Insights on linking forests, trees, and people from the air, on the ground, and in the laboratory
Governing natural resources sustainably is a continuing struggle. Major debates occur over what types of policy “interventions” best protect forests, with choices of property and land tenure systems being central issues. Herein, we provide an overview of findings from a long-term interdisciplinary, multiscale, international research program that analyzes the institutional factors affecting forests managed under a variety of tenure arrangements. This program analyzes satellite images, conducts social-ecological measurements on the ground, and tests the impact of structural variables on human decisions in experimental laboratories. Satellite images track the landscape dimensions of forest-cover change within different management regimes over time. On-the-ground social-ecological studies examine relationships between forest conditions and types of institutions. Behavioral studies under controlled laboratory conditions enhance our understanding of explicit changes in structure that affect relevant human decisions. Evidence from all three research methods challenges the presumption that a single governance arrangement will control overharvesting in all settings. When users are genuinely engaged in decisions regarding rules affecting their use, the likelihood of them following the rules and monitoring others is much greater than when an authority simply imposes rules. Our results support a frontier of research on the most effective institutional and tenure arrangements for protecting forests. They move the debate beyond the boundaries of protected areas into larger landscapes where government, community, and comanaged protected areas are embedded and help us understand when and why deforestation and regrowth occur in specific regions within these larger landscapes.