• Open Access

Environmental governance and its implications for conservation practice


  • Editor 
    Dr. Mark Lubell

Derek Armitage, Department of Environment and Resource Studies, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada. Tel: 519-88-4567 x36795; fax: 519-746-0292. E-mail: derek.armitage@uwaterloo.ca


Governments are no longer the most important source of decision making in the environmental field. Instead, new actors are playing critical decision-making roles, and new mechanisms and forums for decision making are becoming important (e.g., in some contexts regulation is being supplemented or replaced by markets and cooperative arrangements). New ways of governing in relation to the environment have important implications for the practice of conservation. Greater awareness of key ideas and concepts of environmental governance can help conservation managers and scientists participate more effectively in governance processes. Understanding how conservation practice is influenced by emergent hybrid and network governance arrangements is particularly important. This short review explores key environmental governance concepts relevant to the practice of conservation, with specific reference to institutional fit and scale; adaptiveness, flexibility and learning; the coproduction of knowledge from diverse sources; the emergence of new actors and their roles in governance; and changing expectations about accountability and legitimacy. Case-based examples highlight key directions in environmental governance.


“The era of management is over”

 - Ludwig (2001)

Environmental governance is a rapidly growing field in applied human-environment scholarship with implications for conservation practice. This article is aimed at current and future conservation managers and scientists who find themselves leading or participating in multistakeholder processes where outcomes are uncertain. Citizens, elected officials, government agencies, and firms expect these processes to achieve broad goals of ecosystem stewardship and economic development. Such expectations are increasingly understood as governance challenges.

The article introduces the concept of environmental governance and identifies key issues that conservation scientists and managers must increasingly confront, including problems of institutional fit and scale; adaptiveness, flexibility and learning; the coproduction of knowledge from diverse sources; the emergence of new actors and their roles in governance; and changing expectations about accountability and legitimacy. These concerns are critical, we suggest, because those engaged in conservation practice are increasingly embedded within, or intersecting with, broader governance processes. Understanding trends in environmental governance will (1) permit scientists and managers to participate more effectively in real-world conservation initiatives; (2) encourage reflection on the assumptions and values that frame their own and others role in conservation initiatives; and (3) further recognize how conservation occurs in a contested and power-laden social context.

Why environmental governance?

Management and governance are not synonymous. Management involves operational decisions to achieve specific conservation outcomes, whereas governance refers to the broader processes and institutions through which societies make decisions that affect the environment (see Oakerson 1992). Of course, management and governance are not mutually exclusive. Management interventions also involve uncertainty, negotiation, deliberation, and sensitivity to social–ecological dynamics (Lebel et al. 2006). Recognition of the similarities and differences among management and governance is crucial given the complex, nonlinear and cross-scale nature of conservation challenges in an era of global environmental change (Rockström et al. 2009; Chapin et al. 2010).

Table  Box 1:  .  Selected definitions of governance.
Self-organizing, interorganizational networks characterized by interdependence, resource exchange, rules of the game, and significant autonomy from the state (Rhodes 1997, p. 15)
The setting, application and enforcement of the rules of the game (Kjær 2004, p. 12)
The institutional capacity of public organizations to provide the public and other goods demanded by a country's citizens or their representatives in an effective, transparent, impartial, and accountable manner, subject to resource constraints (World Bank 2000, p. 48)
The entire range of activities of citizens, elected representatives, and public professionals as they create and implement public policy in communities (Box 1998, p. 2)
Systems of rule at all levels of human activity—from the family to the international organization—in which the pursuit of goals through the exercise of control has transnational repercussions (Rosenau 1999, p. 13)
Table  Box 2:  .  Selected definitions of environmental governance.
The set of regulatory processes, mechanisms and organizations through which political actors influence environmental actions and outcomes (Lemos & Agrawal 2006: 298)
Environmental governance should be understood broadly so as to include all institutional solutions for resolving conflicts over environmental resources (Paavola 2007, p. 97)
The interrelated and increasingly integrated system of formal and informal rules, rule-making systems, and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to steer societies toward preventing, mitigating, and adapting to global and local environmental change and, in particular, earth system transformation, within the normative context of sustainable development (Biermann et al. 2009, p. 3)

Conventional “command and control” management has been remarkably successful in providing a continuous supply of ecosystem services. Yet, success has come at a steep social and environmental cost. Social costs relate to compliance, enforcement, and conflict. Environmental costs are well known to those involved in the conservation field, and include declines, for example, in regulating and provisioning ecosystem services (MA 2005). Collectively, Holling & Meffe (1996) refer to this situation as the "pathology of natural resource management." Shifting how decisions are made, and by whom, has been a key concern for those seeking to address this pathology.

