Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 7, Issue 2 - December, 2014


Is Natural Resource Policy an Appropriate Arena for Extension Programing?

Warren, W. A., Extension Educator, University Of Idaho


Public policy is a major factor in economic development and natural resource use in rural counties in western states dominated by federal land ownership. There is a growing consensus in many western states for changes in federal forest management in order to rejuvenate rural economies and achieve desired ecological conditions that provide the social benefits people desire from public forests. This growing concern is evidenced by the growth of forest collaboratives and the many bills that have been introduced in congress by multiple state delegations of both parties to alter forest management on federal lands. This paper explores the role that Extension faculty could play in assisting local leaders and collaborative groups working to influence federal forest management. It further makes a case for Extension involvement, despite concerns by some that Extension faculty should not be involved with public policy issues. Utilizing the social, policy, and ecological sciences to assist rural community leaders in influencing federal forest policy to the benefit of rural communities is proposed as a valid and important role for Extension faculty with appointments in such counties.


Public policy has become increasingly important to agriculture and natural resource management, particularly in the West, where the federal government controls over one third of the land in many western states. As an example, Idaho is over 60% federal ownership with over 80% of its forests on federal land. On the National Forests, conflict over management has resulted in a dramatic decline in the harvest of timber as well as a reduction in new protected status designations on these forests, such as wilderness designations. Lack of forest management has harmed local economies that once depended on federal timber harvest, and has resulted in a build-up of fuels in overstocked forest stands that have dramatically increased the incidence of wildfire and insect and disease mortality (Barney & Worth, Inc., 2001; Cook & O’Laughlin, 2006; Krist et al., 2014). In addition, many of these forests have been replaced by late-seral forest species such as firs, to the exclusion of more drought- and disease-resistant species, such as pine and larch, that comprised these forests historically.

The impasse over federal forest management in the West is widely recognized and is increasingly seen as a critical policy issue as evidenced by the number of legislative initiatives advanced by both political parties in both houses of the 113th Congress to try and solve this problem (e.g., H.R. 1526, S. 1966, S. 1784). Some environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, also see the need for increased forest management to both restore forests to more resilient ecological conditions that protect valued public benefits, while at the same time provide timber for local mills that provide jobs and maintain the infrastructure needed to manage forests.

One result of this emerging consensus is the formation of forest collaborative groups that seek to involve all the major stakeholders—environmental groups, timber industry, county commissioners, state agencies, wildlife and recreation interests, and tribes—to work through differences outside of the courtroom to create better management on federal lands (e.g., Clearwater Basin Collaborative in Idaho). Such collaboratives attempt to work hand-in-hand with local Forest Service staff to craft projects and recommend policy and institutional changes that all parties can agree to. However, even with the most inclusive collaboratives, some groups choose not to participate and continue to try to prevent change through litigation.

Extension faculty working in counties dominated by federal land and who have appointments in rural economic development and land stewardship have new opportunities, as well as risks, in engaging the growing consensus about the need for changes in federal forest management. However, could such faculty be seen as crossing the line into inappropriate “advocacy” if they employ the social and policy sciences to assist local leaders engaged in collaborative efforts to change federal forest management? Is “advocacy” even inappropriate when it targets policy constraints to rural economic development?

The Role of Extension

The national Extension system was initiated in order to assist the lives of rural residents and communities through the communication of research-based information. Such information was thought to achieve the governmental policy goals of increasing agricultural and natural resource productivity to the benefit of the nation and rural communities, while at the same time protecting the agricultural and natural resource land base so production would be sustainable. Extension’s existence is itself a manifestation of government policy.

In this pursuit, Extension faculty have been engaged in the development of new agricultural technologies from cropping systems to harvesting and planting technologies, to bioengineering and breeding of new crop varieties to make producer operations more profitable and increase the nation’s food supply.

Extension efforts in rural economic and community development, as well as natural resource stewardship, provide assistance to host counties in fostering economic development and managing natural resources in a manner that accomplishes client goals while sustaining the nation’s resources. These appointments, as well as Extension partners such as the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, USDA Rural Development, and the federally chartered regional Economic Development Associations around the country, have the implicit charter to be advocates for sustainable rural economic development and natural resource stewardship.

However, to achieve these laudable, and generally non-controversial, ends in counties dominated by and dependent on federal lands can require changes to federal land management policy to bring these goals about. There is a substantial body of scholarly literature that analyzes and speaks to the problems and needed changes to federal land policy in the West, carried out by both government and university scholars and scientists (USDA Forest Service, 2002).

