First Advisor

Wayne Wakeland

Date of Publication

Fall 10-27-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Systems Science


Systems Science




System theory, Forest management, Decision making, Enterprise Program (U.S.)



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 152 pages)


The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Enterprise Program (EP), which provides fee-for-service consulting services to the USFS, is interested in integrating systems thinking into its service offerings. Despite there being several excellent sources on the range and diversity of systems thinking, no single framework exists that thoroughly yet concisely outlines what systems thinking is along with its deep history, theoretical tenets, and soft and hard approaches. This thesis is an attempt to create such a framework, aimed specifically at practical application in a land management agency, through literature synthesis injected with original analysis. The usefulness of the framework is then tested using three case studies within the EP and the agency as a whole.

The framework highlights several important aspects of systems thinking, both generally and related specifically to social-ecological management. First, systems thinking is the transdisciplinary study of complex phenomena from a holistic, rather than reductionist, perspective. The world can be viewed as a massive set of embedded systems -- elements with relations that lead to nonlinear behavior -- making the role of the observer essential in identifying scales of interest and interactions amongst them. Second, the deep history of holistic thinking suggests that its modern scientific study could benefit from exploring the East's long-standing cultural and spiritual approaches to holism through cognitive unity and oneness with mankind and nature. Third, categorizations of systems approaches as "soft" versus "hard" are helpful but can distract us from the ultimate goal of systems thinking, which is to understand the various tools in the systems thinking toolbox so as to apply them critically and creatively to make a meaningful difference in the world. Fourth, I see the soft systems approaches as having a distinct systems thinking orientation and the hard systems approaches as overlapping substantially with operations research, the close cousin of systems thinking. Fifth, I identify a spectrum of complexity, contending that systems thinking tends to be concerned with what I call subjectively and computationally complex systems, as well as complex adaptive systems, leaving simple systems for other approaches. Finally, I contend that it is the soft systems approaches and the two theoretical pillars of hierarchy theory and cooperation theory that will aid wicked social-ecological problem solving the most.

The framework is applied to three case studies. Examination of the EP reorganization using a hard systems approach revealed two critical high-level functions that were absent in the current structure, paving the way for new designs that could take those functions into account. Analysis of an initiative to increase citizen recreation on USFS lands showed that a systems approach had been improperly applied and how the application of a soft approach at the onset could have systematically framed the problem and offered unique normative insights for giving voice to relevant non-agency stakeholders as well as nature and future generations. And viewing the perennial problem of wildfire management through the lens of cooperation theory revealed how USFS leadership could take a more active role in promoting the long-term outlook, durable relationships, and reciprocal behaviors that are required for cooperative improvement to take place.

As environmental narratives worsen and the need for transitioning towards sustainable ways of living heightens, systems thinking offers ever-increasing value to resource managers for its ability to deal with the many perspectives and normative content that underlie wicked problems and to help to illuminate potential consequences of system interventions given the interplay of complex structural dynamics across space and time.


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