People decide the values and uses of natural resources, and therefore the study of human dimensions seeks to understand how people decide and the outcomes of those decisions.
In most cases, decisions about the use and allocation of natural resources involves a variety of stakeholders and directives written in public policy. These stakeholders might include people with “title” to a resource, such as a land owner; people with some “right” to use a resource, such as a river guide with a permit to lead clients down the Colorado River; and people with a passionate interest in the quality and quantity of resources, such as advocates for an endangered species. Government agents are also part of this decision process, and they assume the role of implementing the directives written in public policy. This public policy is the combination of legislation written by elected politicians (United States Congress, state legislatures, tribal councils, county supervisors, and city councils), legal rulings by courts, and agency priorities and interpretations including Presidential Orders, regulations and operating manuals for the agencies. Decision-making processes usually involves some form of collaboration, consultation, and coordination among stakeholders and agents. These activities help define stakeholder interests, and build trust and understanding among stakeholders. These mechanisms do not insure a full resolution of conflicts among stakeholders, nor do they cede decision-making authority from agents to stakeholders. The study of these processes seeks to identify the collaborative, consultative, and coordinating activities that are more likely to reach a lasting resolution. The outcome of these decisions can be evaluated by asking three basic questions: was it effective, how efficient was it, and how equitably were costs and benefits spread among the affected parties? Some refer to these as the “three Es” of public policy. Effectiveness measures how well the problem was solved, or the goals were reached. Efficiency measures how much the improvement cost, and often employs a benefit:cost analysis. Equitability measures the relationship between the benefits gained by a decision and cost borne by each of the affected parties; and some might refer to this as determining the winners and losers of the decision. In sum, human dimensions are at the heart of why people are passionately interested in natural resources, and why people do not agree on the “best” decision about the use and allocation of resources. Therefore, understanding the human dimension is critical to making a lasting contribution to future of humans and natural resources.