Trust in Natural Resource Management: an Interview with Marc J. Stern

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Marc Stern

Marc J. Stern, assistant professor, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Virginia Tech

With our Trust volume coming out soon, we are revisiting the theme of trust here on the Whole Terrain blog. Today, we want to introduce you to Marc J. Stern, associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech. Stern identifies trust as a key component in the process of natural resource management. He noticed that although others acknowledge its importance, few previous studies show what trust looks like in the context of natural resource management, and how it comes about. Stern draws from trust theories developed in fields such as management, economics, political science, and the social sciences, utilizing and expanding definitions of trust identified in these fields, and applying them to natural resource management. He identifies four categories of trust of import to natural resource management conflicts: dispositional trust, rational trust, affinitive trust, and procedural trust. He also identifies the individuals and variables involved in each natural resources management dispute: a trustor, a trustee, a relationship between the two, and the antecedent context in which that relationship is developed. Along with co-author Kimberly J. Coleman, Stern presented a basic framework of the components involved in trust theory (see Fig. 1). Applying trust theory to natural resource management, Stern and his colleague, Timothy D. Baird, developed “trust ecology,” seeing natural resource management settings as “trust ecosystems,” where diverse types of trust lead to greater system resilience. These four categories of trust (dispositional, rational, affinitive, and procedural) align well with what most of us probably experience on a day-to-day basis in relationships with individuals and organizations, and discussing them can help us see their importance more clearly and apply these forms of trust to our environmental work.

We had a hunch that Stern would have some great stories about how he developed his theory. We first discussed the basics of trust ecology, and then delved deeper into his background and stories from the field.

Whole Terrain: Can you briefly outline trust ecology for our readers?

Trust theory framework

Figure 1: Trust theory framework, Stern & Coleman (2015), p. 121

Marc Stern: My colleague, Tim Baird, and I (Stern and Baird, 2015) have posited a theory based on our work that collaboration, or any form of natural resource management in a democratic society, can be effective in the short-term with only one form of trust at play (or possibly even none). However, such efforts cannot be resilient over time without sufficient stores of all three actionable forms of trust: rational, affinitive, and systems-based (procedural). Similar to the concept of functional redundancy within an ecosystem, trust diversity, like species diversity, serves to buffer a management system in times of disturbance or change, so we call it “trust ecology.”

Dispositional trust is based on individuals’ personal histories and predispositions. Some of us are generally trusting people; some of us are not. As such, dispositional trust sets a baseline from which other forms of trust may emerge (or erode). There isn’t much we can do about dispositional trust, except to know that most people who show up to natural resource-related public meetings generally start from a baseline of little to no trust for managers. The other three forms of trust, however, are highly actionable

Rational trust is based on a calculative assessment of the likely outcomes of someone’s predicted behavior. This form of trust is based largely on prior performance and assessments of competence that enable clear predictability of behaviors and outcomes. Rational trust emerges from consistent and competent performance.

Then there is affinitive trust, or trust based on an affinity for a person. This type of trust commonly develops through positive social interactions, shared experiences, or assumptions of shared values.

Lastly, there is systems-based or procedural trust. This type does not rely on trust in an individual at all but rather in a system of norms, rules, or procedures. This form of trust lessens the need for trust in an individual. All we have to do is trust that most people will follow the rules and we are protected. As long as we feel those rules are fair, our vulnerability is limited.

WT: Great, now let’s take it back to the beginning. How did you become interested in natural resource management and ecology?

MS: When I was an undergraduate, I did a study abroad program in Nepal, and while I was there—this may sound strange, but the program was kind of boring! We were living in Kathmandu and taking these very rudimentary classes at a Nepali university. So while I was there, somehow I convinced my university and World Wildlife Fund – Nepal that they should allow me to go up to the Everest region and let me study Sherpa views of nature. My university suggested I make an honors thesis out of it, and WWF Nepal said it would be useful for them, too, and paid my way.

I went to Sagarmatha National Park for about 30 days. I was thinking I was going to look at Sherpa views of nature, and within a few days of being there I quickly realized that was not the most interesting story. Sagarmatha is a pretty big park, and when it was created in 1976 it had these little islands of non-park within the park: the villages. It was only the second park in Nepal. In the first park, they just kicked everyone out. When they created this park, people were faced with three options: they could stay and suffer, basically because their access to resources they had traditionally used would be limited; they could stay and join the trekking industry, which would likely grow with the naming of the area as a National Park; or they could leave and go to Kathmandu to find another line of work and way of being. This was really my first direct encounter with what one might call a dark side to conservation.

