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Institute for Social Science Research in Natural Resources


Founded in 1968 by Professor of Sociology, Wade Andrews, the Institute for Social Science Research in Natural Resources (ISSRNR) was, from the beginning, an interdisciplinary endeavor. In collaboration with the Department of Economics and the Department of Engineering, sociology faculty focused their attention on water resource issues before expanding this focus in the 1970s to include energy resource development. Since then, research interests have varied, based on interests of affiliated faculty: earthquake risks and preparedness in Utah during the mid/late 1980s, local response to hazardous waste storage and disposal, public land resource management, wildlife resource management, and the socio-demographic changes occurring in rural areas characterized by “natural amenity”-based development. More recently, faculty have investigated land management practices of absentee owners of private agricultural lands and water resource issues. Funding has come from a variety of federal and state agency grant sources (e.g. USDA, NSF, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah Divisions of Water Resources & Water Quality, Public Land Policy Office) and non-profit foundations.

Institute Faculty

Dr. Courtney Flint, Director

Courtney Flint

Dr. Jessica Schad, Associate Director

Jessica Schad

Dr. Tom Mueller

Dr. Tom Mueller

Dr. Jennifer Givens

Jennifer Givens

Dr. Mehmet Soyer

Dr. Mehmet Soyer

Opportunities and Current Projects

ISSRNR remains an important avenue for promoting interdisciplinary social science research on the environment and natural resource management. Housed in the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology, the lab provides both space and experience for graduate assistants working on faculty research projects, and it fosters relationships between sociologists and faculty in allied agricultural and natural resource science disciplines. Faculty affiliated with the ISSRNR have extensive experience using multiple research methods to explore human dimensions of natural resource problems, and much of their work focuses on resource management challenges in the Intermountain West.

Dr. Courtney Flint 

Social Ecology of Rivers

Team: Dr. Courtney Flint, PhD Student Leonard Henderson, undergraduate student Caitlyn Rogers

Dr. Flint’s Rivers Project explores the social ecology of rivers in the Intermountain West with particular focus on the role of river-related organizations in the relationship between human and natural dimensions of river systems. There are 476 HUC 8 watersheds in the Intermountain West and so far, over 425 organizations have been identified across 11 states. We are conducting structured interviews with representatives of these organizations. One key focus is on factors influencing success of these organizations as well as obstacles with an eye to synthesizing best practices for achieving river-related objectives.

Mural near river 

Wellbeing Across Utah Communities

Team: Dr. Courtney Flint, PhD Student Kristen Koci, Casey Trout and undergraduate students Rachel Sagers and Caitlyn Rogers

Dr. Flint’s Utah Wellbeing Project (2018-2023) gathers perceptions of wellbeing across Utah communities and compares them with community indicators to inform local municipal leaders and their planning processes. Surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020 have collected information from over 6,000 Utah residents across 25 cities.

Survey Takers


Utah Wellbeing Survey


USU Students conducting surveys



 Dr. Jennifer Givens 

Media Coverage of Climate Change

Team: Dr. Jennifer Givens and Master’s student Gina McCrackin

Utilizing Utah Agricultural Experiment Station Project (UTA-01369) funding, we are comparing media coverage of climate change across contexts. Gina McCrackin, a Master’s student in Sociology, is analyzing media coverage of climate change in contexts related to Indigenous Peoples and Native Nations. This project builds upon the research of now graduated Sociology Master’s student Tyler Spradlin, whose work compares national newspaper coverage of climate change over time to local coverage of climate change in three mountain town newspapers in the Intermountain West. There are opportunities for students interested in this research to be involved.

Innovations at the Nexus of Food Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS)

Team: Dr. Jennifer Givens, PhD student Michael Briscoe, and other collaborators.

With funding from NSF and USDA (NSF EAR #1639458 and USDA #2017-67004-26131) we, along with an interdisciplinary and multi-university team, are studying Innovations at the Nexus of Food Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS). Our focus as social scientists is on incorporating sociological considerations and variables into the larger team analysis of food, energy, and water (FEW) resource resilience and sustainability. As part of this work we draw attention to societal drivers and social and environmental outcomes of the current FEW nexus, highlight issues related to inequality, power, and social and environmental justice, and emphasize opportunities for social change in a paper published in Frontiers in Environmental Science.

fish ladder
Columbia River

Social Drivers, Consequences, and Responses to Great Salt Lake Desiccation

Team: Dr. Jennifer Givens and Dr. Jessica Schad

The Great Salt Lake is desiccating, and this drying and shrinking poses alarming risks to the surrounding area. Dust from the exposed lakebed contributes to poor air quality and negative human health outcomes. A shrinking lake is also harms birds and other species that depend on the lake, and it negatively affects lake related industries including tourism. We collected survey data from Utahans on their awareness of this issue and their views on the causes, consequences, and ways to address this local threat to human, animal, and environmental well-being, the costs of which could be expensive in both monetary and non-monetary ways. We are currently seeking additional funding to support further work on this important project. There are also opportunities for students interested in this research to be involved.

