The management of the Yellowstone River's resources is complex. As a physical system, the river traverses well over 600 miles of the western United States, and its mechanics are varied and complicated. The river hosts a variety of biotic communities, including an array of aquatic, terrestrial and avian communities, as well as endangered and invasive species. The river serves the immediate needs of agriculturalists, municipalities, recreationists, residentialists and a variety of other local industries in Montana and North Dakota. As a tributary to the Missouri River, and as an upstream source of water to the Mississippi River, it is an important national resource. Jurisdictionally, it is overseen by more than two dozen local, state and federal governmental entities and agencies. In sum, the management challenges presented by the Yellowstone River are wickedly complex.
Rittel and Webber (1973) describe wicked problems as those that include a wide range of political, economic, and social problems. They explain that wicked concerns are likely to interconnect multiple types of problems, especially as changes in physical and social dynamics become apparent. Wicked problems often manifest conflicts in which stakeholders bring to bear significantly different perspectives. These constituencies introduce any number of contrasting and competing ideological, cultural, political, and economic constraints. As a consequence, solutions to wicked problems are never wholly right or wrong; rather, solutions are simply better or worse within a specific context. Over time, wicked problems are not permanently solved, but they are affected by iterative initiatives that create ever-new dynamics that must, in turn, to be addressed (Conklin, 2006). Moreover, because effective resource management strategies must continually adapt to new information regarding changing physical and social dynamics, flexible governance is necessary to deal with the wicked problems, especially when those dynamic involve shared or public resources.
Efforts to locate governance processes at the local level allow for such flexibility (Turner, 1999), but this flexibility is often in tension with demands for the broadly "appropriate social and structural responses" required of state and federal entities (Steelman and Kunkel, 2004). Policy compliance is often a function of how well local officials mediate the differences in perspectives between particular resource users and state and federal resource authorities. Local leaders are asked to simultaneously attend a variety of local users' interests and to insure conformity with state and federal regulations. All the while, they must operate with integrity as neighbors and as officials. They are called upon to reconcile the complications that emerge when the interests of their communities are combined with the shifting and multiplicity requirements of larger governing units. In other words, they find themselves at this concentrated hub of wickedness. Even so, little attention has specifically focused on local leaders and their capacities to deal with wicked problems.
Concerning the Yellowstone River, events since 1996 make this river a potentially insightful situation to analyze. Specifically, back-to-back floods in 1996 and 1997 were mechanically powerful and severe bank erosion left some houses, previously 100 feet from the riverbank, with their riverside foundations exposed. Others homes were lost entirely to the river. By 1998, particularly in Park County, Montana, the number of requests for bank stabilization permits soared as landowners sought permissions to protect their private properties.
However, public objections were raised when it was made clear that the permitting process simply reviewed proposals in terms of their immediately traceable effects while no attention was given to the cumulative impacts of (perhaps) hundreds of projects. Among the many disputed claims still discussed today are concerns regarding the potential effects of bank stabilization activities on riparian zones and fisheries. …