Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 607–618 | Cite as

Navigating protected areas as social-ecological systems: integration pathways of French nature reserves

  • Clara Therville
  • Raphaël Mathevet
  • Frédéric Bioret
  • Martine Antona
Original Article


On a global scale, protected areas (PAs) are one of the main tools used for biodiversity conservation. However, accelerated biodiversity loss and lack of social acceptance of PAs call into question their ability to reach long-term biodiversity conservation objectives. To address this, conservation scientists and practitioners have moved from segregative to integrative models of PAs. When the segregative model sees PAs as human exclusion zones, the integrative model considers conservation and development projects and multiple partnerships with local stakeholders within and outside PAs. Given this paradigmatic evolution, a PA and its surrounding landscape are increasingly regarded as a single social-ecological system (SES). This development brings new challenges for conservationists: How should these complex and dynamic systems be managed, and how can their pathways be described and piloted? Using French nature reserves (NRs) as case studies, we propose a framework for analyzing the integration pathways of PAs within their social-ecological context. We identified the pathways of 10 NRs according to their degree of integration in the surrounding landscape (spatial), their management objectives (sectoral), and their governance systems (institutional). We analyzed these pathways using three metaphors associated with resilience thinking (adaptive cycle, adaptation, and transformation). We discussed how these 10 NRs have changed over time, revealing how practitioners anticipate future pathways and avoid undesirable states. Through an exploration of the totality of an SES’s spatial, sectoral, and institutional pathways, the framework we propose is a potential tool for identifying opportunities and constraints for long-term conservation actions.


Adaptation France Protected area Social-ecological system Pathway Transformation 


In the context of biodiversity loss (Hooper et al. 2012), protected areas (PAs) are the most widespread damage limitation strategy (Chape et al. 2005). In 2016, PAs covered 14.7% of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water areas, turning them into a major proportion of land use (UNEP-WCMC and IUCN 2016). However, the effectiveness of the PA network is regularly questioned (Gilbert 2009; Butchart et al. 2010). It has been argued that increasing PA coverage will not be a sufficient response to global change (Sachs et al. 2009). Progressively, conservationists have recognized the necessity of associating ecological durability, economic viability, and social acceptance to support long-term biodiversity conservation (Zube and Busch 1990; Daily 1997; Mace 2016).

In the 1980s, this raised awareness led to a paradigm shift from “segregative” to “integrative” PA models that affect PA management and interactions with surrounding landscapes and stakeholders. The segregative model sees a PA as a “fortress” or “ecological island” (Janzen 1983; Barrett and Arcese 1995) and is often related to PA implementation by the state, scientists, or environmental NGOs. The general objective is to restrict access to remarkable “natural” or scenic areas, with human activities considered mainly as a threat to nature. The integrative model, also referred to as new paradigm (Phillips 2004), sees the “human face” of PAs (Bell 1987). The latter allows the sustainable use of natural resources, and PAs are considered as tools for the development of local communities. This shift has been described at a global scale (Phillips 2004; Dearden et al. 2005; Locke and Dearden 2005), a European scale (Mose 2007), and a French scale (Mathevet and Poulin 2006; Depraz 2008). It can also be associated with the framework that distinguishes land sparing from land sharing (Fischer et al. 2014), even if this framework is focusing on combining food production and biodiversity conservation without consideration for other uses or governance regimes.

With either segregative or integrative models, major challenges to long-term conservation remain, particularly in terms of lack of knowledge of social processes, local institutions, and needs (Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Mathevet and Mauchamp 2005); underestimation of people’s dependence on a PA; potentially unsolvable social injustices (Brockington 2004; Adams and Hutton 2007); and the isolation of a PA within a surrounding degraded habitat, especially in the context of climate change (McNeely 1994). Conservationists have tried to respond to these limitations by considering PAs and their surroundings as complex and adaptive social-ecological systems (SESs) (Ban et al. 2013; Lockwood et al. 2014; Palomo et al. 2014; Cumming et al. 2015; Mathevet et al. 2016). One of the main issues is to understand the dynamics and drivers of these complex and adaptive systems (Berkes and Folke 1998). Recent developments in SES literature, and particularly in SES “resilience thinking” (Walker et al. 2004; Smit and Wandel 2006; Folke et al. 2010), explore the counterintuitive idea that change is a requisite for persistence and sustainability. Resilience scholars investigate SES pathways by focusing on adaptive cycle, adaptability, and transformability (see electronic supplementary material for definitions). These three concepts are widely used to describe pathways of systems such as lakes, wetlands (Gunderson et al. 2006; Olsson et al. 2006), river basins (Walker et al. 2009; Schlüter and Herrfahrdt-Pähle 2011), or marine coastal environments (Gelcich et al. 2010).

