Environmental Policy Dispute

Public Policy and Environmental Conflicts

Juliana Birkhoff
Heidi Burgess

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess


What they are about:

Environmental and public policy conflicts frequently begin over disagreements about the access to, use and control of public lands and resources, protection of species, and how to maintain a safe environment. Conflicts can arise if individuals or groups are not involved in decisions that affect them, or if resources are distributed inequitably. Individuals and organizations also have differences about the public policies that address human interactions and uses of the natural environment.

Environmental and public policy conflicts are also about different values. Some people might value protecting the environment above all else, while others may see the need for national energy independence to be more important. Or one group may want to protect open space, while another group values housing growth to accommodate a growing population and to provide "affordable housing." These value differences affect the issues that people pay attention to, the ways that they understand those issues, and the actions they take. Since values are often very important and the differences very pronounced, such conflicts can often become severe and very difficult to manage or resolve.

Environmental and public policy conflicts are also complicated because people have different beliefs about the relationship between people and the environment. Some people believe that people are separate from nature, while others think we are part of it. Similarly, some people believe that natural resources are important for the benefits they provide for people, while others see them as important in their own right. These differences contribute to environmental conflict because they determine how people define the issues and how they decide to address them.

People also differ in their perceptions about benefits and risks. Some people, for instance, see the risk of nuclear power as far in excess of any benefits. Others argue that nuclear power is much safer than riding in a car — and we all do that all the time. These perceptions profoundly affect what people pay attention to and generate intense emotional interactions.

Why they can be difficult to resolve:

Environmental and public policy conflicts often involve many parties and many issues. Often the parties are indistinct or amorphous.  –Some may be organized environmental groups, government agencies, or corporations, while others are simply concerned individuals who may organize together in one way for awhile, break apart, and coalesce in a different way later on. Groups express these grievances and pursue these disputes in overlapping jurisdictions and fora. While one group may be negotiating, another may be pursuing a lawsuit. Furthermore, these conflicts involve a confusing array of local, cultural, economic, social, legal, and scientific information. Not only is this hard to collect, it is frequently hard to understand and  interpret. Oftentimes critical pieces of information are simply not knowable: scientists may disagree about likely impacts of a proposal or past harms that have occurred. Finally, they are likely to become difficult to resolve because they involve inter-generational benefits and risks, and problems of resources that belong to all (public lands).

Ways such conflicts are handled:

Typically, public policy and environmental conflicts were handled through "expert" governmental processes--–administrative, judicial, or both. Scientists and policy makers at government agencies would issue regulations, which, more often than not would be challenged in court by the affected groups. This was a very time consuming and costly way to make decisions. As a result, alternative processes have been developed and are used with increasing frequency. One is negotiated rulemaking, in which all the interested parties meet with the administrative agency to jointly develop rules which meet the needs of all parties, thus avoiding a legal challenge after the rules are issued. Also  common is collaborative problem solving or consensus building, a large-scale mediation process in which a facilitator helps all of the interest groups sit down together and hammer out an agreement to resolve public policy or environmental disputes to the satisfaction of all parties. Unlike family or community mediation efforts, which may involve only two parties and be concluded in one or a few sessions, collaborative problem solving may involve ten or even 50 parties, and take many months or even years to conclude. Thus, this is not necessarily a faster way to resolve disputes, but it is still often less expensive, may well still be faster, and it certainly is more likely to come up with a solution that is acceptable to all.


The Everglades in Florida is a highly degraded ecosystem, desperately in need of restoration.  The water so essential to the marsh's habitat is inadqueate in quantity, quality, distribution, and timing, resulting in a decline in the bird population (among other species) by 90 percent (according to the National Park Service).  As a result, in 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan--a 30 year plan that is expected to cost over $10 billion dollars to complete.  

Enacting this plan, however, has proven highly challenging.  A 20+ year history of tension and mistrust between the major stakeholders--which include the  U.S. Corps of Engineers, Everglades National Park, the US Fish and Wildlife Service,and  the South Florida Water Management District made planning slow and extremely difficult.  However, from January 2001 - March 2005, the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (USIECR) was engaged to bring the primary parties together for a long-running consensus building proces.  Eighteen months later, this resulted in an Interim Operating Plan approved by all the parties in 2002, and follow on planning and implementation prgorams after that.  In early 2006, the participating agencies agreed to a long-term plan for restoration that they all supported.  Although USIECR is no longer involved, the federal and state agencies agreed that collaboration was "a must," and that they would continue to use it themselves as they worked together and with other stakeholders regarding restoration issues in the future. 

Links to Related Articles:

Public Participation
Collaborative Problem Solving and Consensus Building