Chapter 2: Self-Governance, Polycentricity, and Environmental Policy

from the book The Environmental Optimism of Elinor Ostrom

Executive Summary

Both Elinor and Vincent Ostrom were leading scholars in economics and political science, and, as a married couple, they complemented and built on one another’s research about overcoming social problems. Their research program focused on using self-governance to solve social problems. When people are self-governing, they develop their own institutions to resolve conflict and facilitate cooperation, rather than having institutions forced on them.93 The Ostroms’ research on self-governance incorporated both normative and analytical claims. A normative claim is a value judgment that something ought to be the case, and the Ostroms argued that societies ought to be self-governing.94 An analytical claim is an assertion that something is the case, based on theory and evidence, and the Ostroms’ analytical research found that self-governing societies can and have developed diverse institutional arrangements for solving social problems.95

This chapter explores the Ostroms’ normative and analytical arguments regarding self-governance and how self-governing systems can resolve environmental problems without the need for top-down, centralized policies. On the normative side, the Ostroms argued that citizens should be free to develop their own rules and strategies for solving environmental problems. The Ostroms, in their conception of self-governance, push back against the practice of far-removed politicians and bureaucrats manipulating citizens like pieces on a chessboard. On the analytical side, self-governance can solve environmental problems because the people who are nearest to an environmental problem often have more knowledge and stronger incentives to solve it.

As the scale and scope of national environmental policies have increased, those policies have in many cases displaced the activities of civic associations and lower levels of government. In the 1970s, the federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passed landmark legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Although these actions have had many benefits, all public policies, including federal environmental policies, have trade-offs. One of the trade-offs has been the aggregation of decision-making power in the highest levels of federal bureaucracies. The shift to more centralized decision making is worrisome because the institutions that can most effectively solve environmental problems are most likely to be developed by the people closest to the problems.

Much of the Ostroms’ research found that polycentric systems, which have multiple, overlapping decision-making centers, allow societies to both achieve self-governance and effectively solve environmental problems. A polycentric approach allows lower levels of government and private associations to find solutions that are tailored to local conditions, take advantage of local knowledge, and have more direct involvement of local populations. People in polycentric systems have more freedom to develop their own rules and strategies that conform to their unique circumstances and preferences. If taking advantage of the potential of polycentric systems is the goal, policymakers should look for ways to facilitate local communities, private associations, and lower levels of government to experiment with alternative institutional arrangements that fit those unique circumstances and preferences. This chapter will examine a case study of sage-grouse conservation in the American West that shows how polycentric and community-oriented institutions can solve environmental problems and uphold self-governance.

This chapter proceeds as follows. The following section explores the Ostroms’ normative proposition that self-governance is desirable, and then it describes their analytical framework for understanding why self-governance is an effective tool for solving social problems. Section 2 examines how polycentric systems are a means to achieve self-governance while also effectively solving social problems. Section 3 analyzes the example of sage-grouse management in the western United States as a generally successful attempt at polycentric self-governance. Finally, the conclusion shows how those examples can be applied to other areas of environmental policy.

1. Self-Governance and Democracy

Both Elinor and Vincent Ostrom drew a distinction between governing over others and governing with others. Governing with others is one of the fundamental features of a democratic society. Democracy, in the Ostroms’ view, is not just a system of voting; it is a system of how people relate to, tolerate, and associate with one another as equals.96 The purpose of a self-governing, democratic society is to allow free and responsible individuals to find ways of avoiding conflict and facilitating cooperation. Self-governance is rooted in the classical liberal positions of individual liberty, constrained government, and the rule of law.97 One of the Ostroms’ main conclusions was that self-governing systems could address problems without the need for top-down, centralized policies.98

Elinor Ostrom argued that the overarching goal of governance is to “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”99 Different societies will likely focus on different aspects of this goal, such as how efficiently resources are used, how equitably resources are shared, or how sustainably resources are managed. Each of these objectives might be best achieved by different institutional arrangements, and the Ostroms argued that citizens in a self-governing society have the ability and responsibility to set up their own institutions to solve their unique social problems to fit their unique preferences.100

The Ostroms’ research was based on the normative assertion that self-governing democracies are desirable, which is rooted in the ideals of Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was a French political scientist who began his research on the United States in 1831. As he traveled across the young republic, he marveled at the robustness of American civic life. People formed associations that provided their communities with governance, especially when local, state, and federal officials could not provide sufficient government. One of Tocqueville’s conclusions was a warning about the potential collapse of democracies owing to the gradual loss of civic virtues and increased reliance on a centralized government.

