Community Readiness for Environmental Change: A Pilot Study in a Minnesota Forest-Associated Community

Project PIs:

Mae Davenport, Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota

Marla Emery, USDA Forest Service Northern Forest Research Station

Pamela Jakes, USDA Forest Service Northern Forest Research Station (retired)

Supported by:

USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station

Project Description

Through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, University of Minnesota researchers are investigating community capacity to anticipate and respond to environmental change in northern Minnesota forest-associated communities. The primary goals of the project are to develop, pilot and refine an adaptive capacity rapid assessment tool for use in forest-associated communities to assess and build community capacity.


  1. Identify community assets and sensitivities in the context of environmental change
  2. Assess critical capacities and constraints that may affect the community’s ability to adapt to change
  3. Provide recommendations to the community in building capacity to adapt to environmental change
  4. Pilot and refine an adaptive capacity rapid assessment (ACRA) tool for use in other communities to assess and build community capacity.


Many northern Minnesota communities, like forest-associated communities across the U.S., are particularly connected to and dependent on the health and functioning of surrounding forests, whether for economic, social, cultural, recreation, or other benefits. In short, community well-being and forest ecosystem health are inextricably linked (Kusel 2003). Every forest-associated community is unique and has varying conditions, capacities, and constraints that make it particularly vulnerable or resilient to environmental change (Smith, Moore, Anderson, & Siderelis 2012). Moreover, the effects of environmental change and forest impacts are not evenly distributed geographically or socially. Different communities (e.g., indigenous communities with forest-dependent cultural practices, nature-based tourism-dependent communities) and social subgroups within communities (e.g., individuals working in forest products industries, families dependent on forest species for subsistence living) may be more or less sensitive to these impacts and more or less able to adapt.

As resource professionals, community leaders, and organizations help communities prepare for change, community assessment work becomes increasingly important. Knowing a community’s vulnerabilities to environmental change is central to building capacity. The adaptive capacity rapid assessment (ACRA) process piloted and tools developed in this study were designed to identify forest-associated communities’ assets, sensitivities, capacities and constraints associated with adaptive capacity and to explore past and future community responses to change.

A human community’s vulnerability or resilience to changes in its environment is largely a function of its sensitivity to stressors and its ability to adapt (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2001). Adaptive capacity, or the resources and social processes that can be leveraged by the community to monitor, anticipate, and proactively manage change (Plummer & Armitage 2010), varies community by community. In addition, the intensity, scale and timing of environmental changes affect a community’s vulnerability. Environmental changes can be immediate in the form of catastrophic events such as windstorms, wildland fire, or flooding, or they can be incremental stressors in the form of slow perturbations such as invasive species, shifts in forest types or water quality degradation. While models exist that predict ecosystem responses to change (for forest change example see Minnesota Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis (Handler et al, forthcoming), considerably less is known about the social and cultural impacts of environmental change and how human communities might best adapt to change.

Pilot Study Methods

The study was conducted in the city of Walker, Minnesota and included Walker residents and residents of nearby communities as participants. Walker is the county seat of Cass County. The city is bordered on the north and east by Leech Lake and the Leech Lake Reservation and on the south and west by the Chippewa National Forest. Community data were gathered through in-depth interviews and focus groups with active community residents, local decision-makers and area resource professionals. An adaptive capacity rapid assessment (ACRA) process was used. Rapid assessments involve a team of researchers to investigate complex social and policy issues (Beebe 2001). This methodology is well-suited for assessments of adaptive capacity in forest-associated communities because of the diversity of stakeholders and perspectives on forest management involved. Interview questions were developed to examine foundational resources including assets and sensitivities and mobilizing resources including four levels of adaptive capacities within the community: individual, relational, organizational, and programmatic capacity (see Davenport & Seekamp 2013, Pradhananga & Davenport 2013).

Community data were gathered through in-depth interviews and focus groups with community residents, local decision-makers and area resource professionals in the Walker area. A total of 23 in-person interviews were conducted with 25 total participants between October and December 2011. Two interviews were small group interviews with two individuals each. Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and two hours. Three focus groups were conducted with a total of 18 participants in February and March 2012. Focus groups lasted two hours. Participants were recruited by telephone and the “snowball” sampling technique in which study participants and other key informants were asked to recommend potential interviewees who have expertise or are active in community and natural resource issues.

Interview and focus group data were analyzed for underlying convergent and divergent themes relevant to the guiding research objectives. Researchers used standard thematic qualitative analysis methods adapted from Corbin and Strauss (2008), Krueger and Casey (2000), and Charmaz (2006) to code and organize the data, identify predominant themes, and explore relationships and patterns among themes.


  1. Adaptive capacity rapid assessment tools for communities
  2. Technical report to be shared with project partners and local community members
  3. At least one peer-reviewed journal article


Beebe, J. (2001). Rapid assessment process: An introduction. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Charmaz, K. 2006. Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. 2008. Basics of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Davenport, M.A., & Seekamp, E. (2013). A multilevel model of community capacity for sustainable watershed management. Society and Natural Resources: An International Journal. 26(9), 1101-1111.

Handler, S., Duveneck, M. J., Iverson, L., Peters, E., Scheller, R.M., Wythers, K.R., Brandt, L., Butler, P., Janowiak, M., Swanston, C., Kolka, R., McQuiston, C., Palik, B., Reich, P.B., Turner, C., White, M., Adams, C., Barrett, K., D'Amato, A., Hagell, S., Johnson, R., Johnson, P., Larson, M., Matthews, S., Montgomery, R., Olson, S., Peters, M., Prasad, A., Rajala, J., Shannon, P.D., Daley, J., Davenport, M.A., Emery, M.R., Fehringer, D., Hoving, C.L., Johnson, G., Johnson, L., Neitzel, D., Rissman, A., Rittenhouse, C., & Ziel, R. (forthcoming). Minnesota Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis: A report from the Northwoods Climate Change Response Framework. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-XX. Newtown Square, PA; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. XXX p.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2001). Climate change 2001: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Krueger, R.A., & Casey, M.A. 2000. Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Kusel, J. (2003). Introduction. In J. Kusel, J. & E. Adler (Eds.), Forest communities, community forests. (pp. xv-xxi). Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Plummer, R. and D. Armitage. (2010). Integrating perspectives on adaptive capacity and environmental governance. In R. Plummer & D. Armitage (Eds.), Adaptive capacity and environmental governance. (pp. 1-22). New York: Springer.

Pradhananga, A. & Davenport, M.A. (2013). A community capacity assessment study in the Minnehaha Creek Watershed, Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota. 64 pp.

Smith, J.W., Moore, R.L., Anderson, D.H., & Siderelis, C. (2012). Community resilience in Southern Appalachia: A theoretical framework and three case studies. Human Ecology, 40, 341-353.