Examining USDA Forest Service Recreation Partnerships: Institutional and Relational Interactions


  • Erin Seekamp
  • Lee K. Cerveny


Agency capacity, federal appropriations, public–private relationships, trust, synergy


Since 2002, the USDA Forest Service budget for recreation, wilderness, and heritage programs has experienced limited growth compared to the rest of the agency. Downsizing and outsourcing characterize the agency’s response to constrained appropriations. The agency increasingly works with partners to meet targets that otherwise could not be achieved. Partnerships may take many structural forms (e.g., memorandums of understanding, joint venture agreements, and contracts) and have become part of the agency’s organizational norms. Despite this growing emphasis on partnerships, little is known about the ways partners interact with agency personnel or the implications of partnership reliance for agency programs and services. Existing research on recreation partnerships has focused primarily on steps to build successful partnerships, while research from public administration and organizational management has focused on the determinants of partnership synergy. The majority of this research focuses on collaborative alliances that characterize process-as-outcome partnerships. To build on this knowledge base and develop a conceptual framework of recreation partnerships where products (e.g., visitor services) are the typical outcome, 21 key informant interviews were conducted with agency personnel and partners. Participants were purposively selected from multiple regions, a range of management levels, and a variety of recreation work performed. In this paper, two aspects of partnership interactions (i.e., institutional and relational interactions) are presented to specifically incorporate both institutional and actor perspectives on recreation partnerships, examine the similarities to past research on partnership success (e.g., synergy), and explore the relationship between interactions and administrative barriers. Institutional interactions refer to the reasons that the agency seeks partnerships and the requirements to engage in partnerships. Key characteristics of institutional interaction include: duty, necessity, commitment, and effort. Relational interactions are informed by the actor perspective and describe the needs of both partners and agency personnel to maintain formal and informal agreements. Key characteristics of relational interactions include: interdependence, synergy, power, trust, linkages, and communication. Better understanding of the institutional and relational interactions of partnerships may further the agency’s capacity to provide recreation opportunities and foster stewardship. Two important risks to partnership management were identified: (a) the assumption that partners constitute a source of free labor and require minimal time or energy to administer threatens institutional capacity to manage partnerships, and (b) personnel turnover constrains maintaining partnerships and developing positive community relations, as these relationships often depend on the individual connections that are cultivated. This research helps resource managers understand partnership interactions, recognize the individual champions who invest in these relationships, and assess the institutional mechanisms that enhance management capacity.





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