UW News

May 1, 2008

Class notes: Learning to manage conflicts over natural resources

Class Title: Natural Resource Conflict Management, part of the Environmental Science and Resource Management major in the College of Forest Resources, taught by Clare Ryan.

Description: This course is a conflict management class and laboratory in which students learn to address the often emotional and scientifically complex issues surrounding natural resource management. Using a mixture of theory and practice, students explore the various processes used to manage conflict, including why some methods fail or break down. They take the perspectives of different sides in these disputes and look at responses to conflict, including litigation, rule-making, public hearings, collaborative processes and protests. To do this, they engage in realistic role-playing exercises that simulate the interactions of government agencies, private citizens, environmental groups, and private industry or development interests. While the class focuses on collaborative approaches to managing conflict, students also gain experience with analyzing conflicts, deciding whether collaboration is appropriate, and how a conflict management process can be designed and initiated.

Instructor comments: As a young scientist fresh out of Western Washington University, Clare Ryan found herself at the center of conflict working for the Washington State Department of Ecology’s hazardous waste program.

“I was the person out there at the public meeting being yelled at,” Ryan said. At the time, she wished she had taken a class on how to manage situations like that. “And here I am teaching one,” she said.

Ryan, a professor in the College of Forest Resources, helps her students move beyond preconceived notions, including the stereotypical battle of environmentalists versus industry.

“Often we have a really simplistic view of what’s underlying a conflict, or we think that conflict can be easily resolved by an expert or with more information,” Ryan said. “Many students may think that they will not be dealing with conflict in their jobs,” leading to thinking that goes along the lines of, “well, I’m going to be the scientist or analyst… someone else can deal with that.”

Many of her students will soon be working in the natural resource management field and may have to be the point person in a conflict. That’s why she’s designed her course to be as applicable as possible.

Students are taught frameworks for how to pick apart and understand the intertwined issues involved in confrontations over natural resources, including the cycle of conflict, when and how to intervene, who the parties are, their resources and power, why they might or might not participate in a conflict management process, how scientific information can be used, reaching and implementing agreement, and evaluating conflict management approaches.

Unexpected Experiences: Ryan said that the best part of the class is getting people to think beyond the obvious sources of conflict and then to see and understand other points of view.

“They need to understand why there’s conflict and that it’s not just that someone doesn’t have expertise or they’re ‘stupid’ or they are just being unreasonable. … I think sometimes there’s not really an opportunity to explore why there might be a conflict.”

She said the rewards for teaching this sort of skill are tangible. “I can’t tell you how many students have come back and said, ‘Wow, that stuff we did in that class was really relevant for my job.'”

Student comments: “The ocean is becoming a busy place with growing, competing demands for scarce resources,” said Alisa Praskovich, a graduate student in the School of Marine Affairs and an officer in the U.S Coast Guard. Praskovich wanted to take the class because she’s seen this scramble for resources firsthand — her job involves moderating among Native American groups, state agencies and industry. She said she hopes to learn better negotiation skills and an improved ability to build consensus.

Tammy McPherson, a junior majoring in microbiology and creative writing, also thinks it’s important to acquire negotiating skills.

“The thing I’ve learned most is that, if you can work with the personal issues first, you can get a lot more done in negotiations,” she said. “Some problems are issues, and sometimes people have fundamental value differences, but even then, it’s possible to reach consensus if you can convince people to sit [at a] table together.”

Daniel Brody, a junior in the major, agrees.

“You have to do a lot of thinking and really try to put yourself in different people’s mindsets to figure out why they believe a certain thing, and then how you can either change that perception or appeal to an aspect of that perception.”

Reading list: Students read and study a wide variety of cases involving environmental conflict, along with Managing Public Disputes, by Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy; Making Collaboration Work: Lessons from Innovation in Natural Resource Management, by Julia M. Wondolleck and Steven Lewis Yaffee; and Building Consensus for a Sustainable Future: Putting Principles into Practice, by Gerald W. Cormick, Norman Dale, et al.

Assignments: Students complete several intensive role-play exercises, followed by papers analyzing their application of course materials and lessons learned in the exercises. Students are also required to attend a real-life public meeting or hearing and write a paper that analyzes the public meeting in terms of the conflict or issues involved, participation of different interests, and purpose and effectiveness of the meeting. A final assignment involves a hypothetical scenario in which the student is asked by his or her employer to analyze a conflict situation and make a recommendation for the organization regarding how the conflict should be approached and managed.

Class Notes is a column devoted to interesting and/or offbeat classes at the UW.