I ended up studying the attitudes that people held toward the national park. I came back around to that as a graduate student about five years later. It’s pretty obvious why conflict exists in these places: people’s access and use of resources becomes restricted. My main interest was in why these conflicts tend to persist for so long. Even in places where people seem to be benefit tremendously from a park, you can still witness ongoing conflict. Even around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where adjacent populations benefit tremendously economically, recreationally, and in other ways from the Park, why are people still angry?

I devised a study to look at, “What are the predictors of how people respond to a neighboring national park?” I started with a theory called the “theory of planned behavior,” which says that we as human beings base our decisions on three types of evaluations: costs and benefits, peer attitudes and information flow, and control assessments. I also realized after my pilot work that there was something about relationship, too, so I threw trust in as another variable.

The dependent variable I was trying to explain was not just people’s attitudes, but how they behaved. So I had to live in these places for a long time, about 14 months of field work around three parks: one in southern Ecuador, one in the Caribbean, and one was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the U.S. The behavior I was looking at was, why do people support the park, meaning, they volunteer, donate, defend the park at a public meeting, change their behavior to come into compliance, all the things we wish park neighbors would do. Or, why do they oppose a park, meaning they illegally harvest resources, vandalize, take park guards hostage, all the things that we don’t want them to do. I was trying to figure out, what explains people’s behavior?

So here’s the end of the long story about how I got into this. Across all three of those places, I expected it to be different in each place. Instead, one variable predicted with almost 80% accuracy at all three parks why people were actively opposing a national park, and it was that trust variable. It was more powerful than economic benefits or any of the other stuff that I measured.

So that just spurred an interest for me: how can we have these places that we all care about—y’know, national parks are great!—without screwing over local people? That was my mission in my research for the next ten years, and it turns out that building trust makes a lot of sense, but how can you do it?

WT: Can you describe a moment when you realized that trust theory could provide a helpful framework for ecology and natural resource management?

MarcStern_Libano0024-300x225MS: One of the stories I found most telling was my work in the Virgin Islands National Park. The park makes up two-thirds of the island, so whatever the park does affects everybody. I interviewed 115 people, and I asked everyone over 30 or so, “Was there a point in time when the relationship with the park was better than it is now?” Almost everyone who was alive at the time said, “Yeah, the late ‘70s were just different. It seemed like we had a great relationship with the national park, and then everything changed again in the early ‘80s.” Nothing really about park policies had changed; it was still a national park governed by all the same rules. What had changed was the superintendent. He happened to be this guy from the mainland, so he was a foreigner there. He was Black, which helps there, because it’s a large Afro-Caribbean population. He had this habit of just cruising down Main Street regularly and stopping to chat with everyone. If you ever meet this guy, you realize he’s just that kind of a guy: he just wants to sit and chat and have genuine conversations with you. He would host parties at his house for park staff and their friends to come and hang out. Whenever he had an important decision to make, he would hang out with the maintenance guys. These were the locally hired guys from families on the island. Most park employees come from outside, but these guys came from the island. He would hang out with them for half a day, drink coffee, talk out his idea, how this would impact the community, and everything seemed to function better in that time period.

One of the other things that I studied that jives with this pretty well is that I asked the interviewees where they get information from. Many local people got their information from locally-hired park staff who primarily work in maintenance. This guy had a keen awareness of that.

To come back to trust ecology, clearly nothing about the big system changed, but the working system there really changed. He was building affinitive trust at all levels. Now, why wasn’t that sustainable? He left. He wasn’t building any more rational trust in anyone else, and he didn’t really change systems drastically. When he left, everything went back to the way it was, because there was no other trust to buffer that trust.

The idea behind our trust ecology theory is that you need all three. You need the systems-based or procedural trust, you need affinitive trust, and you need the rational trust. You can succeed for a while with any one of these things, but things always change.

I can give you one other that’s more recent. We’ve been doing research on the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which brings together diverse stakeholders on large landscapes, which can be hundreds of thousands of acres. These involve Forest Service properties, tribal properties, private property, and nonprofit organizations interested in ecosystem restoration. The idea behind this is that if you want to restore landscapes at a large scale, you have to work at a large scale. That’s really hard because there are lots of competing interests and diverse stakeholders, so let’s bring them together and tell them that if they’re willing to collaborate, they can have resources to work with. So we’re looking at these and we’ve gone deep into four of them, and we’ve seen trust ecology playing out pretty cleanly.