The Ostroms, like Tocqueville, were especially concerned with declining public participation in civic life. The national government’s growing scale and scope have increasingly displaced activities that had previously been the responsibility of voluntary civic associations or state and local governments.101 The Ostroms defined the mission of their work in terms of a direct contribution to an “art and science of association” to be used by citizens in the exercise of democracy.102 Elinor Ostrom argued, “Self-governing, democratic systems are always fragile enterprises. Future citizens need to understand that they participate in the constitution and reconstitution of rules-governed politics.”103

Vincent Ostrom argued that “democratic societies are necessarily placed at risk when people conceive of their relationship as being grounded on principles of command and control rather than on principles of self-responsibility and self-governing communities of relationships.”104 Paul Dragos Aligica, who studied under the Ostroms at their Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, reformulates the Ostroms’ view on governance and places different forms of governance on a spectrum: at one end is a citizen-centered approach to governance and at the other end is an expert-centered approach.105 A citizen-centered approach to governance means members of a community are actively and directly engaged in making the rules that govern them. In a citizen-centered society, the governance is centered on the primacy of citizen’s values, interests, and preferences. Many different groups hold power simultaneously, and there is not necessarily a strict hierarchy of power. Citizen-centered approaches are based on voluntary action and allow people to govern with one another to solve social problems.106

At the expert-centered end of the spectrum, government officials become guardians and overseers for a society because citizens are viewed as being incapable of solving their own problems. As the Ostroms framed it, rule by expert is governing over others. An expert-centered approach divides a society into two groups: a small group that consists of ruling elites and a large group that consists of the obeying masses. Politicians and bureaucrats, as experts, solve social problems by manipulating others and forcing them to comply with the experts’ “enlightened” desires. Another term for the expert-centered approach is epistocracy, a paternalistic form of social engineering that pushes the masses into the “correct” behaviors.107 An expert-centered approach can devolve into tyranny because government officials enforce their desires and views, which may not align with the views of the citizens being ruled. As Vincent Ostrom argued, members of society should know how to govern themselves—otherwise self-governance is not sustainable and will devolve.108

Of course, this spectrum is stylized, and without some critical reflection, a casual observer might draw a false dichotomy between an expert-centered approach and a citizen-centered one. In the real world, there are many examples of government actors working collaboratively alongside citizens, private associations, nonprofit organizations, and other public-sector actors. Government is not a separate entity from citizens; governments are made up of citizens. In a citizen-centered system, governments are responsive to citizens, and citizens are involved directly in systems of governance. Not all governance takes place in government, however. Governance can take place in civic associations, clubs, and churches, as well as in various levels of formal government. A citizen-centered, democratic system of governance places voluntary action and association at the forefront, while political hierarchies of power and social control fall to the background.109

The Ostroms’ normative project was meant to persuade people to adopt a citizen-centered model of public administration, but perhaps more importantly, their analytical project was meant to show how real-world people can successfully solve social problems with self-governance, negating the need for a small group of elites to rule over the rest of society.110 Their work contributes to a scientific theory of self-governance that uses theoretical concepts from economics and political science and corroborates these theories with empirical and experimental evidence.111