In many of these new ways of governing, governments are not, and in fact cannot be, the most important source of environmental decision-making authority. Decision making must now accommodate diverse views, networks and hybrid partnerships among state and nonstate actors, and must include opportunities for shared learning. Traditional regulatory approaches and silo management functions are limited in this regard. Recognizing the transition from central government to hybrid governance networks highlights important changes in how we govern, the role of the "state" relative to other actors, and the mechanisms that societies have to achieve conservation outcomes. Scientists and managers should thus recognize that governance can refer to a set of arrangements (e.g., a public–private partnership), but it can also be used as an analytical lens to understand how to achieve conservation outcomes. The article offers insights in regards to both of these perspectives.

Definitions and models of environmental governance

“Governance“ is a common theme in political science, international relations, public sector management, and corporate affairs (Van Kersbergen & Van Waarden 2004). Definitions of governance (see Box 1) are linked to international agencies (e.g., World Bank and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and benchmarks of “good” public governance. These benchmarks include accountability, transparency, responsiveness, equity and inclusion, effectiveness and efficiency, following the rule of law, and participatory, consensus-oriented decision making (Crabbé & LeRoy 2008). The concept of “good governance“ is also being offered as a basis for reshaping how we govern (Lockwood et al. 2010). Unfortunately, what “good governance” involves is not always apparent to managers and scientists dealing with complex, real world conservation problems.

Environmental governance (Box 2) is a subset of the broader governance literature, but there are some important distinctions. A greater emphasis on environmental protection, for example, is a common organizing theme and takes the discussion beyond simplistic notions of “good governance.” As well, hybrid environmental governance arrangements reflect openness to using institutions (markets, rights, norms) and incentives (economic, social) in novel ways to address the collective action nature of environmental problems. That openness may stem from recognition of the limited capacity of government agencies acting alone to deal with "wicked" problems (Ludwig 2001), pressure from citizens for a greater role in decision making, and expected benefits (despite transaction costs) when involving more perspectives and different kinds of knowledge (de Loë & Kreutzwiser 2007). Finally, the uptake by environmental governance scholars of insights from nonequilibrium ecology and complex adaptive systems helps to move governance concerns away from simple notions of accountability and authority, and away from a focus on objectives such as maximum sustainable yield (Dietz et al. 2003; Armitage et al. 2009).

Models of governance reflect assumptions about how society should be organized, how problems should be addressed, and by whom (Glasbergen 1998). Most striking is the hollowing out of the "State" over the past two decades and the hybridization of governance arrangements. As part of this shift, there is opportunity for emergent models of governance involving state and nonstate actors cooperating to achieve shared goals. However, this shift also reflects a push for the privatization of commons resources and off-loading of responsibility rather than a move toward more deliberative processes and greater participation (Bäckstrand et al. 2010). For conservation scientists and managers it is important to recognize the competing political ideologies underlying this transition (Larson & Soto 2008; Bäckstrand et al. 2010), and the roles that they may play in that process.

A growing interest in cooperative models of governance will not replace the existing regulatory approach (Meadowcroft 1998). Instead, cooperative models of governance are more likely to work effectively within an enabling system of government regulations, and be compatible with other governance mechanisms, such as the use of market incentives. Models of environmental governance are not mutually exclusive. Across a wide spectrum of environmental problems (from biodiversity conservation to watershed management), hybrid forms of governance are emerging that combine the state, markets, and civil society. Examples include comanagement (e.g., shared power to make decisions about fish quotas), public–private partnerships (e.g., certification schemes) and private–social partnerships (e.g., payment for ecosystem services) (Lemos & Agrawal 2006), all of which can conceivably coexist, and the combinations of which will influence conservation outcomes (Duit & Galaz 2008). However, it is crucial that managers and scientists engaged in conservation initiatives do not assume that hybrid governance forms are necessarily better at achieving conservation outcomes than more conventional government-centered efforts.