In one of these out in California, we feel like the trust ecology system is working best. If you want to find a place that has all three versions of our actionable types of trust, this is the one that looks most promising. Two people from opposing viewpoints got together and said, “Hey, this isn’t working. Why don’t we try something different?” So they applied for this funding and got it, and with it they hired an external facilitator. He led them through a long process of jointly developing procedures on everything from how to communicate to how decisions would be made, how work’s going to get done—every little process, it seems, they developed a way to go about. So there’s your systems-based trust. They can see what the collaborative group thinks, and also some dissenting voices. Everybody feels heard. It’s one of those positive control systems that we talk about in our literature.

This facilitator has also been really adept at building the other two types of trust by creating venues for social interaction. He’s set up lots of field trips where he’s explicitly going for affinitive trust. (He doesn’t call it that, but that’s what he’s trying to do.) He creates conversation space in which he asks questions in a way that can reveal a common value between opposing stakeholder groups.

Out there, one of the common difficult groups for other people to deal with is the off-road recreational vehicle folks (ORVs). To people who love wilderness, people who love ecosystem value, even to the timber folks, ORVs don’t fit. So he got this woman who’s an ORV person to talk about how she uses the forest, and what she does when she brings her family. She started talking about hearing birds, and the beauty of the place, and all of a sudden there was a common ground. They started to realize, “Wow, she cares about these things, too!” It created a venue where we could move forward now, we’ve got something. So that’s the affinitive piece.

And then on the rational piece, he’s been good at two things: one is providing people with easy-to-complete tasks on a short timeline to demonstrate their competence early in the game, and the second is keeping everyone on task. Then everyone eventually feels, “I can trust that person to get something done, because they always have.” So he’s building all three forms of trust.

Here’s the concern about that. I think that’s the best case that we have, but what happens when they lose this facilitator? I don’t know. They’ll still have those procedures and maybe they’ll survive, but I don’t know, it’s still a question of how resilient that group is really going to be. So it’s easier said and conceptualized than carried out.

WT: How would you suggest our readers go about developing these different forms of trust with their communities and stakeholder groups?

MS: There are multiple ways to develop these “actionable” forms of trust.

Systems-based trust in natural resource contexts typically emerges where decision-making processes and criteria are transparent and viewed as legitimate. This often involves clear up-front communication and joint procedural development (or revision) where possible.

Opportunities for the development of affinitive trust include sharing meaningful experiences, openly and respectfully discussing values that underlie decisions, active listening, and events such as field trips and/or social gatherings.

Rational trust emerges from consistent and competent performance. In my study of national parks, I found that fear of enforcement did not serve as a meaningful direct deterrent to local people who wanted to do something illegal in the parks. Almost no one believed they’d actually get caught in the act. Rather, people who perceived park guards or rangers were consistent and sincere in the ways they did their jobs trusted the park more, and therefore voluntarily refrained from illegal actions out of respect.

Trust works because it creates an opportunity for people to place their faith in others. It encourages people to take a genuine interest in understanding someone else’s viewpoint and lowers the risk involved in sharing one’s own. In a highly litigious society that has made many practitioners extremely risk averse, trust may often seem far out of reach (see, for example, Stern et al. 2014). However, collaboration may be more necessary than ever. In the challenges we will face in the coming decades, perhaps the only thing we can be sure of is that we don’t know all the answers. Problems and conditions are changing rapidly, and our management solutions today may be unlikely to produce desired conditions tomorrow.

While there still may be a time and place for environmentalists to chain themselves to a tree or for any group to file a lawsuit, building sustainable solutions to most environmental problems is going to require learning together across differences, and innovating new approaches. I argue that we may give ourselves a better chance to catalyze these possibilities by paying attention to the importance of building and sustaining trust. There is no good way to fake trustworthiness. However, those who find themselves designing public involvement processes or multi-stakeholder interactions may benefit from considering each of the actionable forms of trust I’ve discussed and planning with their development foremost in mind.


Stern, Marc J. and Kimberly J. Coleman. “The Multidimensionality of Trust: Applications in Collaborative Natural Resource Management.” Society & Natural Resources 28:2 (February 2015): 117–32.
Stern, Marc J., and Timothy D. Baird. “Trust Ecology and the Resilience of Natural Resource Management Institutions.” Ecology & Society 20:2 (June 2015): 17–27.


Bio: Marc J. Stern is an Associate Professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech as well as a Fellow of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. His research, teaching, and scholarship focuses broadly on the human dimensions of natural resource management with special emphases on collaborative natural resource management, natural resource planning processes, international sustainability challenges, and environmental education and interpretation. He holds a PhD from Yale University in Social Ecology.

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