Social perspectives on the use of reference conditions in restoration of fire-adapted forest landscapes

Lauren S. Urgenson, Cara R. Nelson, Ryan D. Haugo, Charles B. Halpern, Jonathan D. Bakker, Clare M. Ryan, Amy E.M. Waltz, R. Travis Belote, Ernesto Alvarado

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


As approaches to ecological restoration become increasingly large scale and collaborative, there is a need to better understand social aspects of restoration and how they influence land management. In this article, we examine social perspectives that influence the determination of ecological reference conditions in restoration. Our analysis is based on in-depth interviews with diverse stakeholders involved in collaborative restoration of fire-adapted forest landscapes. We conducted interviews with 86 respondents from six forest collaboratives that are part of the U.S. Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Collaboratives use a variety of approaches to develop reference conditions, including historic, contemporary, and future scenarios. Historical conditions prior to European settlement (nineteenth century or “pre-settlement” conditions), or prior to more recent grazing, logging, and exclusion of fire, were the predominant type of reference used in all sites. Stakeholders described benefits and limitations of reference conditions. Primary benefits include (1) providing a science-based framework for bringing stakeholders together around a common vision; (2) gaining social understanding and acceptance of the underlying need for restoration; and (3) serving to neutralize otherwise value-laden discussions about multiple, sometimes competing, resource objectives. Limitations stem from (1) concerns over social conflict when reference conditions are perceived to contradict other stakeholder values and interests, (2) differing interpretations of reference condition science, (3) inappropriate application or over-generalization of reference information, and (4) limited relevance of historical references for current and future conditions in some ecosystems. At the same time, collaboratives are adopting innovative strategies to address conceptual and methodological limitations of reference conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)987-996
Number of pages10
JournalRestoration Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2018


  • fire-prone forests
  • historical ecosystem
  • landscape restoration
  • pre-settlement
  • reference models
  • restoration goals
  • stakeholder collaboration


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