Social Technology

To bring policy issues into greater focus from an Extension perspective, consider a more conventional problem related to agriculture. Consider an agricultural commodity such as potatoes. Let’s say for this illustration that a major bottleneck in Idaho’s potato industry was the lack of technology that would allow longer storage of potatoes. The problem was costing the Idaho agricultural industry jobs and income due to lost market share. Enter an Extension specialist who develops a storage technology that allows for longer storage of potatoes that includes improvements in storage facilities, a GMO potato variety, and, perhaps, some chemical spray that also extended storage time. Extension educators were tasked with working with local producers to inform them of the new technology and provide them with the best available information to make the best choices for their operation.

While local producers, economic development entities, purchasers, and communities were supportive of the technology, other groups that oppose non-organic and GMO agricultural crops were against it. Despite scientific studies that could be brought forward to show that GMO potatoes are harmless and that the chemical used to enhance storage is non-toxic, other groups could also bring forth studies that claim to show that GMO foods are harmful and that some chemicals do cause cancer in laboratory animals. Other hypothetical examples could be found, including work by Extension with large confined-animal operations that many animal welfare groups oppose.

Similarly, there is considerable scholarship demonstrating that rural economies have been damaged by gridlock on federal forests and that living-wage jobs can be increased by timber harvest from federal lands (Morgan et al., 2014; Harris et al. 2003). For example, for every 1 million board feet of timber harvested in the state of Idaho, 18 direct and indirect jobs are created, as well as $528,000 in wages and salaries and over $3.2 million in goods and services (Morgan et al. 2014), and industry leaders repeatedly highlight the lack of availability of federal timber as a major constraint on the industry.

Just as in the potato example, economic benefits and production benefits are being lost by the current situation that could be remedied if things were changed. However, the “producers” in this case are county commissioners, local industry, forest collaboratives, and the community at large. Yet, as with opponents to new agricultural technologies and methods, there are groups that strongly oppose management of federal forests and seek to stop such management through litigation and influencing government policy.

Unlike the potato example above, the technology needed in this case is not genetic, chemical, or mechanical, but the “social technology” of institutions and policies governing federal forest management. Should Extension faculty with expertise in the social, economic, and policy sciences provide local leaders with information that will assist them in crafting policy solutions that would benefit rural economies, local stakeholders, and the forest products industry, just as in the potato example above? I would say “yes.”

A Dubious Distinction between the Physical/Biological and Social Sciences

In Alcorn’s classic paper (1963) that has influenced subsequent commentary on the topic (Barrows, 1984; Patton & Blaine, 2001), he draws a sharp distinction between physical and biological “facts” (the traditional arena of Extension) and the social sciences, which he advises takes us too close to “oughts” or “opinions” to be appropriate for Extension. This neat separation is no longer relevant given the scholarship in the ensuing decades pointing out the questionable objectivity of the “hard” sciences, the inherent theoretical and value-based nature of much of ecological science and natural resource management, not to mention economics (Bird, 1987; Kuhn, 1970; Shrader-Frechette and McCoy, 1993). Even seemingly simple questions such as what constitutes a “healthy” forest or ecosystem, is revealed to be fundamentally a social, not a natural, science question (Warren, 2007). Additionally, the last 50 years have witnessed a dramatic increase in public environmental and agricultural policy’s influence on natural resource management and agriculture, and nowhere more-so than in the rural West where federal land ownership is extensive. At the same time, leading universities and the National Science Foundation have developed programs that focus on the increasing importance of what’s sometimes called the “human dimensions” of agriculture and resource management.

An important application of advancing the understanding of natural and human systems is improving our ability to predict the environmental and social consequences of alternative policies for resource use, and our chances of choosing wisely for the future. (Alpert, 2013)

At a time when public policy and social issues are increasingly intertwined with the application of the physical and biological sciences, Extension has an opportunity to advance its traditional mandate on new fronts. Increasing the hiring and support of Extension faculty with expertise in the linkage of human and natural systems, that can inform local community leaders and collaborative groups with natural resource policy analysis, would greatly advance Extension’s goal of assisting rural communities with economic development and sustainable resource management. This is especially true in counties dominated by federal lands. Such an emphasis can assist in keeping Extension relevant in the changing social and policy environment in which natural resource management and agriculture is currently conducted.

Conclusion and Recommendations

It has been stated that natural resource management is inherently political (Lachapelle et al. 2003). The professor teaching the wildlife management class I took as an undergrad stated on the first day of class that, “Wildlife management is about managing people, not wildlife.” This is a truism. Natural resource management is about managing human behavior and, more importantly, it is fundamentally about allocation of resources among different groups since not all people have an interest in the same resources. As human interest and advocacy have diverged and intensified in our nation in recent decades, it becomes increasingly difficult to have any meaningful influence on the science, without being seen as “taking sides.”

