These triads provide for frames for understanding the “messy” situations that occur in environmental and natural resource management planning and decision-making (Figure 1).


The Tangle Triad and Progress Triangle

The Tangle Triad: Characterizing Wicked or Messy Problems

Many policy situations pose “wicked” or “messy” problems. The term “wicked problem” appears in the applied sciences, engineering, and policy decision-making literature. A problem situation is “wicked” when each effort to develop a solution changes the understanding of the problem at hand. Wicked problems cannot be addressed effectively in a conventional linear fashion, because the nature and definition of the problem situation evolve as alternative solutions are assessed and/or implemented (CogNexus Institute; Rittel & Webber, 1973).

Such problems are also referred to as “messy,” particularly in the environmental and natural resource management arenas. In characterizing messy situations, Reid, Ziemer, and Lisle (1996: 9) contend that “environmental problems are a tangle of interacting processes whose manifestation and interpretation are warped by the vagaries of time, weather, expectation, and economics...[they involve] livelihoods, values, and numerous specialized disciplines.” In organizations, messy problems feature paradox, multiple meanings, and stakeholder fragmentation (Calton, 2003).

The issues and incompatibilities that arise in environmental conflict and decision situations, Crowfoot and Wondolleck (1990: 6-7) have noted, are “rooted in different values of natural resources and environmental quality”; are “incited by different stakes in the outcome of environmental and natural resource management decisions;” and can be caused by “the uncertainty surrounding various environmental actions, and the different assessments of the risks associated with these actions.” We employ the term “tangle” to represent these attributes of “wicked” or “messy” problem situations; a triad of complexity, controversy, and uncertainty.


In the public policy arena, there may be no areas more complex than environmental policy and natural resource management. Daniels and Walker (2001) propose seven sources of environmental conflict complexity: multiple parties, multiple issues, cultural differences, deeply-held values and worldviews, scientific and traditional knowledge, legal requirements, and the presence of a conflict “industry,” that is, organizations, professions, or people who may benefit from the persistent of conflict, rather than its resolution. Similarly, Faure and Rubin (1993) have identified a number of “distinctive attributes” of international environmental negotiations: multiple parties and multiple roles, multiple issues, meaningless boundaries, scientific and technical uncertainty, power asymmetry, joint interest, negative perceptions of immediate outcomes, history, long time frame, changing actors, public opinion, institutionalization of solutions, and new regimes and rules.


In addition to their complexity, environmental conflict and decision-making situations are typically controversial for a variety of reasons. First, many different viewpoints exist concerning the array of issues in such situations. Second, tension or incompatibility in such situations may relate to one or more of the following: facts, culture, values, jurisdiction, history, personality, relationship, and/or procedure (Wehr, 1979; Daniels & Walker, 2001). Third, given the number of parties, varied sources of tension, and deeply held values, consensus may be very hard if not impossible to achieve. Fourth, parties often hold strong emotional ties to the issues and the landscape (Cheng et al., 2003; Cantrill & Senecah, 2001). Fifth, parties may display cognitive biases such as overconfidence, fixed-pie, and insufficient anchor adjustment that contribute to competitive frames (Bazerman, 2002; Daniels & Walker, 2001).


Natural resource management and environmental policy situations draw on knowledge from many sources and in many forms. Such knowledge, including that from scientific inquiry, is inherently uncertain. “Scientists treat uncertainty as a given,” Costanza and Cornwall (1992: 14), assert: “a characteristic of all information that must be acknowledged and communicated.” They add that “uncertainty should be accepted as a basic component of environmental decision making at all levels and be better communicated” (Costanza & Cornwall, 1992: 15). Accepting the presence of uncertainty in tangled or messy situations draws attention to the importance of learning and methods for adaptation, such as adaptive management (Ascher, 2004; Lee, 1993).

This portends a contemporary role for the scientific community (and arguably all stakeholders as knowledge providers), as Funtowicz and Ravetz (2001: 178) explain:

Whereas science was previously understood as steadily advancing the certainty of our knowledge and control of the natural world, it is now seen as coping with many uncertainties in urgent technological and environmental decisions… A new role for scientists will involve the management of the crucial uncertainties: therein lies the task of assuring the quality of the scientific information provided for policy decisions.