Efforts to resolve water issues (e.g., conservation for ecosystem use, allocation for human needs) in the Murray–Darling Basin of Australia provide a useful illustration. Governance in the basin involves hybridization of several of the “ideal” models described earlier. A regulatory model remains the cornerstone of governance, but market regulation is a key tool for allocating water resources, cooperative management is used at key planning stages, and a variety of approaches are used to engage citizens. Adaptive management is an explicit goal of water reforms (Allan 2008). The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (established in 2007) is charged with the task of creating a single, consistent, and integrated basin plan, and public involvement and consultation in this process are required. However, through the creation of water markets, key decisions about how water will be used in the Murray–Darling Basin are now also being made by individuals and companies that are engaged in water trading (de Loë & Bjornlund 2010). The range of actors involved in water has broadened considerably relative to previous decades. Governments (State and Commonwealth) play key roles, but individuals and corporations participating in water markets are now central actors in water governance, and catchment management organizations comprised of individual and sector representatives now have legally defined planning roles.

Key concepts and emerging directions in environmental governance

Conventional notions of what governance implies (good governance), how governance takes place (through the state), and what governance processes seek to achieve (efficient resource use) are shifting. We draw attention to five key concepts or issues in environmental governance: (1) recognition of the importance of fit and scale; (2) fostering adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning; (3) coproducing knowledge from diverse sources; (4) understanding the emergence of new actors and their roles in governance; and (5) changing expectations about accountability and legitimacy. These concepts are derived from a careful review of the mainstream environmental governance literature and are consistent with the concerns identified by other scholars (e.g., Lemos & Agrawal 2006; Biermann et al. 2009; Delmas & Young 2009; Lockwood et al. 2010). Figure 1 reflects the reality of hybrid governance approaches emerging from idealized models, and the key concepts or themes useful in understanding the outcomes (ecological, social) of these hybrid approaches.

Figure 1.

Environmental governance models, hybrid forms, and key issues.

We provide a brief synthesis of these critical contemporary governance issues in the following sections and offer examples from the field to illustrate their implications for conservation practice. Our synthesis is not a comprehensive summary of all potentially relevant issues. Many of the issues we highlight are contested and it is not appropriate to blithely suggest best practices based on experiences in other places that are reported in the literature. However, this synthesis frames key issues that are relevant to conservation practitioners and researchers, and we draw on these concepts to offer specific insights relevant for practice (Table 1)

Table 1.  Summary of policy implications
IssueExample insights and action
Fit and scale•Identify and categorize various type of mismatches—spatial, temporal, threshold, cascading—to help clarify key challenges, affected actors, and potential responses
 •Build vertical and horizontal linkages among institutions and governance actors to: (1) address various scale mismatches; (2) improve flexibility to respond to change; and (3) enhance the flow of information and knowledge among actors
Adaptiveness and learning•Identify the attributes of institutional and governance arrangements that exhibit a capacity to adapt
 •Identify opportunities (formal and informal) in which collaborative or social learning among different governance actors at multiple levels can be catalyzed; similarly, test (and assess) specific mechanisms for greater deliberation and knowledge sharing
 •Systemically evaluate how learning that does occur may be improving conservation outcomes or leading to more fundamental reassessment of practice
 •Determine how processes (e.g., social learning, knowledge coproduction) and attributes can be "scaled-up" (e.g., from specific sites or contexts to wider scales or regions)
Knowledge•Assess and reflect on the types of knowledge (beyond scientific data sets and models) available to help understand the conservation context and problem; identify the holders of that knowledge
 •Evaluate if it is possible to "integrate" data sets or different knowledge sources; where this is not appropriate, collaboratively develop strategies to bring people together (scenario planning, visioning sessions) to jointly develop understandings of problems
 •Identify the extent to which different actors or organizations can serve as a bridge (or bridging organization) to link knowledge holders and make sense of complexity
 •Determine how bridging organizations can contribute to problem solving (budget reallocation, fostering dialogues, creating knowledge sharing mechanisms)
Actors and roles•Characterize and assess the various actors involved (formally and informally) in making decisions, the key relationships they have, and their role in fostering adaptive capacity
 •Determine if the participation of specific groups matches the scale of the problem, or if key actors are distributed across different levels to address different dimensions of the problem
 •Consider if ambiguity of roles (or institutional redundancy) is advantageous (e.g., as a way to increase adaptability) or creates institutional burdens
 •Determine if bridging organizations are being used to link state and nonstate actors in meaningful ways
Accountability and legitimacy•Asses the extent to which formal and informal relationships associated with multiple actors in governance are sources of accountability and legitimacy
 •Identify how different institutional strategies and hybrid (state, nonstate) governance arrangements are being used to shift accountability and legitimacy to others in productive and meaningful ways
 •Examine the extent to which different perspectives on accountability are being recognized (legislative, moral, ethical)

