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Adaptation to a landscape-scale mountain pine beetle epidemic in the era of networked governance: the enduring importance of bureaucratic institutions

Jesse B. Abrams, Ecosystem Workforce Program, Institute for a Sustainable Environment, University of Oregon
Heidi R. Huber-Stearns, Ecosystem Workforce Program, Institute for a Sustainable Environment, University of Oregon
Christopher Bone, Department of Geography, University of Victoria
Christine A. Grummon, Department of Geography, University of Oregon
Cassandra Moseley, Ecosystem Workforce Program, Institute for a Sustainable Environment, University of Oregon


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Landscape-scale forest disturbance events have become increasingly common worldwide under the combined influences of climate change and ecosystem modification. The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) epidemic that swept through North American forests from the late 1990s through the early 2010s was one of the largest such disturbance events on record and triggered shocks to ecological and economic systems. We analyze the policy and governance responses to this event by focusing on three national forests in the state of Colorado and on the agency responsible for their management, the U.S. Forest Service. We found that the event triggered the formation of new hybrid agency/nonagency organizations that contributed both legitimacy and capacity to address the most immediate threats to human safety and infrastructure. Despite the use of a highly networked governance structure, longstanding U.S. Forest Service institutions continued to heavily influence the scope of the response and the means for implementing management activities. We detected relatively limited institutional response at the level of the agency as a whole, even as regional- and local-scale institutions within Colorado showed greater dynamism. Indeed, the changes to agency institutions that were detected were largely consistent with institutional change trajectories already in place prior to the epidemic. Our study points to the importance of institutional persistence and path dependence in limiting the latitude for adaptation to social and environmental shocks.

Key words

adaptive capacity; bark beetle; bureaucracy; institutional change; U.S. Forest Service

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087