To do or not to do dealing with the dilemma of intervention in Swedish nature conservation

University dissertation from Umeå : Umeå universitet

Abstract: Nature conservation is often seen as being primarily about shielding parts of nature from human intervention, e.g. by protecting areas. Over the last decades, however, intervention is increasingly being seen as necessary for nature to regain or retain its values, through ecological restoration and active management. This complicates simple assumptions that ‘nature knows best’ and raises dilemmas which are hotly debated in the scholarly literature around ecological restoration, protected area management, environmental ethics and green political theory. However, how these dilemmas are dealt with in actual policy struggles among the conservation professionals who make management decisions is less studied.This thesis explores how issues regarding active intervention in nature are represented, debated and institutionalized within Swedish nature conservation, and to what effect. The empirical focus lies on policy struggles around the designation and management of protected forests and around efforts to save a nationally threatened bird species, the white-backed woodpecker. My analytical framework is informed by Argumentative Discourse Analysis and Political Discourse Theory, to which I contribute a further elaboration of the notion of discourse institutionalization. Based on documents and interviews with conservation professionals, I identify competing articulations of the ends and means of conservation and relate these to scholarly debates around ecological restoration and interventionist conservation management. The analysis further focuses on how elements of the different policy discourses are institutionalized in rules, routines or official policy documents.Two main competing policy discourses are found: one focused on leaving pristine nature to develop freely, and one focused on active, adaptive management for biodiversity. While the former has previously been said to characterize the Swedish conservation bureaucracy, my analysis shows it is now widely seen as outdated. Arguments which in the scholarly literature are associated with an ethically informed defense of nature’s autonomy are here dismissed as emotional, aesthetic and thus unscientific concerns, delegitimizing them within the rational, science-based public administration for nature conservation. In contrast, biodiversity is broadly forwarded as a self-evident goal for active intervention, in line with both science and policy requirements. Adaptive management for biodiversity is in that sense the dominant discourse. Still, the older discourse is institutionalized in the purposes and management plans of existing nature reserves, and its defenders have also succeeded in strengthening that institutionalization through new and more restrictive guidelines. The findings suggest that this has been possible not only because of the gate-keeping role of a few centrally placed actors, but also because their restrictive stance resonates with the outside threat of exploitation which organizes the common order of discourse. Naturalness, a term described as irrelevant by some proponents of adaptive management for biodiversity, is also shown to remain a shared concern in several ways. The results thus highlight the importance of both entrenched common sense and institutionalization of certain logics or arguments in authoritative documents. The main theoretical contribution of the thesis consists in clarifying the effects of such discourse institutionalization — using the terms durability, legibility and leverage — and showing how the processes of negotiation, re-interpretation and modification of institutions are more dynamic than some accounts of discourse institutionalization suggest.Rather than trying to resolve (and thus remove) the dilemma of intervention, the thesis points to the importance of keeping open discussion of the ultimately unanswerable questions about intervention in nature alive in both theory and practice.