Recognizing the importance of “fit” and scale

Multilevel governance arrangements involving state and nonstate actors are emerging in response to the challenges of scale and cross-scale effects (Cash et al. 2006; Young et al. 2008). Conservation efforts are no different in this regard. Links among actors at multiple levels are often found to confer greater capacity for monitoring, understanding ecosystem feedback, and fostering appropriate incentives (e.g., power sharing, distribution of economic benefits). Here, ideas of institutional “fit” and interplay are gaining traction (Duit & Galaz 2008; Young et al. 2008). Certain problems of fit are reasonably well understood, if not easily overcome. These include spatial fit (finding the appropriate spatial match between institutions and the environmental problem) and temporal fit. One example is the inability of decision makers to respond to external disturbances in a timely manner, such as rapid declines in water flow, or a mismatch between emergence of a problem and the political time required to resolve it. As experiences with community conservation agreements in Kalimantan, Indonesia reveal, problems of fit can be a vexing challenge (Wunder et al. 2008). In this case, efforts to establish a community conservation agreement to address predatory logging were undermined by the short time horizon of donors funding the project, and concerns about the mismatch between the projects individualized economic incentive schemes versus a conservation problem requiring collective action.

Problems of fit have also been identified in association with (1) threshold behavior, when governance systems are unable to avoid irreversible shifts in system functioning (e.g., coastal resource declines with profound livelihood, ecological implications); and (2) cascading effects where governance actors are unable to buffer the flow of crises across scales and systems (Galaz et al. 2008). These latter two problems of fit pose a particular challenge for conservation practitioners and other decision makers. As an example, marine mammal conservation efforts in the Arctic must deal with changes in climate, the associated implications for seasonal sea ice, and subsequent changes to hydrological function. These effects cascade through ecological and socioeconomic systems and influence opportunities for marine transportation (an additional stress on marine mammal habitat), oil and gas development and harvest strategies of Arctic peoples (Lovecraft & Meek 2011; SWIPA 2011).

Hybrid governance arrangements to address problems of fit will necessitate strong horizontal and vertical linkages among scientists, managers, resource users/ industry, and civil society (Table 1). Considerable attention is thus being devoted to multilevel arrangements that highlight task-specific, intersecting actors (or networks involving nodes and linkages) in flexible institutional designs spanning many jurisdictional levels (Ostrom 2010). Multiple centers of decision making and many mechanisms for coordinated action are anticipated, and are presumed to enhance capacity to diffuse negative effects and distribute benefits (Bodin & Crona 2009). Authority may be distributed and does not reside at a single level. This poses a challenge to conventional roles of government actors with clearly defined mandates. Yet, scientists and managers will be expected to play a key role in better coordinating actions, improving information flows, and synthesizing and mobilizing knowledge in this context. There are several examples of wildlife comanagement arrangements in Canada's Arctic (e.g., for beluga, char) that have led to changes in the role of scientists and managers and helped to achieve better conservation and livelihood outcomes (Armitage et al. 2011). Still, numerous challenges with these arrangements and linkages are identified in the literature, such as potential for further entrenchment of power or elite capture (see later). In addition to accountability concerns, the expansion of vertical and horizontal linkages among actors can, paradoxically, make integration of information, ideas and perspectives more difficult, create excessive organizational complexity, and at least in the short-term, appear inefficient (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2008).