However, the process of applying these concepts to PAs has only just begun. Scholars have started to analyze their resilience (Fischer et al. 2009; Strickland-Munro et al. 2010; Cumming et al. 2015), to describe the evolution of their governance systems through dynamic institutional analyses (Weber 2000; Baral et al. 2010; Kittinger et al. 2011), and to explore scenarios of change and PA pathways (Mitchell et al. 2016). While applying these approaches allows us to look beyond the static perspective usually associated with PA analysis (Therville et al. 2016), it also raises new questions. How can complex, dynamic, and uncertain SES be best managed? How can SES pathways be described, predicted, and piloted to support long-term conservation projects, especially in this paradigm shift context?

To explore these questions, we adapted the SES and resilience thinking approach to explore integration pathways of 10 French nature reserves. Nature reserves are a key regulatory tool for nature conservation in France: They were historically rooted in a segregative approach, but some nature reserves (NRs) that we have selected as study sites have managed to implement integrative approaches. From this example, we propose a framework for studying PA pathways based on three dimensions that show a transition from segregative to integrative models (sectoral, spatial, and institutional integration), associated with three metaphors from resilience thinking literature (Folke et al. 2010): adaptive cycle, adaptability, and transformability. Using this combined method, we characterized PA integration pathways and analyzed the degree of adaptation, transformation, and, finally, PA resilience (in the sense of Cumming et al. 2015) associated with these pathways. Lastly, we introduced the “change for persistence” paradox and discussed the diversity of pathways towards integration observed in this study, as well as the importance of analyzing PA pathways as context-dependent adaptation processes influenced by historical features.

A framework to study PA integration pathways

Usually, PA systems are considered as coherent and relatively stable entities defined in terms of space, objectives, and means. The objective of PA managers is to ensure long-term conservation. They have to strengthen their capacity to face fluctuations, to be resilient “in the sense of resilience that helps PAs to achieve conservation goals” (Cumming et al. 2015). However, PAs are part of a social-ecological network (Gunderson et al. 2006) that extends beyond the PA manager to local authorities and all the stakeholders within and around the PA. Regarding the segregative–integrative paradigm shift, we have assumed that PAs can face fundamental changes in their core features. We use PA “pathway” (Leach et al. 2007) as a generic term to refer to the evolution that occurs in the social-ecological interactions between a PA, its stakeholders, the surrounding landscape, and its governance, considered as the focal system. We consider a PA pathway both as a process and an outcome: It can be seen as an emergent property of the system, driven by stakeholders’ decisions and actions to cope with changes. The resulting pathway can be either controlled and intentional, or unintended. It emerges as a compromise between the stakeholders who make up the PA network and who can only try to navigate this complexity (Berkes et al. 2003).

The analysis of PA pathways requires a framework in the sense of Ostrom (2005): A framework provides the basic vocabulary of concepts that may be used to construct causal explanations expected of a theory and organize diagnostic, descriptive, and prescriptive inquiry. In our case, two elements need to be identified in the framework: (i) the core variables that will allow a description of the focal system and its dynamic along the segregative–integrative gradient and (ii) concepts from the resilience thinking to analyze the processes behind this dynamic and their results (e.g., intended or not, desirable or not, adaptive or transformative, etc.).

In the first stage, we characterized PA pathways based on three dimensions that show a transition from segregative to integrative models (i.e., displaying an increasing degree of integration): management objectives (sectoral), governance systems (institutional), and surrounding landscapes (spatial). These three dimensions or axes echo the core features of any PA: objectives, means, and space. They form a three-dimensional space in which a PA can evolve.

Sectoral integration refers to the diversification of roles and missions claimed by PAs and their managers. Beyond nature conservation, their roles in sustainable local development, human well-being, recreational use, or environmental education are emphasized. Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (Hanks 1984; Hugues and Flintan 2001) or French Regional Nature Parks (LaFreniere 1997) are examples of approaches associated with sectoral integration since they explicitly include development objectives.

Institutional integration refers to broadening the diversity of stakeholders involved in the management and governance systems of PAs, from government services, experts, and environmentalists to users, local authorities, and the general public. The goal is to implement a “good governance” that is legitimate, transparent, equitable, and thus better accepted (Lockwood 2010). Another objective is to include the collective construction of negotiated, recognized, and flexible rules (Ostrom 1990; Hayes 2006). Institutional integration can be observed in approaches such as integrated environmental management (Margerum 1995), community-based conservation (Western and Wright 1994; Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Berkes 2004), adaptive co-management (Armitage et al. 2009), and collaborative governance (Ansell and Gash 2008; Emerson et al. 2012).