Some see Extension as losing relevance through budget constraints and the increasing urbanization of the nation. Yet, the public conversations and policy issues surrounding agriculture, natural resource management, and rural policy have intensified. Increasingly, public policy constrains agriculture and natural resource management, and an increasingly diverse public can be found to stand on almost any side of any issue. At the same time, the influence of on-line and other media provide a podium for many competing claims for “expertise.” Books and articles published by people with “M.D.” or “Ph.D.” after their names can be found that argue opposite sides of many of these issues.

Extension faculty with expertise in the social and policy sciences can assist local community leaders with economic development and natural resource initiatives in rural counties dependent on federal land policy without being seen as “advocates.” With the caveat that this work will improve the ability of Extension to address what it has always been an “advocate” for: vibrant rural economies, responsible and sustainable stewardship or our nation’s resources, and better lives for rural Americans.

One example of such a role would be assisting members of local forest collaborative groups that are increasing in prominence around the west in an attempt to change “business as usual” on the federal lands by working together to change policies that make it easier for federal agencies to conduct management. Natural resource policies have become extremely complex due to multiple legislative directives, layers of administrative policy, and decades of case law stemming from litigation.  Providing scholarly-based information on these issues and possible improvements would be a great service to local leaders involved in these collaboratives.

Most land-grant universities have natural resource departments with courses and degree specializations in natural resource policy and natural resource social science. For example, the University of Idaho has a Natural Resource Policy Analysis Group as part of its College of Natural Resources that conducts research and policy analysis for state and local leaders, industry, and anyone interested in public land policies. Developing a natural resource and agricultural policy focus within Extension to get this information to local stakeholders would have the potential to assist rural communities, natural resource and agricultural industries, and others interested in public policy to better navigate this complex arena, and have more influence in adapting it to benefit rural economies and the land.

Where does Extension’s encouragement of production agriculture and responsible stewardship of natural resources and rural economic development cross over into unacceptable “advocacy” for achieving these ends? This is a judgment call that will be left up to Extension professionals and will depend on particular contexts and the goals of the rural communities that Extension faculty serve. However, the fear of inappropriate advocacy should not prevent Extension from the current challenge of using the social and policy sciences in assisting local stakeholders in improving the social “technology” that governs our use of resources and distributes their benefits.

Literature Cited

Alcorn, G. B. (1963). Extension’s place in public policy. Journal of Extension. Fall.

Alpert, P. (2013). Quoted in: National Science Foundation awards $19.4 million for research on coupled natural and human systems. National Science Foundation press release 13-164. Available at

Barney & Worth, Inc. (2001). Inland Northwest Economic Adjustment Strategy. Award No. 07 69 04093, US Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration.

Barrows, R. L. (1984). Taking a stand: Extension and public policy issues. Journal of Extension 22(2): 2FEA1.
Bird, E. A. R. (1987). The social construction of nature: Theoretical approaches to the history of environmental problems. Environmental Review, Winter: 255-264.

Cook, P. S. & O’Laughlin, J. (2006). Idaho’s forest products business sector: Contributions, challenges, and opportunities. Report No. 26. Policy Analysis Group, College of Natural Resources, University of Idaho.

Harris, C., Cook, P., & O’Laughlin, J. (2003). Forest resource-based economic development in Idaho: Analysis of concepts, resource management policies, and community effects. Report No. 22. Policy Analysis Group, College of Natural Resources, University of Idaho.

Krist, F. J., Ellenwood, J. R., Woods, M. E., McMahan, A. J., Cowardin, J. P., Ryerson, D. E., et al. (2014). 2013 – 2027 National insect and disease forest risk assessment. FHTET-14-01. USDA Forest Service.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. The University of Chicago Press.
Lachapelle, P. R., McCool, S. F., & Patterson, M. E. (2003). Barriers to effective natural resource planning in a “messy” world. Society & Natural Resources 16: 473-490.

Morgan, T. A., O’Laughlin, J., Hays, S., Keegan, C., & Taylor R. G. (2014). Idaho’s forest products industry current conditions and 2014 forecast, Station Bulletin 101. The Inland Northwest Forest Products Research Consortium, Idaho Forest, Wildlife and Range Experiment Station, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho.

Patton, D. B. & Blaine, T. W. (2001). Public issues education: Exploring Extension’s role. Journal of Extension 39(4):4FEA2

Shrader-Frechette, K. S., & McCoy, E. D. (1993). Method in ecology: Strategies for conservation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

USDA Forest Service (2002). The process predicament: How statutory, regulatory, and administrative factors affect National Forest management. June.

Warren, W. A. (2007). What is a healthy forest?: Definitions, rationales, and the lifeworld. Society and Natural Resources, 20:99-117.