When the pendulum doesn't find its center: Environmental narratives, strategies, and forest policy change in the US Pacific Northwest

Georg Winkel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Since the 1980s, the US Pacific Northwest has been shattered by a major environmental policy conflict related to the management of Federal forests. These "timber wars" were similar to forest environmental policy conflicts in several other countries, but were particularly polarized. They resulted in a significant change in Federal forest policy from timber production orientation to biodiversity conservation. The change occurred suddenly and had significant economic and social consequences within the region and beyond, but was embedded in long-term societal and institutional trends.In this paper, I adopt an interpretive approach in order to, first, understand contemporary interpretations of the 1993 policy change and, second, to reconstruct the contemporary discursive 'landscape' of the Pacific Northwest including the major resource management paradigms and narratives that guide policy making in this region today. Empirically, my interpretation is mostly built on 37 qualitative interviews with policy stakeholders that were conducted in the summer of 2011.Based on this evidence, the paper argues that there are four narratives circulating amongst policy stakeholders that represent different conceptualizations of the 1993 policy change. Yet, all narratives highlight the importance of environmental strategy making that mobilized the socio-institutional setting in order to prepare and finally achieve the change.Current forest policy in the region is characterized by a policy stalemate resulting from the confluence of diverse institutional, context-related factors and the inability of stakeholders to create enough contradictions or crisis by combining these factors in order to promote change-enabling narratives. Four resource management paradigms compete in the region and, within these, narratives and counter narratives on physical and social events are developed. Current forest policy is dominated by an ecosystem management paradigm, but forest management practices aim to reconcile demands arising from the different paradigms to a certain degree, for instance via the concept of "ecological restoration". Yet, given that the material base that feeds such compromises is finite, a new crisis in Pacific Northwest forest policy in the future is likely.In conclusion, this paper offers an interpretation of Pacific Northwest forest policy (change) as a process in which social and physical events are 'discursively mobilized' by means of narratives that are produced against the background of major natural resources paradigms. This includes the art of 'discourse agents' in constructing problematizations and intervention logics to either defend the current policy state or to increase the likelihood of change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-95
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Discourse analysis
  • Interpretive policy analysis
  • Narratives
  • Policy change
  • Political strategies
  • Resource management paradigm


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