Spatial integration refers to the reconsideration of the value of surrounding landscapes (Rosenzweig 2003; Hansen and DeFries 2007). Conservationists are underlining the interest of habitats beyond PA boundaries, insisting on the importance of viewing ecological networks in an interaction matrix (Jongman 1995; Vimal et al. 2012), and considering interdependencies with surrounding landscapes (Thompson et al. 2011; Mathevet et al. 2016).

In the second stage, using the concepts of adaptive cycle, adaptability, and transformability, we illustrated in the “Results” section how integration pathways can be interpreted as the result of various processes. We found that NR integration pathways reveal three situations: (i) a trade-off adaptation in which integration emerges as a compromise at the time of establishment, (ii) a learned adaptation in which integration emerges over time as a consequence of a cumulative process and a convergence of interests, and (iii) a navigated transformation in which integration emerges over time during a transformative process. We discussed how these pathways are associated with specific local social and ecological conditions, various forms of integration, and key variables such as social capital or leadership.

Material and methods

The French system of PAs is organized around four main types of tools: regulatory (e.g., national parks and nature reserves), contractual (e.g., regional nature parks), land tenure (e.g., sites of the coastal protection agency), and international labels (e.g., Ramsar). Our study focused on French NRs, which are a key regulatory tool for nature conservation in France along with national parks. NRs are defined as areas that tackle important issues at stake for nature conservation. In 2016, 340 NRs in France protect 30,000 km2 of marine and terrestrial habitats (compared to 212,000 km2 of total PAs in France: UICN France 2010). French NRs cover a wide range of natural habitats of community interest. The supervision authority delegates management to a body that might consist of national governmental agencies, NGOs, or local authorities. NRs differ from other types of French PAs such as national or regional nature parks which have a regulatory legitimacy to include development objectives (Lockwood 2009; Cosson et al. 2017). The three main objectives of an NR management body (hereafter called “managers”) are (i) nature protection (through enforcement and policing), (ii) habitat management (through ecological monitoring and management), and (iii) administrative monitoring (through progress reports and management plans). The French NR network also promotes managers’ legitimacy in raising public awareness, supporting local development, and choosing their time allocation to their main objectives (Therville et al. 2016).

NRs may be totally closed, partially closed, or completely open to the public and may prohibit or allow and control hunting, grazing, or other uses (Therville 2013), conveying variable degrees of sectoral integration. NRs are a regulatory tool which is not necessarily associated with a land tenure policy: They can include public land, municipality land, or privately owned land. Some NRs can also be included in other forms of PAs such as regional nature parks. Given this diversity, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) France could not formally associated all NRs with a single IUCN category whether in terms of the degree of naturalness or the institutional arrangements or purposes (UICN France 2010), and NRs can be either considered as a type Ia, III, or IV. Conversely to French national and regional parks, NRs are traditionally rooted in a segregative model: They do not have a regulatory legitimacy to implement integrative approaches, especially along the spatial and sectoral axis. However, some NRs have been successful in implementing integration. It makes NRs an interesting example to explore how managers are able to navigate towards integration pathways.

In this study, we focused specifically on 10 NRs (Fig. 1) selected using two criteria: representing the diversity of the NR network and choosing cases in point to illustrate integration pathways. The selection was made in collaboration with the NR national network after a survey conducted at the national scale and with the managers of the selected sites: Coussouls de Crau (Coussouls), Riez de Noeux-les-Auxi (Riez), Pâture 1000 Trous (Pâture), Sixt-Passy (Sixt), Aiguilles Rouges (Aiguilles), Vallée d’Eyne (Eyne), Petite Camargue Alsacienne (PCA), Chérine (Chérine), Marais de Séné (Séné), and Sillon de Talbert (Sillon). The first criterion was to represent as far as possible the diversity of the French NR network in terms of surface area, natural habitat, geographical implantation, status, and stakeholders involved (Table 1). All these elements have already been studied and published (Therville 2013; Therville et al. 2016).
Fig. 1

Location of the 10 study sites in the French NR network (NB: Corsica and overseas territories are not represented). The main natural habitats in each study case are specified (for further information on the study cases, see Table 1)

Table 1

Main characteristics of the 10 study sites

Study site (year of establishment)

Management body

Surface area (ha)

European biogeographical region

Dominant natural environment

Local context

Public access, awareness raising

Highlight of the case study

Aiguilles (1974)

Environmental NGO



Mountain habitats

Extensive agriculture, pressure from tourism


Comparison with Sixt

High spatial + low sectoral integration

Sixt (1977)