On both theoretical and empirical grounds, the Ostroms firmly rejected the presupposition that centralized government control was the only viable means for solving environmental problems. Many of the most pressing environmental problems today take the form of a tragedy of the commons. A tragedy of the commons occurs when a common-pool resource is overexploited because that resource is either unowned or owned commonly by a large group. In technical terms, a common-pool resource is both subtractable, meaning that one person’s use of a resource reduces the amount available for other users, and nonexcludable, meaning that is not possible to exclude a person from using the resource. Absent some sort of governance structure, a tragedy will result because no one can be excluded from using the resource, so it will be depleted as all individuals act rationally to use it before others do.112 For example, no government has jurisdiction over the open oceans, meaning that fishers can take as many fish as they want. Thus, many fisheries are collapsing because they lack an effective governance structure to prevent the overexploitation of the common-pool resource.113

Elinor Ostrom wrote, “The presumption that an external Leviathan is necessary to avoid tragedies of the commons leads to recommendations that central governments control most natural resource systems.”114 If current public policies are rooted in the idea that people are incapable of escaping social dilemmas, then the only option for solving those problems is regulations or sanctions from a centralized government. From this perspective, only a Leviathan-like government can direct a society away from the tragedy of the commons.

However, constructing rules in a society to avoid or overcome the tragedy of the commons does not necessarily require topdown commands. As Vincent Ostrom argued,

The command of the sovereign is not the only way to achieve an ordered way of life. Most societies, most of the time, have relied upon some combination of command structures and consensual arrangements. If we are to create alternatives to imperial orders, we must grapple with the problem of constituting systems of government that operate with the consent of the governed.115

Individuals are innovative and entrepreneurial, and they can create new rules and institutions to overcome social dilemmas. Because of the real effects of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, centralized government action is likely not the most efficient or effective option for averting the tragedy of the commons.116

The Ostroms realized that there are many potential ways to avoid a tragedy of the commons. In addition to top-down, Leviathan-like approaches, a society could better define private property rights, or it could organize a community-oriented approach whereby community members engage in rule formation, monitoring, and enforcement. One of the Ostroms’ main contributions to tragedy-of-the-commons research was demonstrating that successfully solving social problems usually requires a mix of private, community, and government efforts that overlap with one another at various levels.

Institutions that can best solve environmental problems are most likely to be developed by local communities in self-governing contexts. The Ostroms found that all across the world, local people have been able to devise rules and institutions that have solved environmental problems in a self-sustaining and self-enforcing way. Elinor Ostrom’s field research in Switzerland, Japan, Spain, and the Philippines found evidence of successful management of common-pool resources that avoided the tragedy of the commons. Other places that they studied, such as communities in Turkey and Sri Lanka, had fragile institutions that did not always successfully manage common-pool resources. Those fragile institutions lacked some of the characteristics, which Elinor Ostrom called “design principles,” of the more successful communities.117

Institutions developed by local, self-governing communities can solve tragedy problems, but there are limited conditions under which this is likely to be true. More complex environmental problems often require a mix of private, community, and government strategies. However, if government decision-making is partially decentralized to lower levels of governance, local people with on-the-ground experience and knowledge can make policies that fit their own priorities. Thus, societies are better equipped to solve environmental problems when they can use their local knowledge and see the policies as legitimate. When far-removed “outsiders” try to force environmental policies on local communities, even with the best of intentions, those policies are likely to have poor outcomes and to be oppressive. “Outsider” policies are less likely to solve problems because the people most familiar with a problem have unique and tacit knowledge that other people may not have.118 Elinor Ostrom argued,

Officials and policy analysts who presume that they have the right design can be dangerous. . . . Somehow, the officials and policy analysts assume that they have different motivations and can find optimal policy because they are not directly involved in the problem. . . . They are indeed isolated from the problems. This leaves them with little capability to adapt and learn in light of information about outcomes resulting from their policies. All too often, these “optimal” policies have Leviathan-like characteristics to them.119

2. Polycentric Systems and Their Social Function

Polycentric systems have multiple and overlapping decision-making centers at different scales and scopes, “without one central authority dominating all of the others.”120 Some familiar polycentric systems are federal systems of government, economic markets, and the scientific community. For example, in a federal system of government, decision-making centers are split horizontally into different branches, such as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the US government. Federal systems of government are also split vertically into national, state, county, and city governments. In the federated system of the United States, public policies are made independently at different levels, but they are interdependent because they can influence one another.