Great Salt Lake


Dr. Jessica Schad

Natural Resource Dependency, Community, and Mental Health in Rural Utah

Team:  Dr. Jessica Schad, PhD student Kristen Koci

As part of her Utah Agricultural Experiment Station Project (2020-2025), Dr. Schad is examining how natural resource-related economic transitions impact community identity, mental health, and suicide trends in rural Utah.  She is studying mental health and suicide trends as well as individual and community-level contributing factors in rural natural resource dependent places in Utah using quantitative and qualitative research and a variety of secondary and primary data sources.  A team of graduate and undergraduate student researchers are contributing to various aspects of the project, thus training them to conduct rigorous applied sociological research that can make a difference in rural community quality of life and policymaking.  She is working on developing partnerships with researchers, local organizations, and government entities, including USU Extension agents, throughout Utah who are also trying to understand and address these issues.

Dr. Jessica Schad, PhD studen Kristen Koci

COVID-19, Rurality, and Views of Science in Utah

Team:  Dr. Jessica Schad, Dr. Jennifer Givens, and undergraduate student Mitchell Beacham

With funding from a Mountain West Center for Regional Studies Small Faculty Grant, College of Humanities and Social Sciences Creative Activity and Research Enhancement Grant, and Faculty-Student Summer Mentorship Grant, Drs. Schad and Givens are working with undergraduate students to conduct a study using online panel survey data of adult residents of the state of Utah to better understand perceptions and behaviors in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. This study will provide information about how Utah residents’ politics, views of science, and rural residence are driving behavior and attitudes regarding COVID-19 as well as support for science-related policy recommendations.  This will include an examination of the relationship between views of climate change and COVID-19 and a follow-up survey to the one conducted in June of 2020 will be conducted in June of 2021.

Sign on fence reads: Mindfulness brings us closer

Social Factors Influencing Agricultural Producers’ Usage of Conservation Practices

Team:  Dr. Jessica Schad, USU PhD Student Edem Avemegah, SDSU PhD Student Wei Gu 

With funding from a variety of sources including USDA-NIFA, the South Dakota Nutrient Research and Education Council, and the AFRI Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program, Dr. Schad’s research examines the social factors which drive conservation attitudes and behaviors among agricultural producers. She studies how sense of place, land tenure, and social networks, for example, relate to soil and water conservation practice adoption and persistence among different types of agricultural producers and landowners.  Current projects include an examination of how rangeland producers in South Dakota make decisions about usage of parasiticides, what residents (including producers) of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed view as a thriving agricultural system, and how South Dakota producers’ sense of place and responsibility are related to their likelihood to adopt conservation practices and maintain them over time.  Dr. Schad is also developing projects to examine similar questions with interdisciplinary teams in the Intermountain West.



Dr. Mehmet Soyer

The Impacts of Oil/Gas Development in Ute Indian Tribe 

I and my students have been working on several projects focused on public opinions surrounding the impacts of Oil/Gas Development and land management issues. I and Dr. Jessica Schad have been working on a project conducting in-depth interviews and Qualtrics survey with the stakeholders (residents and community leaders) in Ute Tribe reservation to examine the public perceptions of the impacts of oil and gas development. This area in the Uintah and Duchesne counties of the Uintah Basin is the most significant oil and natural gas producing in the state of Utah. From the residents’ point of view, we have been exploring community/sense of place, current impacts on the community, and communication with city officials or industry. Also, my research team and I have been scrutinizing the community leaders’ opinion on a tour of events on oil & gas development in the reservation, and their concerns and problem-solving. While much research has been conducted in non-tribal communities on the impacts of fracking and energy development, little has been done in tribal communities despite high levels of oil and gas development.  

Jessica Schad, Kristen Koci,

Public Opinion on Air Quality & Public Health in Cache County

The research team conduct Qualtrics survey to understand Cache County residents' perception of local air quality and relation to health concerns. Also, the research team conduct a qualitative in-debt interview examining the parental perceptions of the effect air quality has on their asthmatic children in Cache County Utah. We will collect this data via in-depth interviews with these parents which will be transcribed and coded. Upon analyzing the data, we will also evaluate the parents` understanding of the impact of air quality and analyze culture attitudes toward pollution. We will use action research approach to find possible problems and seek potential solutions regarding the understanding of the relationship between poor patient-related outcomes of asthmatic children and air pollution as well as explore any associated sociological implications.

 Cows in a field


Dr. Tom Mueller

Water Hardship in the United States

Team: Dr. J. Tom Mueller and other collaborators

Access to complete plumbing and safe drinking water is less certain in the United States than many would presume. By combining data from the EPA and the Census bureau, we are documenting the full scope of water hardship in the United States. Further, by conducting a series of quantitative models, we are documenting the environmental injustice water hardship represents. The dimensions of water hardship, particularly incomplete plumbing, are variously unjust along the dimensions of indigeneity, income, education, age, and rurality. We are expanding our initial effort on this work through a pending proposal to the NSF which will allow us to conduct a multi-tiered analysis of why existing policy focused on water hardship is failing, and what can be done to remedy the unaddressed crisis in the United States.

Understanding Natural Resource-Related Economic Development in Rural America

Team: Dr. J. Tom Mueller and other collaborators

Through funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, we are examining the impact of eight different forms of natural resource development on rural well-being. By assessing the differential economic and health-related impacts of oil and gas, logging, mining, agriculture, wind/solar energy, tourism, real estate, and conservation/restoration, we are working to provide a comprehensive picture of the nuanced relationship between different uses of the local environment and rural well-being. Through secondary data analysis, a large-scale survey of rural America, and a series of qualitative case studies, we are documenting how different forms of natural resource development do, and do not, lead to increased well-being in rural America.