Fostering adaptiveness, flexibility, and learning

A conventional desire for stable institutions conflicts with the need for governance and decision-making processes to be flexible and adaptive in the face of uncertainty. With roots in adaptive management (Lee 1993), a growing body of environmental governance literature reflects the importance of adaptiveness, and monitoring and learning-by-doing to provide flexibility to change. Adaptiveness is presumed to emerge from a dynamic and ongoing process of social learning (Folke et al. 2005). However, learning may not always lead to specific outcomes helpful for conservation, while learning processes themselves can be difficult to facilitate and assess (Allan 2008; Lebel et al. 2010). Still, as a social process and outcome, learning through environmental change and how best to avoid or cope with that change, may be best achieved through the collaborative development and sharing of knowledge by multiple actors (see later). Empirical studies of social learning illustrate the importance of differentiating the types of learning that can occur in a conservation setting, such as learning to implement a conservation program more effectively, or learning among different actors that involves fundamental challenges to the assumptions that frame conservation practice (Cundill et al. 2012). These studies also show how different formal and informal institutional arrangements (e.g., state-centered, market-based, hybrid forms) and individual actors have different abilities to facilitate learning outcomes (Armitage & Plummer 2010; Lebel et al. 2010). This has led to more emphasis on examining the institutional pathways that build vertical and horizontal linkages among governance actors to improve communication, information flows, and opportunities for learning (Lebel et al. 2010) (Table 1). Well-studied efforts to protect and conserve the Kristianstad wetland complex in Sweden provide a clear example of what this looks like on the ground (Olsson et al. 2004). In this case, governance processes started from the bottom-up with a local museum initiative and subsequent development of vertical linkages with university researchers, other nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to sustain the momentum for change.

Interest in environmental governance is evolving toward the analysis and design of institutions and governance systems with “adaptive capacity,” described as the ability of a system or the components of the governance system to be robust to disturbances and capable of responding to change (Armitage & Plummer 2010). Governance systems with greater adaptive capacity are expected to deal with current and projected uncertainty and respond more effectively to problems of fit and scale mismatch (Folke et al. 2005). Collaboration and learning are thus seen as one way for managers and scientists to engage (and not necessarily formally) with different types of knowledge and perspectives. This was the case in Malinau District, Indonesia where forest conservation efforts had to address a weak institutional setting and challenging politics (Wollenberg et al. 2007). Participating actors (including conservation scientists and managers) recognized they were part of that institutional context, not separate from it. In response, they learned through the political and institutional uncertainty to develop ways of cooperating based on regular contact, maintaining a physical presence, staying sensitive to the needs of diverse actors, and being flexible.

Coproducing knowledge from diverse sources

Knowledge of complex and changing systems is required to facilitate evaluation and assessment processes, respond to feedback and negotiate conservation trade-offs (Campbell et al. 2010). However, knowledge to meet these needs is widely distributed. No individual actor (state or nonstate) can ever have the full range of knowledge required to govern resources effectively (Berkes 2010). Empirical studies show that drawing from multiple sources of knowledge, including knowledge from formally trained scientists, policy makers and managers, as well as knowledge of resource users (agriculture producers, fishers, hunters, etc.), can lead to better social and ecological outcomes (Forbes et al. 2006; Pohl et al. 2010). The emphasis in contemporary environmental governance is thus increasingly on the “coproduction of knowledge,” highlighting the value of managers and scientists engaging with diverse actors to build more holistic understandings (Armitage et al. 2011). The emphasis on collaborative process is intended to help overcome the institutional (e.g., power differences among actors) and epistemological challenges associated with the "integration" of traditional and scientific knowledge (see Agrawal 1995; Huntington 2000). Coproduction processes, in contrast, serve to blur epistemologies and the roles of different actors in the making and interpretation of knowledge (see Pohl et al. 2010). For conservation managers, this means supporting decision-making processes which involve meaningful participation, and which do not privilege formal western science over other forms of knowledge.

Joint fact-finding processes where different nonstate and state actors produce knowledge about system conditions, and the strategies to achieve desirable outcomes, are emerging as key to governance processes (Table 1). Nonstate actors are no longer simply knowledge recipients, but also serve as knowledge generators. In an Australian context, for example, catchment-scale planning mechanisms being implemented nationally have emerged as a forum for holders of different kinds of knowledge to engage with each other, and to create a more holistic understanding of environmental and economic water needs (Smiley et al. 2010). Formally, trained experts and government managers may be skeptical of the knowledge of other actors—especially local knowledge of resource users or where knowledge is unwritten or experiential. However, local forms of knowledge often emerge from observations of environmental systems over long periods of time, and in the context of people's daily interactions with the resources upon which they depend (Berkes 2008).