In terms of environmental policy, polycentric systems facilitate self-governance because they disperse decision-making power among a wide range of policymakers. Polycentric systems often devolve day-to-day decision-making power to lower levels of government where public administration can more effectively take into account the diversity and dynamism of environments, preferences, and values. Polycentric systems also leave space for private associations and community organizations to participate in the solutions to environmental problems. Different people in different places may have different cultures and values, which means that a public policy designed for one area may not function in the same way if it is imposed on another area.121 Additionally, top-down policies are often ineffective because local people do not see the high-level policymakers or their policies as legitimate. Public policies need to be legitimized by the people if they are to govern effectively.122 One of Elinor Ostrom’s main research questions was how “diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievements of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.”123

It is important to differentiate polycentricity from simple decentralization because polycentricity is a much more complex idea.124 In a polycentric system, the interconnected and interrelated spheres of power make sure that there are multiple forms of checks and balances. Simple decentralization would mean devolving decision-making power to the lowest levels possible, and without proper checks and balances, each decentralized jurisdiction could become its own small tyranny. A polycentric system will have significant amounts of decentralization, but the lowest levels of decision making are nested within higher levels. The nested nature of power and decision making allows different spheres to interact when necessary and to provide a robust system of checks and balances. In the real world, federal and state governments offer a critical backstop to local policymaking and to private and associational action. Local decision-making works alongside and in collaboration with higher levels of governance.

In an analytical sense, polycentric systems often allow people to solve social problems effectively and efficiently. There are several ways in which polycentric systems lead to more effective and efficient outcomes. First, multiple spheres of policymaking allow for a larger set of opportunities for people to find innovative or entrepreneurial solutions to problems.125 With multiple levels of governance, the diverse set of policymakers can engage in simultaneous experimentation within separate jurisdictions. The use of different approaches to solve similar problems is helpful because it allows policymakers to borrow knowledge gained from others and manipulate it to fit local circumstances. In contrast, monocentric systems only have one sphere of decision making, meaning that there are inherently fewer opportunities for innovation and experimentation regarding collective action problems.126 It is important to note that real-world governance systems are not divided strictly into polycentric and monocentric. Some systems are more or less polycentric than others, and the least polycentric might reasonably be categorized as monocentric.

Another advantage is that the many overlapping centers of governance can induce interjurisdictional competition, which constrains the power of policymakers and gives them a stronger incentive to respond to constituents’ desires. The Ostroms, as leading scholars in public choice economics, used the real-world assumption that government officials are rationally self-interested. Sometimes their self-interest aligns with the welfare of the broader public, but often it does not.127 Thus, outcomes of public policies are rarely socially optimal and may involve wasted resources. In the presence of the real-world challenges of public administration, polycentric systems allow citizens to pressure government actors in various jurisdictions to change their behavior. Much as competition in markets leads to lower prices and higher-quality goods, competition between governments can lead to better public policies.128

Since the citizens have many choices and can “vote with their feet” by moving to the jurisdiction that fits their preferences most closely, government officials must make desirable policies so that citizens choose to remain.129 As citizens have more freedom to enter and exit various jurisdictions, more competition is introduced into the governance system. The Ostroms repeatedly noted that competition between jurisdictions in the public sector can produce better governance because it can reduce opportunistic behavior on the part of politicians and bureaucrats.130 Additionally, overlapping jurisdictions often help avoid tyranny because competition effectively limits the power that any policymakers may have.131 Economists Spencer Banzhaf and Randall Walsh find empirical evidence that people do, in fact, “vote with their feet” for environmental quality.132 Their tests suggest a link exists between changes in environmental quality and changes in local community demographics.

