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Collaborative governance: a tool to manage scientific, administrative, and strategic uncertainties in environmental management?

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Although uncertainty is a fundamental feature and challenge of environmental governance, the literature on how policy makers and resource managers can act effectively under that uncertainty is scarce. The focus is on managing scientific uncertainty, a lack of knowledge about the causes or consequences of an environmental problem or decision, when many other types of uncertainty can have drastic effects on decision makers’ ability to make timely, rational, or even satisficing decisions. Moreover, although suggestions on how to manage these uncertainties often revolve around collaborative governance, i.e., engaging scientists, decision makers, communities, and other stakeholders in joint decision making, collaboration is often framed as a one-size-fits-all approach. I aimed to broaden the conversation about collaboration as a tool for managing uncertainty, using a 4-year ethnographic study of a collaborative process to develop the operating license for a hydropower dam in California. Numerous types of uncertainties arose during the 4 years of negotiation, and these uncertainties often interacted in messy and hard-to-predict ways. Collaboration, especially creating the process and structure to openly discuss uncertainty, was an important tool for stakeholders to handle the uncertainties that arose, but it was insufficient to address all uncertainties. By exploring the many types of uncertainty that arose during negotiations, whether and how collaboration served to address these varieties of uncertainty, and how uncertainty affected the collaborative process, I aimed to add nuance to our understanding of when and where collaboration is a helpful tool for environmental decision makers.

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