Social-Ecological Resilience and Law in the Platte River Basin

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Apr 02, 2014
H. Birge, C. Allen, R. Craig, et al.



Efficiency and resistance to rapid change are hallmarks of both the judicial and legislative branches of the United States government. These defining characteristics, while bringing stability and predictability, pose challenges when it comes to managing dynamic natural systems. As our understand-ing of ecosystems improves, we must devise ways to account for the non-linearities and uncertainties rife in complex social-ecological systems. This paper takes an in-depth look at the Platte River basin over time to ex-plore how the system’s resilience—the capacity to absorb disturbance without losing defining structures and functions—responds to human driv-en change. Beginning with pre-European settlement, the paper explores how water laws, policies, and infrastructure influenced the region’s ecolo-gy and society. While much of the post-European development in the Platte River basin came at a high ecological cost to the system, the recent tri-state and federal collaborative Platte River Recovery and Implementa-tion Program is a first step towards flexible and adaptive management of the social-ecological system. Using the Platte River basin as an example, we make the case that inherent flexibility and adaptability are vital for the next iteration of natural resources management policies affecting stressed basins. We argue that this can be accomplished by nesting policy in a re-silience framework, which we describe and attempt to operationalize for use across systems and at different levels of jurisdiction. As our current natural resources policies fail under the weight of looming global change, unprecedented demand for natural resources, and shifting land use, the need for a new generation of adaptive, flexible natural resources govern-ance emerges. Here we offer a prescription for just that, rooted in the so-cial, ecological and political realities of the Platte River basin.

Read the full article in the Idaho Law Review.

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