Competition among jurisdictions in a polycentric system can also help lead to the internalization of externalities. An externality is a side effect or spillover effect of an activity that affects people who are unrelated to that activity. For example, a refinery that emits pollution has little incentive to install costly equipment that will limit its emissions. The pollution is a negative externality because no one owns property rights to the air—the air suffers from a tragedy of the commons. To eliminate the externality, or (in other words) to internalize it, governments can enact regulations.133 A question still remains: How should an externality like air pollution be regulated? Different people in different places have different preferences. Various jurisdictions can compete to provide the types of public policies that people want. People who do not like the public policies where they live have the option to move to another jurisdiction that suites their preferences better. Of course, there are real-world limitations to this effect since it is costly for many people to move, but interjurisdictional competition still gives policymakers a stronger incentive to be responsive to their constituents’ desires than does no competition at all.

Polycentric systems also provide protection against institutional failures and allow governance to be more resilient. When spheres of decision-making are dispersed, errors only affect a small part of the system, not the entire system. If a governance structure is monocentric, any institutional failure will affect all the people under that governance structure. Monocentric systems can only try one version of a policy at a time, and if the policy fails to solve a collective action problem, the failure could mean disaster for the whole system. However, polycentric governance structures mitigate the chance that an institutional failure in one sphere will spill over onto other people in other spheres.134

Another benefit of polycentric systems is that small-scale administrative units can, when necessary, band together and create policies that span several jurisdictions. Because decision-making power is dispersed, smaller political units, like counties or states, can come together to solve environmental problems that cross their borders. When larger-scale problems arise, polycentric structures allow smaller-scale units to aggregate themselves and devise institutional solutions that match the scale of the problems.135 The Colorado River Compact is one example of how several states came together in an attempt to govern water in the arid Southwest. The Colorado River Basin extends across seven states, making the jurisdictions of single states too small to implement effective water-use policies. Direct federal control would have been too large-scale because the scope of the externalities did not extend to the whole country. Although scholars and policymakers have called for an update to the compact’s allocations, the polycentric approach to water governance in the Southwest has worked remarkably well for more than fifty years.136

It is important to distinguish the concept of polycentricity from simple decentralization or the idea that “local is always better.” Vincent Ostrom, and his coauthors Charles Tiebout, and Robert Warren were concerned with devolving governance to the lowest point at which an externality can be internalized.137 Sometimes this can be done at the lowest local level, but sometimes it is more optimally done at the regional, state, or federal level. The nature and scale of the issue matters when considering the most appropriate governance scheme. For example, local municipalities oversee garbage collection, while the federal government oversees national defense. National defense and local garbage collection both serve the “public,” but they are issues with different scales and qualities. Thus, depending on the nature and scale of the issue, the optimal governance structure will be different. A polycentric arrangement provides institutional flexibility so that policymakers can tackle a diverse range of social problems. Several cities in the same county can band together; groups of counties in the same state can cooperate; states can solve problems using interstate compacts; and countries can make multilateral agreements. The key is fitting the scale of governance to the scale of the problem.

Lastly, devolving power in polycentric arrangements can allow large-scale desired outcomes to emerge from the actions at lower levels. Similar to the outcomes of markets, the outcomes of polycentric systems are often emergent orders that have unplanned, but usually desirable, features.138 The Ostroms’ work on polycentricity was influenced by F. A. Hayek, who emphasized the dispersed, local, and tacit nature of knowledge.139 Polycentric systems allow the many forms of knowledge in a social system to be aggregated and shared, but Hayek and the Ostroms were careful to acknowledge the limits of planning. At first, it seems as if there is a tension between the concept of “designing” a polycentric order and allowing “spontaneous” outcomes to result. The seeming tension, however, is not necessarily a tension at all. For example, markets operate within formal rules and informal norms, and the formal rules are often designed consciously. Even though general rules may be created by design, the outcomes of market interactions are not centrally planned but are generally socially desirable. In terms of environmental problems, the policies that solve problems do not have to be designed by a centralized government. If lower levels of governance are allowed to create policies that incorporate local and tacit knowledge, the desired outcomes are likely to emerge from the actions at lower levels. As actors in the various decision-making spheres respond to dynamic changes in the world, they can adapt and change the rules to fit new and changing circumstances. As in markets, the resulting outcomes are broader system effects that people desired, but that no centralized entity designed.140