At the core of emerging concerns about knowledge in environmental governance is acceptance that knowledge is dynamic and uncertain because it is formed, validated, and adapted in the context of changing conditions (Davidson-Hunt & O’Flaherty 2007). Where mutual respect for, and trust in, diverse knowledge systems has developed, it has often taken several decades, as is the case in many comanagement situations in Canada's Arctic. In these cases, an enabling policy environment (i.e., comprehensive land claims agreements and legal requirement to consider traditional knowledge), and longer term research partnerships between scientists and resource users has been key to building integrated perspectives. Still, the process of coproducing knowledge is not easy in uncertain conservation settings and experiences are not uniformly positive (Forbes et al. 2006; Armitage et al. 2011).

Understanding the emergence of new actors and their roles

Hybrid forms of governance involve the participation of diverse sets of nonstate actors, as well as new perspectives on actor roles and responsibilities (e.g., the role of the state transitioning from holder of expertise and decision maker, to facilitator or knowledge and decision broker) (Ludwig 2001). The rationales for participation of a greater array of nonstate actors include increased legitimacy, more effective and equitable allocation of resources, costs and benefits, and improved access to a diversity of knowledge and expertise (Bäckstrand et al. 2010). Still, how authority is assumed by nonstate actors is recognized as a fundamental challenge in hybrid or networked governance arrangements (Rhodes 1997; Van Kersbergen & Van Waarden 2004). Such arrangements require careful consideration of the incentives (financial and decision-making power) that frame the participation of diverse interests. For example, Hirsch et al. (2011) point to the significant conservation trade-offs involved in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) public–private partnership schemes, including the potential of increased inequality for people with insecure forest tenure. This example, as well as historical failures to provide appropriate incentives (e.g., limited or weak participation, inclusion of knowledge), illustrates how assurance of meaningful participation for nonstate actors is still necessary even in forms of governance intended to link actors in novel ways (Table 1).

Clearly defined roles and interactions can support effective decision making. Ambiguity of roles would seem to create weak governance systems, with important functions (communication, information gathering, enforcement) inadequately implemented as an outcome of poorly delineated responsibilities (Heinrich 2002; Bäckstrand et al. 2010). At the same time, governance researchers are illustrating that some degree of redundancy and overlap in roles can be beneficial (Dietz et al. 2003). For example, shared responsibility can increase the chance that necessary actions will be completed. Increased complexity associated with overlapping roles requires continuous negotiation of the many manifestations of power among actors (e.g., control, resistance, solidarity) and the negative and positive implications for conservation.

These challenges are increasingly important given the trend in contemporary conservation practice to devolve power and responsibility (Ribot & Larson 2005; Lemos & Agrawal 2006; Berkes 2010). Devolution of power and responsibility from state to nonstate actors works best where formal policy and regulatory support from the state are provided, but there is still a risk that power can be captured by elites (Ribot & Larson 2005). Enabling policy helps to improve social acceptance of distributed powers to nonstate actors, address concerns about equity and distributive conflicts, and better deal with transboundary issues. Bridging organizations have emerged as one key way to build necessary links between communities and the state, and science and policy (Folke et al. 2005). Bridging organizations may have specialized roles, but they also function across or outside defined roles, and therefore, provide the context for different actors to make sense of information, learn about conservation challenges, and work together to build knowledge in a collaborative manner (Table 1). These are the major findings from an analysis of community conservation cases associated with the UNDP Equator Initiative (Berkes 2007). That analysis highlighted the important role of bridging organizations in coordinating information flows and linking conservation actors vertically and horizontally. Interestingly, these linkages were shown to be dynamic and evolve over time, and even exhibit a degree of role redundancy.

