February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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A National Strategic Plan for Natural Resources and Environmental Management Education

The National Strategic Plan for Natural Resources and Environmental Management Education was developed by a 17 member team during a year long planning and development effort. This paper attempts to ground that plan in a rational theoretical base of understanding both at the local and national level. Justification for the commitment of Extension System resources to Natural Resources and Environmental Management Education is predicated on recognition of the environment as a base for all living systems. This description presents the vision, the beliefs, the values, the areas of emphasis, and the trends that influence the scope of the plan.

Cynthia Fridgen
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
Department of Resource Development
Michigan State University
Internet address: 22331fri@msu.edu

The complexity of current environmental issues is reflected in the inquiries that Extension specialists across the U.S. receive every day. These questions come from elected officials, business people, homeowners, and farmers, as well as agency personnel at all levels. Questions come from both rural and urban people. They emerge from problem settings such as siting of unwanted waste facilities, overgrazing of public lands, contaminated water supplies, and protection of desirable natural resource amenities such as wetlands and woodlands. Farmers are faced with the challenges of urban encroachment and business owners are faced with the challenge of increasing environmental regulation. The issues are multifaceted and the stakeholders are at all levels of society. Awareness that the environment is a legacy to be left to future generations is high, but the knowledge as to the best way to do that without compromising the needs of current populations is sketchy. The need for a nonbiased, nonregulatory source of current and accurate environmental information has never been greater. And, the natural resource base has never been more important nor more at risk than it is today. The Cooperative Extension System is stepping into the natural resources and environmental management arena with a comprehensive strategic plan to address the issues in depth and with sensitivity to all stakeholders.

Sustainable Development

Sargent, Lusk, Rivera, and Varela (1991) declare,

     In planning for rural self-reliance, human, animal, and
     plant ecologies are understood as the prime
     interdependent systems.  The rural community is seen as
     the conservator of its own resources, habitat, and
     culture.  Local citizens are directly involved in the
     control of community assets as they plan for the
     retention, enrichment, and equitable use of those
     assets for present and future generations.  (p. 5)

In addition, it is understood that the interface between rural and urban communities can be problematic as urban population needs compete with rural sustainability needs. However, if the environmental ethic is understood and intact in both populations, it can become the bridge that reduces contentious interchange and develops the common goal of sustainable development.

A true understanding of sustainable development takes into account the natural resource base as a foundation for a high-quality of life as well as a resource for economic growth. This perspective is only possible through enhanced understanding of the complexities of the person/environment interface. For natural resources and environmental management, understanding is a function of increased awareness of the costs and benefits of utilization, increased knowledge of the facts related to those tradeoffs, and a commitment to practice changes that support sustainability of a healthy ecosystem as well as a healthy economy. Cooperative Extension's comprehensive strategic plan for natural resources and environmental management incorporates mission, vision, and value statements that clearly articulate a path that is both realistic and reasonable to guide Extension personnel, nationwide, as they respond to questions from their clients.

The Vision of the Natural Resources
and Environmental Management Program

The Natural Resources and Environmental Management (NREM) Program vision is set in the context of Extension Education programs. It is based on the mission of the Cooperative Extension System and the philosophy of the land-grant system to help people improve their lives through an educational process that uses scientific knowledge focused on issues and needs. Drawing from work already in progress in the field, and being expanded by progressive Extension educators, the NREM strategic plan acknowledges Extension as a premier provider of education to sustain natural resources. It also makes a commitment to provide education to all people, thereby enhancing capacity to make decisions and take actions to improve the quality, productivity, and sustainability of natural resources.

Vision must lead to clearly articulated goals in order to focus resources and efforts effectively. The educational goals for the NREM program are positive and focus on a change in attitude and behaviors on the part of natural resource users. Attitudinal and behavioral change are long term and internal to the individual, assuring positive impact on the environment that is not easily lost due to external changes.

NREM Educational Goals

NREM educational goals are to help:

  1. People understand their relationship to the environment.

  2. Individuals and communities practice a stewardship ethic.

  3. People make informed decisions about NREM issues.

  4. People know about practices that sustain natural resources.

  5. Learners recognize the importance of meeting human needs without compromising production capability for future generations.

  6. Individuals understand and appreciate biodiversity and the significance of all species.

    [Extension Service - United States Department of Agriculture (ES-USDA), 1994, p. 11]

NREM Beliefs

NREM educators believe that education is vital to sustain the long-term health and productivity of our natural resources and that education helps people to:

  1. Apply the results of research to natural resource management.

  2. Explore, develop, strengthen, and enhance their personal stewardship ethics.

  3. Advocate and practice the efficient use of all resources.

  4. Seek a balance between rights and responsibilities on both private and public lands.

  5. Become informed consumers of natural resource products.

  6. Imagine and consider alternatives, make decisions, and create desirable futures.

    (ES-USDA, 1994, p. 7)

NREM Values

NREM educators value:

  1. The use of both social and natural sciences in their approach to issues and problems.

  2. An emphasis on stewardship and multiple resource values and uses in their educational approach.

  3. The meeting of local needs, while remembering that humans are part of a larger world.

  4. Honesty and professionalism.

  5. Useful and relevant processes and information.

  6. The wisdom of seeking a balance between diverse viewpoints.

  7. Respect for the dignity of each individual and for the human right to fair treatment.

  8. The formation of partnerships whenever more can be accomplished together than alone.

    (ES-USDA, 1994, p. 8)