Policy decision-making processes need to be responsive to the complexity, controversy, and uncertainty of environmental and natural resource management situations, such as the landscape governance project featured in this essay’s introduction. The complexity, controversy, and uncertainty of such tangled situations call for learning and adaptation. We learn our way through tangled, messy situations, and in doing so, we identify ways in which we can make progress on those situations and develop good decisions.

The Progress Triangle

The Tangle Triad reveals the context of a challenging and messy decision situation. The Progress Triangle draws attention to the areas in which improvements can be generated and progress made. The literature on conflict and decision-making typically breaks situations down into content, process, and relationship factors (Wilmot & Hocker, 2005; Pruitt & Kim, 2003). In the natural and resource policy arena, these factors are better conceived of as dimensions of substance, procedure, and relationship.

Walker and Daniels first introduced the idea of a progress triangle at a European Forest Institute conference in 1996 (Walker & Daniels, 1997). The Progress Triangle has been discussed in detail elsewhere (Walker & Daniels, 2005; Daniels & Walker, 2001). Substance deals fundamentally with the “concrete” aspects of the situation; relationship encompasses matters relating to the parties and their capacity to work together; and procedure accounts for rules, regulations, jurisdictions, and decision-space. Like the Tangle Triad, all three dimensions of the Progress Triangle are interrelated. Progress can be made on any of the three dimensions and progress on one impacts the others.

Addressing Tangle and Progress Factors: Collaborative Learning

Where natural resource, environment, and sustainable development issues are concerned, government agencies and stakeholders increasingly look to collaboration and consensus-building processes for conflict resolution and decision making (Wondolleck & Yaffee, 2000). Collaborative Learning (CL) is one of many innovative approaches that may better meet natural resource and environmental policy public participation, conflict resolution, and decision-making needs than traditional public involvement activities (Daniels & Walker, 1999). CL seems particularly applicable to natural resource management, environmental policy, and other public policy arenas for a number of reasons. First, CL explicitly adopts a systems approach to the situation and works to improve participants’ understanding. Second, CL expects and attempts to accommodate a wide range of worldviews about the relevant policy arena and the strategic behaviors that those worldviews are likely to generate in complex and controversial situations. Third, CL employs a number of techniques to integrate technical (scientific) and traditional (indigenous, local) knowledge and bring scientists and citizens together (Walker & Daniels, 2001). Fourth, CL emphasizes constructive individual and group communication through dialogue, argument, and negotiation--the core of public deliberation and collaborative governance (Walker et al., 2006).

Collaborative Learning Foundations

Collaborative Learning draws on systems thinking; conflict management, negotiation, and mediation; and active learning. Systems thinking addresses complexity. Conflict management, negotiation, and mediation address controversy. Active learning responds to uncertainty and provides the means for working through complexity and controversy. At its core, CL is a hybrid of soft systems methodology (SSM); experiential and adult learning theories; the ADR areas of conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation; and participatory communication.

SSM provides the foundation for the emphasis on systems thinking and analysis in CL. Developed by Checkland (1999; Checkland & Scholes, 1990), and refined by Wilson and Morren (1990), SSM views environmental and natural resource management problems as “situations” comprised of “human activity systems.” For example, by focusing on environmental conflicts as “human activity systems situations,” CL encourages participants in a conflict or decision-making situation to work through the situation’s complexity by thinking systemically about the relevant elements and relationships, such as issues, parties, policies, and connections. From conflict management and ADR, CL incorporates communication methods designed to promote collaborative, mutual-gains negotiation. CL respects value differences and provides opportunities for transforming positions into interests. Systems thinking and conflict management principles and practices are brought together in an experiential learning environment (Kolb, 1984; Senge, 1990). By combining features of SSM and ADR with an active, participatory, experiential learning emphasis, CL promotes working through the issues and perspectives of a conflict situation (Daniels & Walker, 2001).

