Inclusive Conservation through Social Learning in Alaska Protected Areas

Published: 29 June 2021
Last edited: 29 June 2021
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The Denali region of Interior Alaska faces social and environmental pressures related to rapid landscape change. Although the communities there are tight-knit and linked by their shared connection to the area, local stakeholders can feel excluded from regional decision-making to address resource management issues. One potential pathway toward more inclusive decision-making is having residents learn from and adapt to one another in discussions about landscape change, thereby strengthening underrepresented voices through collective knowledge building. Community deliberation can be challenging to get started, but social learning is a conservation tool that can facilitate shared dialogue based on understanding the many and diverse values related to public land management through community deliberation. This solution is based on the concept of socially inclusive conservation, which aims to represent how people value nature to improve protected area management. 


North America
Scale of implementation
Forest ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
River, stream
Wetland (swamp, marsh, peatland)
Access and benefit sharing
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Forest Management
Health and human wellbeing
Indigenous people
Local actors
Protected and conserved areas governance
Protected and conserved areas management planning
Watershed management
Increasing temperatures
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Infrastructure development
Changes in socio-cultural context
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Social conflict and civil unrest
Sustainable development goals
SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions
Aichi targets
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge
Business engagement approach
Direct engagement with a company
Direct engagement with associations


Interior Alaska
Denali Borough, Alaska, United States
Northern Matanuska-Susitna Valley


Our solution is aimed at addressing the interconnected environmental, social, and economic challenges in the Denali region. Some of the challenges include shifting weather and climate regimes due to climate change, the increasing risk of wildfire due to Spruce Beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis), and concerns about how to best preserve of unique features of Denali landscape—such as the solitude, soundscape, and the expansive, rugged terrain—for future generations. Tensions and a lack of communication often exist between select stakeholder groups. As a result, some residents have expressed frustration over the lack of meaningful representation of different voices in public decision-making. Industrial tourism is one of the major economic challenges, because it brings jobs and the opportunity to sustain livelihoods in a rural landscape, while also focusing development on supporting visitors rather than preserving features of the landscape valued by residents who live in the area.


The project aims to increase engagement within and between residents, businesses, government agencies, and other decision-makers who are shaping the future of the region. The scientific community is also a key target audience for this research.

How do the building blocks interact?

The solution highlights the importance of building relationships and collective understandings over time to support inclusive decision-making about protected area management. The building blocks from the Denali region of Interior Alaska represent an iterative process, where each step has built off the last. The means and end goals for the project revolve around facilitating community deliberation about protected area management and identifying points of (mis)alignment in the diverse array of stakeholder perspectives. However, integrating these different understandings from stakeholders back into collective knowledge for conservation of the Denali region and beyond then becomes a new baseline, from which to develop future partnerships and capacity building.


The solution has connected community members and local stakeholders from various interest groups across the Denali region. Building local partnerships helps to identify the needs of people living in the area and research directions that are the most meaningful for residents. Understanding residents’ connections with the Denali landscape is the second critical step in the solution, which results in building trust and shared understanding with a tight-knit community wary of newcomers or temporary residents who do not intimately love or understand the region like they do. Activities, such as a survey about visioning the future of the region highlight key trade-offs that people make to adapt to landscape change, the importance of multiple values to predict engagement in stewardship activities, and the role of trust in shaping residents’ perceptions of inclusivity. Social learning through community deliberation also results in residents gaining knowledge about diverse perspectives and building valuable relationships to increase community capacity for engaging in regional decision-making. The interconnected outcomes from the building blocks are being continually reintegrated into the collective understanding of the Denali region through webinars, workshops, and meetings with government and industry leaders.


Van Riper Lab

Solutions are a journey. The ENVISION project has involved residents sharing their connections with local environments and opening up about the challenges surrounding resource management across diverse interest groups. We initiated this project to understand the perspectives of local residents around Denali National Park and Preserve and Denali State Park in Alaska, but had not fully appreciated the difficulties of in-depth conversations about topics that were central to people’s identities and heritage, as well as steeped in the lived experiences of a contentious history. In our first focus group, we visited the Native Village of Cantwell to learn about the notoriously mixed relationships residents had with management agencies of nearby lands. Our presence was met with resistance among those who had felt previously betrayed by public participation events. These residents spent more than two hours sharing their frustrations about what appeared to them to be more disingenuous outreach; concerns were shared that not all voices had been heard in the past and that land use policies often failed to represent all people, including Native Alaskans. After this event, we dedicated the following weeks to building relationships with these individuals and discussing their concerns. By the end of our visit, attendees felt comfortable enough to speak openly with us about their values, with the hope that our project would provide a pathway for them to communicate more directly with decision-makers. This experience helped us to appreciate the complexities of deep-seated historical relationships between people and places, and the need for an open dialogue to understand how residents respond to agencies that manage public lands in Alaska. Over the next two years, our research process involving listening sessions, surveys and planning workshops has been open to these honest (albeit difficult) appraisals of conflict around landscape change given their power to build a constructive conversation grounded in appreciation and respect for others. The ENVISION project continues to work toward greater understanding and enhanced communication about diverse interests and how they are (or are not) represented in environmental policies. The continual set of actions adopted through our research thus provide a guide for all stakeholders – including residents, scientists and resource management agencies – for their journey of co-creating inclusive conservation solutions in the Denali region of Alaska, US.

Contributed by

riley.m.andrade_39733's picture

Riley Andrade University of Florida, University of Illinois

Other contributors

University of Illinois
University of Illinois
Dana Johnson
University of Illinois
Devin Goodson
University of Illinois
Evan Salcido
University of Illinois
Norwegian Institute for Nature Research
Erik Johnson
The National Park Service