Environmental NGO



Mountain habitats

Extensive agriculture, pressure from tourism

High during summer season

Low integration along the three axes

PCA (1982)

Environmental NGO



Fluvial habitats and wetlands



General integration

Chérine (1985)

Environmental NGO



Inland wetlands

Extensive agriculture, pressure from tourism


General integration

Eyne (1993)

Environmental NGO + local authority



Mountain habitats

Extensive agriculture, pressure from tourism

High during summer season

General integration

Pâture (1994)

Environmental NGO



Limestone grassland

Intensive agriculture


Comparison with Riez low integration along the three axes

Séné (1996)

Environmental NGO + local authority + hunting association



Coastal wetlands



Institutional integration High spatial + low sectoral

High sectoral + low spatial

Riez (1999)

Environmental NGO



Limestone grassland

Intensive agriculture


High sectoral + low spatial

Coussouls (2001)

Environmental NGO + agricultural organization



Steppe-like habitats

Agricultural, suburban


Institutional integration

High sectoral + low spatial

Sillon (2006)

Local authority + governmental agency



Coastal wetlands and geological interest

Pressure from tourism

High during summer season

High sectoral + low spatial

aSurface after the spatial expansion of the NR

The second criterion was to select NRs that present significant degrees of sectoral, spatial, and institutional integration (Table 1), according to a close consultation with the NR national network and with the managers of the study sites. Multiple sources of information were used, including literature review for each study sites (NR management plan or any other relevant document) and field surveys, to confirm ex post the degrees of sectoral, spatial, and institutional integration for each 10 study sites, define their evolution, and discuss the underlying processes. During the field work from March 2011 to January 2012, we conducted surveys combining a semi-structured interview with a semi-quantitative questionnaire using free-listing methods (see electronic supplementary material). We met 184 individuals, between 20 and 29 per site. We focused on (1) the managers themselves, the supervision authority, and the main environmental partners; (2) local decision-makers and authorities; (3) concerned private and public landowners; and (4) resource users and business interests, or their representatives (see electronic supplementary material).

We conducted both a qualitative content analysis of the interviews and of the literature and a semi-quantitative analysis of the free-listing results. In the qualitative analysis, we highlighted the social-ecological conditions, and particularly the conditions for collective action, enabling (or not) the sectoral, spatial, and/or institutional integration of the NR. The semi-quantitative questionnaire aimed to detail the advantages and disadvantages for the various stakeholders associated with the NR and to discuss their evolution. The first part of the interview and the literature analysis allowed us to evaluate the integration degrees of the 10 NRs at the time of the establishment. The actual situation was described using the second part of the interview, semi-quantitative results, and literature analysis. Lastly, challenges in terms of future pathways and collective action were discussed at the end of the interview. All detailed results have already been studied and published (Therville 2013), but in this paper, we placed these results in a broader context to extract the pathways of change for these NRs and discuss their underlying processes.

Degrees of integration along the three axes for each NR were extracted across these different data sources and interpreted as the following. This analysis using the framework introduced in “A framework to study PA integration pathways” section was developed ex post by the authors. NRs with significant institutional integration have innovative institutional arrangements and governance systems integrating diverse stakeholders with a large variety of interests. NRs with significant sectoral integration are recognized by local stakeholders for their role in local development jointly with conservation. These NRs encourage sustainable practices and uses within and outside the NR boundaries. NRs with significant spatial integration contribute directly to the conservation of neighboring landscapes or even work towards adjacent environments becoming classified as part of the NR. They favor the implementation of other nature conservation policies such as the Natura 2000 EU Directive or French ecological network policies. Spatial and sectoral integration can be combined in three different ways: (i) When a low sectoral integration is combined with a high spatial integration, the NR favors the implementation of other nature conservation policies (low sectoral integration) outside the NR boundaries (high spatial integration); (ii) when a high sectoral integration is combined with a low spatial integration, the NR encourages sustainable practices and uses (high sectoral integration) within the NR boundaries (low spatial integration); and (iii) when a high spatial integration is combined with a high sectoral integration, the NR supports sustainable practices and uses (high sectoral integration) outside the NR boundaries (high spatial integration). The identified pathways combining these forms of integrations and processes were presented and discussed collectively during workshops both at local and national scales with the managers of the study sites and their partners and with the national NR network.