Areas of Emphasis

The strength of the land grant system can best be brought to bear on natural resource issues and environmental problems through an interdisciplinary approach. Collaboration in and of itself reveals the subtleties of the challenge to current populations of protecting the environment for future generations. New techniques to accomplish this goal come not only out of the universities but also from partners in the private and regulatory sectors. The challenges of maintaining environmental health while protecting economic viability are not insurmountable, but this work does require coordinating effort and knowledge about a variety of issues. To begin this dialogue, the Extension system must acknowledge those areas that are critical and clearly state a commitment to working with the relevant stakeholders. In the NREM strategic plan the areas of emphasis are:

  1. Air, land, and water quality.

  2. Citizen understanding and responsibility for public policy and environmental justice.

  3. Conflict management and other social-process skills.

  4. Ecologically sensitive approaches to land use.

  5. Ecosystem management, biodiversity, and threatened and endangered species protection.

  6. Energy alternatives and conservation.

  7. Environmental hazards, risks, and liability minimization.

  8. Human interaction with natural resources and its impact on ecosystems.

  9. Integrated resource management.

  10. Pollution prevention and clean up.

  11. Solid, hazardous, and animal waste management.

  12. Sustainable production and efficient use of goods and services from natural resources.

    (ES-USDA, 1994, p. 9)

Identifying areas of emphasis and problems is often the easy part of natural resource programming. The clear statement of desired results is more difficult to accomplish. Not only is it necessary to identify desirable outcomes but it is also necessary to gain consensus that these outcomes are goals for the communities involved. Examples of model programs and desired outcomes for NREM efforts might be:

  1. Adding Value Through Lumber Drying - Lumber producers increase the value of marketable crops and also reduce drying losses and energy consumption.

  2. Farm*A*Syst - Farmers assess their land and facilities for environmental hazards and take corrective action to minimize risks.

  3. Habitat Evaluation - Youth demonstrate an understanding of wildlife habitat concepts.

  4. Integrated Pest Management - People adopt practices to reduce dependence on chemical pest control.

  5. Logger Education to Advance Professionalism (LEAP) - Loggers use improved practices to harvest and regenerate forest stands.

  6. Master Composter - Trained volunteers teach others to reduce waste through the controlled decay of organic matter.

  7. Personal Energy Audits - People assess their levels of energy use, improve the energy efficiency of their built structures, and adopt energy-conserving practices in their home and work settings.

  8. Total Ranch Management - Ranchers implement technologies to use ranch resources more effectively.

  9. Water Riches - Young people learn about the science and management of water and begin to understand the complex issues of water use and protection.

    (ES-USDA, 1994, p. 12)

Desired NREM program outcomes are wider in scope than individual educational goals and draw upon a comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum extending far beyond traditional Extension education programs (e.g., teaching people to select among alternative management options). NREM programs provide learners with new knowledge, skills, and attitudes resulting in behaviors that collectively promote wise stewardship of natural resources and the environment (ES-USDA, 1994).


Extension is acknowledging a changing world. Politically, socially, and technologically the customer base is shifting. These changes are not seen as problems or losses, but as opportunities to expand the influence of the national Extension system and to focus our considerable expertise on our natural resource base.

Some of the identified conditions and trends that will affect NREM programming in the future are outlined below and are only the beginning of necessary exploration as this important area is expanded in each state.

Conditions and Trends Affecting NREM

Political and Legislative - Proliferation and changing national and state laws and regulations and local ordinances (e.g., Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act); political and administration focus on environment and education (e.g., National Environmental Education Act, America 2000); reliance on regulatory versus educational approaches; increased administration and congressional support for the Renewable Resources Extension Act; challenges to private property rights and responsibilities; and increasing citizen interest in government decision making.

Social and Economic - Depletion of landfill space; NIMBY Syndrome ("not in my back yard"); distrust of government; increasing concern for environmental issues; demographic shifts (e.g., geographic, cultural, ethnic, age); limited-resource communities; increasing conflicts over allocation of natural resources; economic restructuring, businesses and communities; increasing regional and off-shore job migration; and growing world population pressures.

Scientific and Technological - Atmospheric changes (e.g., ozone, CO2); global climate change; increasing impacts of natural occurrences and disasters on the human environment; ecosystem management and landscape biology; information explosion and access overload; increasing complexity of issues; biotechnological developments; communications technologies; microsensitivity of chemical and biological assays; and the availability of geographic information systems.

Future Questions

An understanding of the future is necessary if Extension is to project the use of institutional resources and equip staff with the necessary knowledge and understanding to carry out NREM programming. Some of the questions that emerge as Extension explores its role as a committed educator in the natural resources and environmental management area are:

  1. What is our capacity?

  2. Who are our collaborators?

  3. Where are the potential resources?

  4. What are our constraints?

  5. How should we proceed?

Building a bridge to tomorrow means mobilizing fiscal, human, and knowledge resources. Building a bridge to tomorrow also means building a system-wide commitment on a foundation of diversity and excellence as Extension takes its place as a premier provider of natural resources and environmental management education.


Extension Service - United States Department of Agriculture. (1994). Shaping the future: A strategic plan for natural resources and environmental management education, Cooperative Extension system's base program in NREM. Washington, DC: Author.

Sargent, F. O., Lusk, P., Rivera, J. A., & Varela, M. R. (1991). Environmental planning for sustainable communities. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Author Notes

This article is based in large part on the work of the 17-member NREM Strategic Planning Team co-chaired by John Vance, Deputy Administrator, ES-USDA, and James Debree, Director, University of Wyoming, CES.