The Three Levels of Collaborative Learning

CL operates at three levels: philosophy, framework, and tactics or techniques. As a philosophy, CL emphasizes a particular orientation about what one’s goal ought to be when engaging a policy situation at a community level. Second, CL provides a five-phase framework for a comprehensive application. Third, CL offers a set of tactics (techniques, tools) that practitioners have employed when trying to bring the philosophy and framework of CL to life in community-based projects. Examining these three levels fosters understanding of the intellectual roots of the CL approach as well as what CL may look like in actual practice.

Collaborative Learning as a Philosophy

Environmental and natural resource management situations can be cast as a set of attributes. Framed as statements, the attributes help define the kinds of situations in which CL can work through complexity, controversy, and uncertainty and make progress on matters of substance, procedure, and relationship.

  1. The task is to manage conflict, not resolve it. CL assumes that while specific disputes may be resolvable, many development conflicts are enduring. Managing such conflicts rather than resolving them is the most realistic goal.

  2. Decisions must be made in the face of long-lived and deeply held values. Deep-seated values permeate natural resource and environmental management decisions (Daniels & Walker, 2001). CL presumes that the complex, controversial, and pluralistic development issues we face require engaging rather than avoiding the diversity of represented views.

  3. Consensus is not the only measure of satisfaction or success. Gaining unanimous consent for development (environmental, agricultural, health, etc.) decisions may be problematic as a matter of principle. Many of the critiques of the community-based conservation efforts in recent years focus on the use of consensus as the metric of an acceptable outcome (e.g., Wondolleck & Yaffee, 2000). CL proposes the alternative standard of measurable progress.

  4. Progress results from improvements rather than solutions. Public policy situations often involve constraints that are beyond the participants’ ability to control, such as laws, weather, and finite resources. Consequently, invoking a “solution” frame may set stakeholders up for failure. However, asking parties to “make progress” encourages them to identify those areas in which they have some degree of control and self-determination, and can generate improvements.

  5. People have the capacity to think systemically and creatively. When given the opportunity to do so, stakeholders demonstrate their willingness and ability to view the situation as a set of interrelated systems as opposed to a linear cause-effect problem. They are capable of presenting and understanding a situation visually through systems thinking tools such as “rich pictures” (Wilson & Morren, 1990) and “situation maps” (Daniels & Walker, 2001).

  6. Improved decisions result from mutual and meaningful learning. This fundamental feature distinguishes CL from many other approaches. Many public participation approaches are based in a legalistic orientation where improved decisions are presumed to be the result of adhering to a legally prescribed series of steps. In contrast, CL embraces the principle that learning provides the foundation for making high-quality decisions.

Collaborative Learning as a Framework

The goal of CL is to create opportunities for meaningful civic engagement and participatory communication (i.e., dialogue and deliberation) that generate good decisions. To do so, a comprehensive CL application to a natural resource management or environmental policy decision situation features a two dimensional framework, illustrated in Figure 2. The outer circle presents the five phases of a CL project: assessment, training/skill-building, design, implementation and facilitation, and evaluation; the inner circle portrays the nine stages of a CL workshop process (Daniels & Walker, 2001), from understanding the situation to generating improvements to implementing changes.

Taken together, the five phases constitute a comprehensive CL project and the specific techniques featured in the design and implementation/facilitation phases define the CL workshop process core (Daniels & Walker, 2001). Assessment features a thoughtful evaluation of the situation’s potential for collaboration. Training emphasizes the development of an appreciation for collaboration among key organization employees and stakeholders, as well as some grounding in the specific skills and techniques of CL. Design centers on the development of a situation-responsive strategy (for example, CL community workshops) for involving participants in a meaningful collaborative process. Implementation/facilitation involves the direct conduct of meetings,


The Five Phases and Nine Stages of the CL Framework (Source: Daniels & Walker, 2001.)

field trips, workshops, and other activities designed to promote mutual learning, innovative, constructive communication, and decision-making. Finally, evaluation includes data gathering (monitoring) and reflection to learn from participants what choices they made during the collaboration, and what lessons can be learned for future collaborative projects.