We analyzed the integration pathways of the 10 NRs along the three axes from low to high spatial, sectoral, and institutional integration (see Table 1). Our results showed a variety of configurations and pathways among the 10 study cases (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Integration pathways of the 10 study sites in the three-dimensional framework of analysis: spatial, sectoral, and institutional integration. Axis scales are fuzzy indications of relative integration, from low to high. Circles mark the state of the NR system at the time of its establishment (a) and at the time of the study (b). The arrows from the dotted circle to the solid circle represent observed pathways from a to b

NR integration at the time of establishment

The first difference between the NRs’ pathways concerns their position in the framework at the time they were established (Fig. 2a). Firstly, a large majority of NRs initially presented low spatial and sectoral integration. Two sites (PCA and Coussouls) were characterized by sectoral integration since their establishment. These NRs have built strong partnerships with specific stakeholders: These include user groups involved in fish breeding, research, environmental education and activism (PCA), and sheep farmers (Coussouls). These coalitions were developed between the future NR managers and their partners often years before the establishment of the PA and involved the integration of various activities (monitoring of fishing/foraging resources, agricultural diagnosis, political support of users, etc.).

Secondly, institutional integration at the time of establishment was very different between the 10 sites. Six sites (Pâture, Riez, PCA, Chérine, Aiguilles, and Sixt) were managed by environmental NGOs, mainly led by ecological experts and activists, whereas four sites were managed either by local authorities (Eyne, Sillon) or by innovative governance systems (Séné and Coussouls). In the latter, the innovative character of the governance systems depended on co-management arrangements that included environmental NGOs, user representatives, and/or local authorities. This co-management was reflected constitutionally (with several management bodies identified), collectively (co-construction of rules and arrangements), and operationally (flexibility in the application of the rules). These three levels of institutional integration (Ostrom 2005) were implemented in a hands-on way depending on practical experiences, revealing the challenge of conciliating the interests of both users and conservationists.

Lastly, we observed that none of the study sites initially presented spatial integration. In the NRs we analyzed, the managers were always limited at first to focusing within the NR’s borders to achieve their conservation goals. Yet even at the outset, most of the study sites already deviated from a completely segregative perspective, especially for institutional integration. This becomes even more pronounced in the NRs over time, as illustrated below.

NR pathways over time

Of our 10 study sites, we observed five types of integration pathways: (1) no change compared to the situation at the time of establishment (three NRs), (2) spatial integration only (one NR), (3) sectoral integration only (two NRs), (4) spatial (but low sectoral) and sectoral (but low spatial) integration (one NR), and (5) high integration in the three aspects, including combined spatial and sectoral integration (three NRs). These pathways are represented with (i) the position of the NR in the framework from the time of establishment (Fig. 2a) to the time of the study (Fig. 2b) and (ii) the general dynamic of the NR system, without focusing on conflicts or failures of integration if these did not impact the general pathway of the NR.
  1. 1.

    Three NRs (Pâture, Coussouls, and Sixt) did not experience change within the analysis framework. There are contrasting views by managers about whether the situation of no change is desirable or not. In Pâture, the NR covers a small surface area, is isolated in a landscape dominated by intensive farming, and has few users or interests. Interdependencies with the surrounding landscape, potential pressures, as well as expected outcomes are limited. The current state of Coussouls and Sixt is considered as undesirable by their managers, who are trying to escape a situation that they consider as a non-sustainable trap. Coussouls is located in a fragmented steppe-like plain, subject to artificialization into urban areas or intensive farming systems, which threatens its functionality. In Sixt, since its establishment, the NR has faced a lack of integration and has been in conflict with local stakeholders. The Sixt NR covers almost three quarters of the territory of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, an isolated municipality affected by significant demographic and economic decline. In this context, the boundaries of the NR have been questioned, the rules are not properly recognized, and perceived positive outcomes and social capital are low.

  2. 2.

    One NR (Aiguilles) experienced an increase in spatial integration. Although it shares several geographical similarities with Sixt NR, Aiguilles was established in favorable circumstances and continues to evolve favorably. Development and conservation issues are spatially separated (a large ski resort on one slope and the NR on another), and the municipality of Chamonix has a flourishing economy and is also characterized by an early environmental awareness. In this context, the NR management body circulates naturalist and scientific information about biodiversity and environmental issues by organizing conferences, and their expertise in ecology is recognized and used by local stakeholders to support other environmental policies in the area.

  3. 3.

    Two NRs are characterized by increasing sectoral integration (Riez and Sillon). Since their establishment, they have integrated a variety of concerns within the NR borders, going beyond conservation objectives to include development and social issues. In Riez, the NR manager organizes festive events, activities, and volunteer work for inhabitants and schoolchildren, and the NR is seen as a heritage and a common good. In Sillon, the NR has developed a dual focus: naturalist and touristic. The NR manager is involved in both aspects, alongside the local municipality, who sees the NR as an important tool for its economic development.

