Learning to Burn, Burning to Learn: Transforming Professionals and Organizations through the US Fire Learning Network

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Virginia Tech


Since the 1970s, the institution of fire management has been in a frustrated transition from fire suppression and control to ecologically informed fire management. Administrative boundaries, professional specializations and organizational incentives and funding mechanisms have stalled the adoption of landscape scale ecological fire restoration as a guiding paradigm. Using a case study approach, this dissertation examines the potential of a multi-scalar collaborative network, the US Fire Learning Network (FLN), to catalyze the changes necessary to overcome the frustrated transition. Established in 2002 in an agreement between the USDA Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the US Department of Interior, the FLN operates at landscape, regional and national scales. In this multi-scalar context, the network utilizes planning technologies, communication modalities, and interpersonal interaction to link participants at each scale and motivate them to enhance their collaborative ecological restoration planning capacities. The network directly addresses the challenges of the frustrated transition by enabling practitioners to collaborate across administrative and disciplinary boundaries, develop expertise in ecological fire restoration planning and management, and to inform policy changes at the federal level that can create new incentives and funding mechanisms that support landscape scale ecological restoration. While institutional transformation has yet to occur, the FLN sets the stage to address the core challenges that fire management practitioners and organizations face as they engage in landscape scale ecological fire restoration. This work provides theoretical and practical insights to collaborative planning research by introducing new forms of collaborative practice, describing how collaborative planning can be conducted across multiple scales simultaneously, and establishing how multi-scalar collaborative networks may be able to catalyze institutional change necessary to respond to complex cross scalar environmental problems.



collaborative planning, learning networks, ecological restoration, institutional change, fire management