Adapting to Climate Change: Assessing the Adaptive Capacity of Tribal and Non-Tribal Communities in the Upper Great Lakes

Project Partners: 

  • Pamela Jakes, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station, St. Paul, MN,
  • Mae Davenport, Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN,

Project Summary:

A human community’s ability to respond to changes in its environment is directed by its adaptive capacity—foundational and mobilizing resources that can be leveraged by the community to monitor and adapt to stressors and disturbances. While models exist that predict ecological impacts and responses to climate change, little is known about the social and cultural impacts of climate change or potential human community responses. This project will result in tools to assess and build adaptive capacity to respond to climate change in tribal and non-tribal communities in the Upper Great Lakes.


  1. Explore past community responses and future vulnerabilities to ecological and social stressors.
  2. Identify capacities at the individual, relational and organizational level critical to adaptation to ecological change.
  3. Establish opportunities and strategies for monitoring and building adaptive capacity.
  4. Develop, refine and disseminate adaptive capacity rapid assessment tools in collaboration with and for use by resource managers and community decision makers in tribal and non-tribal communities across the Upper Great Lakes.


Climate change has the potential to seriously threaten America’s forests and impact forest-associated communities in the upper Midwest and elsewhere. As forests adapt to a changing climate, human communities that depend on forests and their ecological and social (including cultural) services will also need to adapt to minimize potential negative impacts and exploit new opportunities that may arise. If resource managers, decision makers and local organizations are to help communities adapt, they must be able to quickly assess vulnerabilities and the adaptive capacity of a community to efficiently and effectively employ resources (e.g., new knowledge, people and funds) that enhance conditions that contribute to adaptive capacity. This research will produce two rapid assessment tools (one for tribal and one for non-tribal communities) to allow local actors to conduct such an assessment.

Resource managers, community decision-makers, and other local stakeholders need an assessment and decision support tool that will enable identification of vulnerabilities and capacities so that resources can be targeted strategically. Because the PIs and project partners are keenly aware that elements of adaptive capacity and their relative importance vary both within and across tribal and non-tribal communities, we will develop two rapid assessment tools based on pilots in two tribal and non-tribal forest-associated communities.

The rapid assessment tools will be used by and integrated within Climate Chage Response Framework (CCRF).  The geographic scope of the CCRF is broadly Province 212 (regional ecological unit) in Northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so the proposed project will cover this same geographic area. A rapid assessment tool for non-tribal communities is currently being piloted in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station for one northern Minnesota community. The proposed project will pilot and refine the tool in one tribal community in northern Minnesota, as well as two tribal and non-tribal communities in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (i.e., five total communities). The communities selected are forest-associated communities which we define for our purposes as being proximate to a national forest (e.g., Chippewa, Chequamegon-Nicolet, and Ottawa National Forests).


Understanding human community adaptation requires a pragmatic approach tailored to a community’s social and cultural conditions and characteristics. Secondary data collection, key informant interviews and focus groups are widely-accepted methods to explore complex issues in-depth and will be the primary data collection methods used in this study. While assessing community capitals such as physical and financial resources is relatively straightforward, an assessment of adaptive capacity requires integrative and participatory social assessment techniques in which diverse community actors are actively engaged in the design and assessment process. Gaining an insider perspective on community capacity is best achieved through triangulation of multiple data sources and collection techniques (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Janesick, 1994). We will examine individual, relational and organizational capacity to respond to ecological threats or stressors. The research activities will be carried out in five phases:

Phase I. Secondary Data Collection: In this phase we will inventory community conditions, characteristics, actors (e.g., gatekeepers, opinion leaders, and decision makers), and organizations (i.e., formal and informal) that influence responses to ecological and social impacts associated with climate change. We will compile secondary social, cultural and economic data available in U.S. Census, planning documents, and relevant research publications. We will also identify a core community research team (CCRT) comprised of local stakeholders who agree to serve as project advisors and liaisons with their communities. Questions we seek to answer in this phase include (a) How do we define community? (b) What do we already know about the community? (c) What do we need to know?

Phase II. In-Depth Interviews: In this phase we will conduct key informant interviews with community actors representing diverse interests and organizations (e.g., local government, natural resource management, economic development and forest industries, non-government organizations, education and extension) about community vulnerabilities and capacities. An interview script and participant recruitment strategy will be developed in collaboration with the CCRT. Up to 15 semi-structured interviews will be conducted in each community. Interviews will be audio recorded (with consent from participant), transcribed, coded and analyzed for common and divergent themes consistent with recommended qualitative analysis procedures (Charmaz, 2006; Corbin and Strauss, 2008). Questions we seek to answer include (a) What are community assets? (b) What concerns or challenges exist in this community? (c) What does the community have or need to address problems effectively?

Phase III. Discovery Focus Groups: In this phase we will conduct up to 3 focus groups in study communities. The focus group script and participant recruitment strategy will be developed in collaboration with the CCRT. Study participants will be selected purposefully for their knowledge or experience with change in the study communities. Focus groups will be planned and facilitated following protocol recommended by Krueger and Casey (2000). Each will have a maximum of 12 participants. To best understand community adaptive capacity for climate change, focus group discussions will concentrate in part on community responses to past catalyzing events such as fire, drought, forest health issues, storms/flooding, and water quality impairments. In focus groups, participants will discuss community responses to past stressors, as well as explore future scenarios of ecological change based on climate change scenarios developed in the Upper Great Lakes. Focus group dialogue will be audio recorded (with consent from participants), transcribed, coded and analyzed for common and divergent themes. Questions we seek to answer include (a) How has the community responded to challenges in the past? (b) How did people work together and share resources to address problems? (c) What were the outcomes and what contributed to these outcomes? (d) What lessons were learned from this experience? (e) How might these lessons learned carry over into future community responses to ecological and social change?

Phase IV. Data Interpretation and Synthesis: Data gathered, generated and analyzed in Phases I-III will be interpreted holistically within and across tribal and non-tribal communities with the overarching goal to identify adaptive capacity attributes and indicators, establish rapid assessment methodologies, and determine opportunities and strategies for capacity building initiatives.

Phase V. Reflection and Action Workshops: In this phase we will host interactive workshops in each community that enable local actors to reflect on our study findings (i.e., their community’s vulnerabilities and capacities) and to develop action plans for building adaptive capacity. The workshop agenda and participant recruitment strategy will be developed in collaboration with the CCRT. In each workshop the adaptive capacity rapid assessment tools (i.e., adaptive capacity attributes and indicators, assessment methodologies and opportunities/strategies for building capacity) will be presented, evaluated and refined through participant feedback. Following the workshops, the rapid assessment tools will be delivered to study communities in electronic and print form and to broader audiences including resource managers and decision makers in tribal and non-tribal communities across the Upper Great Lakes via the Internet (see Expected Results and Benefits section). The tools will be flexible to ensure relevancy to diverse tribal and non-tribal communities with a wide range of capacities and varied forest dependencies, yet it will also enable comparisons across communities to facilitate cross-community resource pooling, collaboration and coordination. The tools will be user-friendly and will produce qualitative and quantitative findings that are easily interpreted by diverse audiences.

We currently have funding to carry-out the study in one non-tribal community, Walker, Minnesota.  We are pursuing funding for additional communities.


We will produce an adaptive capacity assessment handbook describing the tribal and non-tribal community rapid assessment tools by the end of the project period (12 month period). We will also produce community-specific summary reports which will be delivered approximately one-month following the completion of each community’s assessment. We will publish at least one refereed journal publication within two years of the project completion date.