  4. 4.

    One NR (Séné) was characterized at the time of its establishment by an innovative co-management governance system that was a key compromise in the establishment of the NR. Through time, improved relationships and trust supported an integrative pathway in the spatial and sectoral aspects. The manager is now recognized at the local scale as a naturalist and scientific expert and is regularly involved in knowledge acquisition, ecological monitoring, and expertise on a broader scale (high spatial but low sectoral integration). The Séné NR has also strengthened its involvement in visitor access, environmental education, participatory research, and cultural events within the NR boundaries (high sectoral but low spatial integration). It is growingly perceived as a tool for local development by the municipality.

  5. 5.

    Three NRs (Eyne, Chérine, and PCA) experienced increasing integration over time in all three aspects, including a combined spatial and sectoral integration. Eyne was initially characterized by high institutional integration, PCA by high sectoral integration, and Chérine by low integration in the three areas. Today, all are characterized by innovative institutional arrangements integrating local stakeholders and authorities (institutional integration), and the managers are working with local authorities for environmental policy implementation beyond the NRs’ borders (spatial integration without sectoral integration). In Chérine and PCA, the managers have even achieved enlarging the NR borders, and as such, they are perceived as examples to follow at the national scale. Moreover, all three sites are integrating socioeconomic issues (e.g., agricultural and tourism development), and they all have strong partnerships with a diversity of local stakeholders (sectoral integration without spatial integration). Lastly, they combine spatial with sectoral integration by being involved in land use planning and land tenure in larger perimeters than the NR borders (combined spatial and sectoral integration). For readability reasons, these pathways were simplified in Fig. 2b to represent only institutional integration and combined spatial and sectoral integration.


Learned, navigated, or trade-off adaptation?

These various NR integration characteristics and their evolution reveal a variety of adaptation processes to local social-ecological contexts. Using resilience thinking concepts, we identified three types of situations: (i) a trade-off adaptation in which integration emerges at the time of establishment as a compromise, (ii) a learned adaptation in which integration emerges over time as a consequence of a cumulative process and a convergence of interests, and (iii) a navigated transformation in which integration emerges over time during a transformative process.
  1. (i)

    In two cases (Séné and Coussouls), innovative co-management governance systems have existed since the time of establishment. Integration in these cases emerged as the consequence of a trade-off occurring from a conflictual situation regarding the willingness to create an NR that corresponds to the reorganization phase of the adaptive cycle. These examples emphasize the importance of local power relationships in explaining observed institutional arrangements and PA pathways. Social-ecological systems’ literature, which can tend to focus on the “collective capacity of human actors” (Walker et al. 2004), often underestimates social diversity and power issues (Fabinyi et al. 2014). However, this trade-off adaptation at the time of establishment is not a guarantee for future integration pathways of the NRs, as illustrated by the diverging pathways of Séné and Coussouls.

  2. (ii)

    Four cases (Riez, Aiguilles, Sillon, Eyne) are examples of learning adaptation, in which integration has emerged over time as a result of a cumulative process and a convergence of interests, corresponding to the exploitation and conservation phases of the adaptive cycle. After the establishment of the NR, the managers strengthened their position through a gradual cumulative process based on slow variables: learning, networking, building social capital, and information sharing. As observed by Baral et al. (2010), these phases of growth and capital accumulation lead to increased connectedness and to the expansion of a PA. This makes possible the implementation of new projects beyond the historical prerogatives of the NR, extends opportunities that are highly context dependent, and enhances the adaptive capacity of the managers, leading to integration pathways along both sectoral and spatial axis. These results challenge the idea that for positive change to occur, those involved have to move into the release and reorganization stages (Carpenter et al. 2001), which is the case observed in navigated transformation.

  3. (iii)

    Lastly, two cases (PCA and Chérine) illustrate a navigated transformation (Olsson et al. 2006) that combine integration along the three axes. The observed pathways in these cases are the result of the managers’ willingness to escape the initial basin of attraction, considered as undesirable. These two NRs protect wetlands and are characterized by significant ecological interdependence with the surrounding landscapes through water transfers. To escape an undesirable pathway and avoid ecological collapse, they promoted local integration to extend their influence and manage these interdependencies. Here, promoting sectoral and institutional integration was a way to prepare for the desired transformation (spatial expansion of the NR): It allowed capital accumulation, increased connectedness, enlarged the range of possibilities for seizing opportunities (Kingdon 1984), and improved the capacity to act on constraints. In these two cases, the spatial expansion of the NR was implemented through a release and reorganization phase, opening an uncertain window for dialog and the re-negotiation of rules. As mentioned by other scholars, leadership was a critical element in preparing the system for transformation (Olsson et al. 2006; Chapin et al., 2010). While leadership is highly dependent on personal charisma, it also relies on scale and historical features and reflects a manager’s capacity to navigate in a changing environment without systematic intentionality.



