UM teaches collaborative solutions to environmental leaders

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By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM press service

MISSOULA – Anyone who manages wildlife, natural resources or the environment is the first to say that their work is often less about the elk, minerals or waterways they monitor and more about understanding people and their differences opinions on how to manage the natural world. And it can be much more complicated.

University of Montana Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy directs it Natural Resource Conflict Resolution Certificatethe nation’s only graduate certificate that teaches the theory and practice of collaboration and conflict resolution as applied to land use, natural resources, and the environment.

In an era of competing environmental and economic priorities, anxiety about climate change, and intensifying political divisions, the NRCR certificate program is more relevant than ever.

“We certainly live in a time of enormous political divisions and identity challenges that have been corrosive at a broad social level,” said Shawn Johnson, center director and NRCR program chair. “The role of the center is to say, ‘We can propose approaches that integrate diverse interests, that are not a bipartisan, winner-takes-all approach.’ It’s really about trying to find common ground and looking at longer-term, more sustainable solutions.

Established in 1987, the center’s mission is to bring people together through inclusive, informed, and deliberative public processes that improve outcomes for people and nature. The NRCR program was launched in 2005 to bring this mission into UM classrooms and mentor new cohorts of leaders skilled in collaboration and conflict resolution. The interdisciplinary program is co-sponsored by the WA Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, Alexander Blewett III Faculty of Law And College of Humanities and Sciences.

The 15-credit program can be taken as a stand-alone certificate or integrated into any student’s graduate studies. Enrollment has increased as graduate students and mid-career employees seek to better manage the environment and understand the human dimension of their work.

“We are known for this program and it attracts unique students to the University,” Johnson said. “Every year we have students who come just for the NRCR certificate. »

More state, federal, and nonprofit employers are also eager to hire NRCR graduates ready to apply their collaboration and conflict resolution skills from day one on the job.

“I have seen a real increase in the number of employers contacting us for students and asking us for recommendations for graduates of our program because they see the relevance of the skills and knowledge they bring,” said Johnson said.

UM alumna Taylor Tewksbury graduated last spring with a master’s degree in environmental studies focused on environmental education. Adding the NRCR certificate to her studies helped Tewksbury develop skills that are essential to her new job as educational program coordinator at Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education nonprofit based in Condon.

A photo of Taylor Tewksbury.
UM alumna Taylor Tewksbury went on to work at Swan Valley Connections after graduating from UM and completing the NRCR certificate program. (Photo by Andrea DiNino)

Tewksbury enrolled in the program to learn to better understand the human side of conservation, building on the scientific training she received as an undergraduate marine science student.

“I was not taught to collaborate. You’re taught to debate, to win, not to achieve mutual gains,” Tewksbury said of his earlier training. “I believe the NRCR program produces young professionals who are more ready to practice skills like empathy and come up with better solutions that work for both human and non-human communities.”

Tewksbury gained practical expertise through experiential learning opportunities integrated into the certificate. The program’s three core courses teach students the causes and dynamics of natural resource and environmental conflicts, how to adapt collaboration and conflict resolution processes to unique situations, and how to serve as facilitators and mediators effective in seemingly intractable environmental disputes.

NRCR students are required to complete a capstone project that provides hands-on practice of skills such as stakeholder analysis and multi-stakeholder negotiation. Tewksbury helped facilitate small groups for the ongoing review of the Lolo National Forest Land Management Plan. She said the experience was intimidating, but helped her gain confidence and expertise that she applies in her job, working to inspire conservation and develop stewardship in Montana’s Swan Valley .

“Just knowing how to tell people about a place that they really care about was huge, and a lot of that came from the certificate,” Tewksbury said. “You’re not really managing wildlife; you manage the people around him.

The unique focus of the program attracts students from around the world. Isaiah Tuolienuo traveled from his home in Ghana to enroll at UM, interrupting his career as a regional environmental specialist in Central and West Africa for the U.S. Embassy to complete the certificate and pursue a doctorate. in forestry and conservation sciences. Tuolienuo’s wife and two children recently joined him in Missoula.

A photo of Isaiah Tuolienuo.
UM Ph.D. student Isaiah came from Ghana and put his career on pause to enroll at UM and complete the NRCR certificate program. (UM photo by Ryan Brennecke)

“A lot of people were like, ‘Why do you want to leave? You have an incredible career and your work helps us advance critical environmental priorities,” said Tuolienuo. “But I think there’s always room to learn and it’s necessary to continue to develop the right kind of skills to come up with solutions to the problems we see.”

Tuolienuo signed up for the certificate after witnessing disagreement in Ghana over a plan to extract bauxite from the Atewa Range Forest Reserve and build an integrated aluminum industry. Conservation groups and local communities fear the plan will harm the resource-rich forest, which serves as a carbon sink, a water source for millions of people, home to rare and endangered species, hub of outdoor tourism and a source of spiritual and cultural wealth. connection for local communities.

“I think it is possible to reach consensus around this controversial issue,” Tuolienuo said. “I believe that natural resource conservation efforts aim to promote healthy, self-sustaining communities. And these goals are not necessarily incompatible with development efforts.

Tuolienuo’s Ph.D. examines how best to reconcile the region’s economic and environmental priorities through a framework of equity and justice. Adding the NRCR certificate to your studies allows your research to move beyond the theoretical.

“I think this is a piece of the puzzle that is essential but often missing for many doctoral students. students. They spend all their time learning and miss out on the applied side of research,” Tuolienuo said. “The NRCR program provides the opportunity to learn and apply these skills as you go, and I find it professionally rewarding.”

Tuolienuo said mentoring from his peers and faculty in the NRCR program honed his facilitation and negotiation skills. The center’s experience in successfully facilitating collaborative solutions to complex environmental problems is something he hopes to replicate and help disseminate once he graduates and returns to work in Ghana. Tuolienuo recently joined a consortium of universities and conservation practitioners working to advance collaborative environmental solutions through an Africa-centered community of practice.

“We’re going to have to balance biodiversity conservation with economic priorities, and you need people to guide that conversation,” Tuolienuo said. “I think the certificate helps develop the type of skills and leadership needed to solve these complex and intractable challenges we see globally.

“And the ripple effect of not doing that is conflict.”


Contact: Shawn Johnson, Director of the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Chair of the Natural Resource Dispute Resolution Certificate, 406-381-2904,

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