High net worth ownership regimes in critical conservation areas: implications for resource governance
Epstein, Kathleen Elizabeth
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Despite the expanding financial power of the global super-rich and their expansive control over natural resources as proprietors of an increasing number of large agricultural properties, geographers have only just begun to assess the influences of wealthy landowners on systems of environmental management. In this dissertation, I examine a set of ownership dynamics related to the acquisition of ranchland properties by high net worth (HNW) individuals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a charismatic conservation area in the Northern Rockies, USA. The dissertation deploys a mixed methods approach informed by social-ecological systems theory and insights from the literature on political ecology of the American West to assess HNW ownership regimes at the landscape and property scales from the perspective of an iconic regional resource institution: state-led elk management. The work follows a central conceptual logic related to the evolution of HNW land management, namely that ranch owners and properties interact with local ecologies, social actors, and resource institutions in ways that influence land use strategies and practices over time and space. At the landscape scale, patterns of land-use intensification (e.g., increased use of irrigation) have converged with growing diversification (e.g., increased residential development), to make elk management more complex, as elk encounter a range of push and pull factors across a shifting and diverse landscape of land-use values and practices. A defining characteristic of the trajectory for ranches of the super-rich is that HNW landowners ranch with, as opposed to for, money, though multiple social-ecological factors (markets, property lines, legal institutions, and unpredictable rangeland socio-ecologies) also shape HNW landowners' abilities to realize management goals and visions. Where HNW ownership regimes intersect with shifts in the political and moral economy, conflicts related to public access to wildlife on private lands have emerged. In this context, the work of wildlife managers requires adaptive strategies as wildlife management has become more about managing people - and the psychosocial outcomes of conflict - than managing wildlife. Ultimately, this research argues that the challenges HNW ownership regimes pose for resource governance require strategic engagement with the broader structures of wealth concentration and resource control that have enabled them.