From theoretical to observed pathways

French NRs are associated with a segregative model (Therville et al. 2012). They are delineated by clear spatial boundaries (low spatial integration) with the aim of protecting emblematic and/or threatened species and landscapes. The official mission of NR managers includes law enforcement, ecological monitoring, and habitat management (low sectoral integration). However, governance systems vary widely, as the managers may be environmental NGOs, national governmental agencies, or local authorities (variable institutional integration). These characteristics can be interpreted as the basin of attraction of NRs: They are perpetuated by considerable sociohistorical inertia associated with a path dependency process (Pierson 2000), which is reflected in constitutional rules (Ostrom 2005). Locally, the absence of a case study showing initial spatial integration can be interpreted as a consequence of the history of NRs. The primary purpose of an NR is indeed to set up a separate management entity, which initially leads to spatial segregation represented by the borders of the NR. This characteristic often results in the perceived low legitimacy of NR managers outside the NR borders, at least at the outset. This spatial segregation is one of the strongest determinants of a NR’s policy; the manager’s ability to build legitimacy of action beyond its boundaries requires the time necessary for slow processes such as building trust and networking.

Our results show that it is possible for NR managers to steer away from this sociohistorical basin of attraction. The diversity of observed NR pathways in our three-dimensional framework of analysis challenges the view of segregative and integrative models as a static dichotomy, which is widely found in the literature (Miller et al. 2011). It also demonstrates the possibility for an NR to evolve in its core aspects, to escape undesirable states, and to promote desirable pathways of change. It should be noted that the integration pathways we observed were not dependent on the establishment time of the NR: Recent NRs can quickly evolve towards integration (e.g., Eyne), whereas long-established NRs can remain at a level of low integration (e.g., Sixt), although time is certainly an important factor in the emergence of integrative pathways. Furthermore, no normative assumption has been made regarding a common desirable pathway in the segregative–integrative three-dimensional framework. Like many scholars, we consider that there is no panacea that can be applied generically across the board: Every PA, its spatial extent, its roles, and its institutional arrangements should be adapted to its context (Ostrom and Cox 2010).

We did not observe all of the possible theoretical pathways in our sample. Firstly, none of the case studies showed solely institutional integration. Indeed, institutional integration is often implemented by a manager over the lifetime of the NR in order to change its spatial scale and/or to enhance its assets or its connectedness to the local social-ecological network and, as a consequence, its transformative potential (Folke et al. 2010). This is the case of Chérine and PCA, where institutional integration was planned and intentionally associated with other integration dynamics. Secondly, none of the NRs in our sample are moving from higher to lower integration, irrespective of the axis. There are three possible explanations for this. First, we intentionally selected NRs that mostly present a high level of sectoral, spatial, or institutional integration. Local conditions were favorable, and/or their managers were able to avoid undesirable states, collapses, or backtracking and thus to navigate towards desirable pathways. Second, two NRs (Coussouls and Sixt) are trapped in what their managers perceive as undesirable conditions. These traps can be interpreted as poverty traps in the sense of Carpenter and Brock (2008): There is an unrealized integrative potential in a system where networks and leadership have not coalesced to drive forward solutions to problems. However, according to Cumming’s typology on traps and dilemmas in conservation (2017), the observed situation is rather a “countertrap dilemma” associated with a path dependency process. The managers have not been able to escape these traps due to specific local conditions: unequal distribution of power, diverging interests leading to high transaction costs, or a lack of capital or leadership. Third, in three NRs (PCA, Chérine, Eyne), we suspect that the period since the time of establishment is too short to confidently track the integration pathway. The pathways in these cases are largely influenced by the presence of historical leaders within a rather stable network of local stakeholders mobilizing complex arrangements and control mechanisms, which could lead to a rigidity trap (Carpenter and Brock 2008) or to a “shifting burden to intervenor” dilemma (Cumming 2017), even if in our case the agents are internal. Over long time periods, these collectives have invested in networking and trust-building activities, which favor integrative practices. This generation of stakeholders is about to change in coming years, which could lead to backtracking or call into question NR integration. Examples of the ecological or institutional collapse of PAs can be found in the literature, a warning not to underestimate local social-ecological interdependencies or the impacts of large-scale processes such as political changes on PAs (Liu et al. 2001; Baral et al. 2010; Knorn et al. 2012).