As a public participation or planning team approach, CL encourages participants to acknowledge and work though conflict, think systemically, and learn from one another about a particular problem situation. The first stages of the CL workshop process (inner circle) emphasize common understanding of the situation at hand; activities might include information exchange, imagining best and worst possible futures, and visual representations of the situation as a system.

In the middle stages, CL participants focus on their concerns and interests regarding the specific situation, and how their concerns relate to the concerns of other citizens/stakeholders. Out of these concerns, CL parties identify possible changes that could be made, termed “situation improvements.” In latter stages, participants debate these improvements, address whether they represent desirable and feasible changes in the present situation, and generate plans for implementation and evaluation.

Collaborative Learning Tactics

CL’s foremost value is in its application. Through our applications of CL, as well as our CL training programs for agency personnel and organizational leaders, we have identified a variety of tactics or specific techniques that seem quite consistent with the philosophy and framework (see Daniels & Walker, 2001 for a detailed discussion).

CL activities embody the following two tactical goals:

  1. Create a comfortable and safe environment for learning and interaction. CL workshops bring people together to discuss issues about which they feel very strongly. Participants may have conventional public meeting experiences (e.g., public hearings and open houses) that typically foster heated, adversarial exchanges. In contrast, CL emphasizes an atmosphere safe for dialogue and learning by employing ground rules similar to mediation (Moore, 2003). The workshops feature tactics such as selecting neutral sites for meetings, providing food, ensuring ample time for discussion, working in groups, encouraging but not forcing discussion group diversity, and taking field trips that get participants out onto the land.

  2. Foster both dialogue and deliberation. Shared understanding, discovering areas of both agreement and disagreement, developing policy improvements, and making good decisions are goals of CL. The generation of improvements—desirable and feasible actions or changes—hinges on constructive communication (Daniels & Walker, 2001; Walker & Daniels, 2001), which takes on different forms at various stages in the CL cycle. In the early stages of a CL workshop process—when understanding the situation, viewing the situation systemically, and identifying concerns and interests are the goals—communication takes the form of dialogue. As participants in a CL process begin to generate improvements, their dialogue evolves into deliberation, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring (Walker et al., 2006).

A Collaborative Learning Application: Forest Planning on The Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, USA

Since its inception, Collaborative Learning has been applied to a variety of conflict and decision situations. As of early 2008, CL principles have been used to guide training programs and decision-making processes on some 20,000,000 acres of land and watersheds administered by government agencies. While most of the applications deal with natural resource management or environmental policy situations, Collaborative Learning has also been employed to address sustainable dairy farming in Sweden; and rural health care, river system sediment management, community visioning about local agriculture policy, and rural community population loss in the United States.

Collaborative Learning has provided the foundation for public participation in numerous public lands forest planning projects. This essay features a current case of forest management plan revision on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, the United States.

Established in 1905, the Forest Service, a U.S. government agency, manages public lands in 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands, encompassing 193 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the size of Texas. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 directs the Forest Service to prepare land and resource management plans.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) covers 3.5 million acres in the Greater Yellowstone area. It lies within the physiographic province called the “Middle Rocky Mountains,” characterized by high-elevation coniferous forests, sage/grass steppes, mountain ranges and deep valleys. The BTNF supports habitat for a wide variety of native fish and wildlife. Access to the large backcountry and wilderness areas is provided by a well-developed system of forest roads and trails that accommodate dispersed recreation uses of all kinds. The importance of recreation to local residents is measured by participation rates in outdoor recreation—the highest in the nation. Beyond personal enjoyment, recreation contributes significantly to local economies.

The BTNF planning and leadership teams have adopted Collaborative Learning as the foundation for citizen/stakeholder participation in BTNF forest plan revision. The project includes all five phases of the CL framework. As part of the on-going civic engagement strategy, four series of community workshops have been conducted to date (design and implementation phases). These workshops have corresponded to first five stages of the CL workshop process (Figure 2): from describing the situation through the development of improvements. Many of these improvements have appeared as ecological, social, and economic conditions desired on the forest.