Changing expectations about accountability and legitimacy

Accountability and legitimacy are typically determined by legislation and supporting regulations (e.g., environmental protection acts), and through formal agency mandates associated with those regulations. However, in networked models of governance with dispersed power and incentives among an increasing number of state and nonstate actors, the sources of accountability and legitimacy become less clear. Accountability and legitimacy, for example, may also be derived from moral positions or nonformal relationships of trust (see Brinkerhoff 2005), between conservation managers and resource users. Accountability (formal, informal) can thus be characterized by: (1) reasonable clarity regarding roles and responsibilities (even when overlap is present); (2) consequences regarding performance; (3) responsiveness to other actors; (4) sets of checks and balances and transparency; and (5) the free flow of information and open systems of communication (Heinrich 2002; Bäckstrand et al. 2010). These conditions are more easily achieved in hierarchical or top-down modes of governance, but will be more difficult to achieve in diffuse, networked approaches to governance based, for example, on markets or cooperative modes (Table 1).

In the Murray–Darling Basin example referred earlier, questions of accountability and legitimacy have not been straightforward. Authority and responsibility for water conservation and allocation are delineated through a host of laws and policies at the Commonwealth and State levels, but irrigators in New South Wales are skeptical about the legitimacy of community-based catchment planning (Kuehne & Bjornlund 2006). Increasingly, scientists and managers will need to recognize accountability trade-offs associated with different governance models (see Figure 1), and what that may mean for the sources and types of knowledge required, the learning processes that foster adaptiveness, and conservation outcomes. Although hybrid forms of governance may help address uncertainty, they can act also as window dressing for well-established dilemmas in the absence of adequate consideration of diverse values among actors and different ethical perspectives (Fennell et al. 2008).

Future directions and insights for conservation practitioners

This brief review draws attention to contemporary environmental governance experience and what shifts in governance may mean for conservation managers and scientists. Governance has become a major concern because of a desire to bring about change in the way decisions are made. Traditional, government-led approaches to decision making have not, and perhaps cannot, create the conservation outcomes that are desired because of the complexity and multiscale reality of most conservation problems, and because no one actor will be able to resolve these problems on their own. Hybrid forms of governance emerging in response may hold promise but they too must be carefully considered in terms of the conservation outcomes they may generate.

It was not the goal in this article to provide a formulaic set of prescriptions for effective environmental governance. As we demonstrated in the article, the appropriate mechanisms, and the kinds of challenges faced, are highly dependent on context. Nonetheless, a growing environmental governance literature can inform the actions of conservation professionals, help to identify research needs for a particular conservation settings, and can contribute to refinement of practice, testing of hypotheses and support for the examination of policy uptake (see also Tacconi 2011) (Table 1). Several key insights are particularly relevant:

  • 1New shared governance mechanisms are being created whereas existing regulatory mechanisms remain in place. To avoid conflicts and to help ensure successful outcomes, greater care will be needed to address questions of fit among these various mechanisms, and critically, how they match biophysical realities and deal with ecological change.
  • 2Interactions among the various spatial boundaries important to governance should be a priority. Networks can be used effectively to transcend these boundaries, but an ongoing commitment to creating and sustaining these formal and informal governance networks is required.
  • 3Adaptive and multilevel governance approaches for change and uncertainty can help to deal with complexity. As governance is transformed, especially through legal and regulatory mechanisms, it will be critical to ensure that the capacity for adaptation is fostered, while accountability and legitimacy are maintained.
  • 4The knowledge needed to deal with complex social–ecological systems takes different forms (e.g., scientific and local) and is held by actors outside of governments. It is important to recognize that nonstate actors can be knowledge generators as well as knowledge recipients.
  • 5How conservation managers and scientists interact with each other and with other actors in conservation settings, and the choices they make, are central to the emergence of particular governance configurations and their outcomes.

Ways of governing are deeply entrenched in most settings in which conservation professionals work. Implementing new ways to govern will require a significant effort and a sustained commitment on the part of all the participants. Past experiences around the world demonstrate that change is most likely in situations where institutional arrangements are weak and problems clearly are not being solved. Sudden shifts in the trajectory of governance are possible in these cases as policy windows emerge (Gelcich et al. 2010). However, change can be bidirectional. Examples also exist where more adaptive and collaborative forms of governance have been replaced with more traditional, state-centric, and hierarchical approaches. Governance to navigate conservation dilemmas is invariably contested, and ultimately about trade-offs. Understanding the ecological and social dimensions of those trade-offs as they shift through time and space is crucial to successful conservation outcomes.


We gratefully acknowledge Alberta Environment and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for supporting this work. Constructive comments from three anonymous reviewers helped to improve the manuscript.