The change for persistence paradox

The integration pathways of the NRs analyzed in this paper are also a good illustration of the paradoxical idea that change can be a requisite for persistence and sustainability (Folke et al. 2010). This raises the issue of what changes, to allow what to persist, and how. The three situations leading to the emergence of integrative characteristics highlight diverse configurations between change and persistence: (i) The trade-off adaptation illustrates how the presence of an innovative co-management system (institutional change) can guarantee the maintenance of a diversity of sectoral interests within the PA governance system; (ii) the learning adaptation illustrates how integration gradually emerges over the long term and ensures adaptation, and thus the persistence of the PA within a changing surrounding landscape; and (iii) the navigated transformation illustrates how a PA can experience a re-institutionalization process, opening an uncertain window for dialog and the re-negotiation of rules while the issue is to fundamentally modify its characteristics and ensure the persistence of the ecological functionality.

This change for persistence paradox is related to the multi-scalar nature of PAs and to their connectedness. Even if we consider a PA within its surrounding landscape as a single SES, this system still exists as a panarchy composed of several adaptive cycles interacting across multiple scales and characterized by non-linear feedback and high levels of uncertainty (Walker et al. 2004). Changes in the core dimensions of a PA can emerge in a variety of situations, but they often depend on a negotiation process, leading to a form of legitimacy at the scale of the social-ecological network. Institutionally, this legitimacy can emerge at diverse levels, from constitutional to operational. It can be influenced at the collective level by several factors, including leadership or slow variables such as trust building, to support and legitimate shared arrangements between a stable collective of stakeholders (Cosson et al. 2017). A level-shifting strategy through the constitutionalization of operational or collective arrangements is a way to ensure their persistence over time, going beyond the slow processes of building relationships and trust between specific individuals (Ostrom 1989).


Using the example of French NRs, this study explores three points regarding PA management on a global scale: (i) the view of segregative and integrative models as a dichotomy, (ii) the possibility of the core dimensions of a PA to evolve along integration pathways, and (iii) the diversity of underlying adaptation and negotiation processes at the scale of the local social-ecological network, from trade-offs during a conflictual situation to transformation in order to escape undesirable states and to promote a desirable pathway of change. Our findings lead us to argue that rather than a segregative–integrative dichotomy in PA approaches, there is a complex gradient of models with relative levels of segregation or integration along three axes: sectoral, institutional, and spatial. These characteristics should be understood as the result of co-production between sociohistorical and structural characteristics and adaptations to the local context. Literature on SES and resilience thinking provides useful concepts such as basin of attraction, adaptive cycle, adaptation, and transformability. PA managers can use these to navigate the uncertain and ever-changing SES composed by the PA and its surroundings. They may find a reflexive analysis on pathways to be of great help in determining where the PA is situated within the integration framework, to identify the traps and thresholds to avoid, and to decide which pathway to adopt and how best to implement it. Slow processes such as trust building should also be taken into account, with an awareness that certain adaptations can only occur over the long term. Equally, it should be recognized that PA pathways can only be partially controlled since they reflect the local and uncertain social-ecological configurations at a given time. Continuous reflection on a PA’s pathway and its adaptive capacity is needed to face uncertainty and complexity and to ensure long-term biodiversity conservation.



This study was realized through a CIFRE industrial research agreement. The authors thank Réserves Naturelles de France (RNF), the Agence Nationale de la Recherche et du Développement, the Regions Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Bretagne, the Fondation de France, the French Ministry of Research, and the French Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development. This work was also financed by the EU FP7 SCALES Project (“Securing the Conservation of Biodiversity Across Administrative Levels and Spatial, Temporal and Ecological Scales”; Project #226852, AA). We are particularly grateful to RNF and to the managers who welcomed us on the study sites (Chamber of Agriculture 13, Conservancy of Natural Areas of PACA and Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Asters, the Fédération of Catalan Nature Reserves, the municipality of Eyne, Séné, and Pleubian, the NGOs Bretagne Vivante, Petite Camargue Alsacienne and Chérine, the hunting association of Séné). Comments from two anonymous reviewers also helped to greatly improve the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10113_2017_1231_MOESM1_ESM.doc (122 kb)
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CNRS, UMR 5175 CEFEMontpellier Cedex 5France
  2. 2.EA 2119 Géoarchitecture, Université de Bretagne OccidentaleBrest CedexFrance
  3. 3.Réserves Naturelles de FranceDijon CedexFrance
  4. 4.CIRAD, UPR GREEN, Campus international de BaillarguetMontpellier Cedex 5France

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