Communication in the first four rounds of workshops has occurred primarily as dialogue among stakeholders and agency (Forest Service) personnel. Much of the dialogue has occurred in small groups. The interaction has drawn on worksheets participants completed, with people sharing the comments they had written (see the BTNF forest plan revision website for worksheet forms). The most recent workshops have emphasized “scenario-building” on table-size maps of the BTNF geographic areas (e.g., the Greys River Ranger District).

In July 2005 eight 6-hour community workshops took place in eight towns over ten days. The smallest workshop drew twenty people; the largest one-hundred. At these workshops citizens worked on situation maps, listened to brief presentations from BTNF planners, and exchanged ideas about places, issues, and conditions on the forest.

Each workshop ended with citizens voluntarily presenting a “key point” to the entire workshop. As one of the workshop products, key points from all eight workshops have been put on the BTNF plan revision website. Many of the key points presented deal directly with communication and participation. Comments reveal citizens’ capacity to recognize complexity, think systemically, deal with controversy, and communicate constructively. Samples (from the website) include:

  • Realized there are different points of view… that is healthy. A good start to a collaborative effort.

  • Glad to hear from non-Forest Service folks in non-confrontational manner.

  • Enjoyed the process—interacting with community members. Situation map helped put Forest Plan picture together.

  • Appreciate this forum as first step in this open, transparent process.

  • Forming relationships [and] finding common interests through this process.

  • Local voices in planning process.

  • Best Forest Service meeting I’ve been to…. Everyone could get point across—I am here because of mountains and quality of recreation.

  • If each person could share with two others; this is a new, open process. Share ideas; act as “sales people.”

  • Diversity here—at tables- but a lot that binds us together. We have a lot in common…

  • Encouraged by process. Citizens have been involved in the past. Need more people to be actively engaged. Hopefully formats like this spreads to other public settings...

  • Complexity is overwhelming… Trying to meet all needs…

  • Forest health + habitat… Base decision more on science than politics or economics.

  • Great interest, discussion, and passion—discovered common ground.

  • Different views and pictures of Multiple Use. Forums like this gets to this issue.

  • Impressed by constructive dialogue across different interests… constructive attitude…

  • Great discussion and ideas—through the breaks. Discussing social, economic, ecological, and biological aspects.

  • Situation map may be complicated, but there is common ground in it.

  • Hope that processes like this can break down stereotypes and hatred among people who are passionate about BTNF.

  • Complex set of issues—requires give and take.

In addition to this form of data, we have been surveying workshop participants and holding conversations with external stakeholders (citizens, representatives of cooperating organizations and agencies) and internal stakeholders (BTNF personnel). Comments (in-person and via survey correspondence) have suggested that the workshops have generated good will. Many people have remarked that they will stay involved in the workshops and planning process. Citizens’ key points indicate their awareness of both tangle triad and progress triangle elements. Workshop participants acknowledge complexity and controversy while expressing optimism that the planning process could work through both. Participant comments relate to substance, but more so to procedure and relationship concerns.


As we and other colleagues have applied Collaborative Learning to a variety of place-based conflict and decision-making situations, we have experienced CL’s resilience and adaptability. Still, CL, like any pluralistic participation and governance approach, operates in the face of constraints, from history to bureaucracy to competition (Tilt, 2005). Pluralistic, collaborative approaches rely on appropriate, constructive leadership that emerges from various parts of the community (Walker et al., 2008; Chrislip & Larson, 1994).

As a philosophy, framework, and set of tactics, the Collaborative Learning methodology may be useful in a variety of environmental policy, natural resource management, and sustainable development situations. It has been designed to respond to the complexity, controversy, and uncertainty that seem prevalent in these policy areas. Its attention to progress—on matters of substance, relationship, and procedure—resonates well with stakeholders. And its emphasis on participatory communication puts into practice the trinity of voice—access, standing, and influence—(Senecah, 2004) that is invaluable to involving local communities in meaningful policy decisions that affect the quality of their lives and environment.



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