UM BRIDGES Faculty Work to Define American West as Social Ecological Region

American West map indicating factors for identifying as social ecological region

The notion of the ‘American West’ evokes classic imagery of rugged landscapes and resilient people. In a new paper published in Environmental Research Letters, UM BRIDGES faculty Dr. Alexander L. Metcalf and Dr. Brian C. Chaffin joined with coauthors from across the US to define stable, exogenous factors which intersect in space to define the American West as a distinct social-ecological region. By combining spatial data on aridity, topography, and political economy, the authors identify US counties which epitomize the dry, ruggedness of the west, along with the unique social history of colonization still embedded in our political systems, economies, and social identities (image above).

 Often overlooked in popular depictions of the American West, however, is the incredible variation in the region which challenge land management and human well-being in unique ways. Within the social-ecological region defined above, the authors delineate boundaries of discrete social-ecological systems (SES) based on the intersection of “fast-variables” such as population change, economic drivers, and natural hazards which vary widely across the region. Together, these nested scales of analyses provide direction for future investigation of SES dynamics and the assessment of cross-scale interactions as suggested by many systems scholars. Importantly, this work shows how regional characteristics provide consistency over broad extents, while relatively few variables can set diverse stages at more local scales for unique human interactions with the environment.

 To demonstrate the interplay of consistency and variation across these scales, the authors also describe three case studies of exemplar SES in the West, including the mixed land use change in the Boise metro area, the diverse approaches to land ownership, livelihood, and values in the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National monuments, and an example of collaborative resource management from the Henry’s Fork Watershed. All told, this work helps empirically demonstrate when notions of the region that occupy our imagination are warranted, when they may fall short, and how social and ecological variables interact across scales to help shape the conflicts of our time and reveal opportunities for constructive adaptation.

 The paper is available open access here: