The Fight for the West: A Political Ecology of Land Use Conflicts in Arizona

By Brogden, Mette J.; Greenberg, James B. | Human Organization, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Fight for the West: A Political Ecology of Land Use Conflicts in Arizona


Brogden, Mette J., Greenberg, James B., Human Organization


The commoditization of natural resources in a global economic system and the territorialization practices of nation-states present formidable challenges to the sustainable use of natural resources. Likewise, certain environmental problems such as growth management and residential sprawl have proved intractable to our existing political processes. This case study of grazing and growth conflicts in Arizona demonstrates that intractable environmental problems may actually be emergent properties of complex systems, requiring new political approaches that foster collaboration and knowledge sharing between disputing stakeholders. One such collaboration in Arizona revealed that attempts to remove grazing from Arizona landscapes could actually be to the detriment of biodiversity, contrary to the expectations of grazing critics.

Key words: grazing, environmental conflict, land tenure, politics, sprawl, Arizona

Since World War II migration to western states has increased dramatically, in recent years resulting in residential sprawl and creating conflicts between urban and rural populations over land use on millions of acres of public land. The issues are far more complex than public debates and proposed solutions would indicate (see Sheridan 2001). Ultimately, at stake in these conflicts are not just the values and interests of these groups, but how humans can inhabit landscapes and use natural resources sustainably.

In this essay we tap political ecology, the science of complexity, and the field of environmental conflict resolution (ECR) to understand the issues around land-use conflicts in Arizona and to frame the problem of sustainability. These approaches may also help us to reintegrate the ecological, economic, and sociopolitical aspects of systems that have been the special purview of narrow disciplines and so open a space for building more effective understandings and solutions to broad-scale environmental problems.

The Problem of Sustainability1

Ecological systems evolve logics of interaction and production based on such processes as nutrient cycling, energy flows, and water cycles. Ecological regions or zones may be characterized by their specific elements (such as soil types, geomorphology, elevation, climate) that together create the potential for biotic production at an identifiable level and diversity, even given their stochastic nature (see Brogden n.d.). Overextraction of natural resources can degrade or significantly alter elements of an ecosystem, "tipping" it beyond its ability to recover from the external perturbation to sustain the same degree of biotic productivity and diversity. In theory, sustainable natural resource use implies: 1) that extractive activities do not outstrip a resource in the short term; and 2) that the ecological system in which it is embedded maintains the ability to regenerate the resource over the long term.

The economic sustainability of an enterprise or a household requires that income exceed expenditures by a sufficient margin to meet its needs overtime. Economic systems evolve logics of interaction and production based on prices, markets, and costs that are quite different from those governing ecological systems. The problem for policy makers is how to reconcile these very different rationalities.

If there is to be a sustainable intersection between economic and ecological functioning, governance structures and social institutions are needed that enable resource users to accommodate (and even benefit from) the temporal and spatial variability of natural resources. At the same time, these institutions must successfully mediate two things: competing claims to resources; and the different outcome timescales associated with economic decision making and ecological functioning. Ideally, mechanisms are available to resolve conflicts over competing claims peaceably and stably, and natural resources allocation balances the need for moderation in use of resources against the need for extraction at levels sufficient to support households or business enterprises. …

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