Although there are benefits to polycentric governance systems, these systems are not a cure-all and will still encounter problems. Polycentric systems have weaknesses, and scholars and policymakers should be aware of both the benefits and the potential problems.141 Since polycentric systems involve some degree of decentralization, lower levels of government and private associations may fail to achieve their goals, or politicians and bureaucrats may find creative ways to practice opportunism and cronyism. Multiple centers of decision-making authority may facilitate “buck-passing,” making it difficult for citizens to know whom they should hold accountable for what outcomes. Because polycentric systems have complex spheres of overlapping decision-making, it is not immediately clear how a problem will be solved or who will solve it. Relatedly, understanding how the polycentric system works may place cognitive burdens on citizens. In the real world, many polycentric systems have difficulty addressing the constant, dynamic change of social and environmental systems.142 Thus, the question is not whether polycentric systems are perfectly capable of addressing problems, but whether they produce better results than alternative systems. Polycentric governance, although fallible, may be the best option that societies have to overcome complex environmental problems. As Elinor Ostrom said, “No governance system is perfect, but polycentric systems have considerable advantages given their mechanisms for mutual monitoring, learning, and adaptation of better strategies over time.”143

3. Sage-Grouse Conservation through Polycentric Governance

From 2010 to 2015, federal, state, and local policymakers, as well as private associations, cooperated to conserve the greater sagegrouse populations in the western United States. This success story is just one example of a polycentric approach that solved an environmental collective action problem, and it is instructive because it shows how various governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations can facilitate self-governance in a polycentric system. Policymakers can use the sage-grouse example as a learning opportunity to understand what aspects of the conservation effort worked well and what aspects could be improved on.

The greater sage-grouse is a species of bird that lives on the sagebrush steppes of western North America. Although the historical range of the species was much larger, the species is currently present in eleven states and one Canadian province. The birds are ground-dwelling and can grow up to two feet tall. Greater sage-grouse are a favorite among bird-watchers because of the intricate courtship displays that males perform to attract females.144 Sage-grouse are also a favorite among hunters as a game bird.

One of the most important institutions for species conservation in the United States is the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which gives the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) the authority to list species as “endangered” or “threatened.” It is illegal for a person to “take” an individual of a listed species, with take defined as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”145 There are civil and criminal penalties for unlawfully taking an individual of a listed species, on either private or public land. Additionally, the USFWS can designate critical habitat areas, but these designations affect only federal agency actions or federally funded or permitted activities. Once the USFWS designates a critical habitat, other federal agencies are required to consult the USFWS if their actions may “destroy or adversely modify” this habitat.146

When the ESA was first passed, it was a relatively inflexible piece of legislation that imposed severe sanctions on people. Over time, however, amendments to the law and changes in how it is implemented have made it more flexible and adaptive. For example, the 1982 amendments to the ESA created “incidental take” permits, which allows people with the permits to “take” a listed species in a way that would otherwise be unlawful. Individuals can receive an incidental take permit if they submit a habitat conservation plan that is approved by the USFWS. These plans demonstrate how negative effects to a listed species will be minimized or mitigated, among other details.147

From 2002 to 2004, several individuals and organizations, including ecologist Craig C. Dremann, Institute for Wildlife Protection, and American Lands Alliance, submitted petitions to have the greater sage-grouse listed under the ESA. The USFWS conducted a review, and in 2005, it found that the greater sage-grouse did not warrant listing under the ESA.148 Western Watersheds Project was not satisfied with the 2005 finding and sued the USFWS. On December 4, 2007, the US District Court of Idaho ruled that the USFWS’s 2005 finding was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. The court reversed the USFWS’s decision and remanded the finding back to the USFWS.149

In 2010, after two years of reviews, the USFWS announced that a listing of the greater sage-grouse was “warranted but precluded,” which means that the USFWS should take action but would not immediately because of other higher priorities.150 A “warranted but precluded” determination is essentially a temporary deferral of action. Thus, the greater sage-grouse was identified as a “candidate species” for full listing under the ESA. A candidate species designation does not give statutory protection under the ESA, but the USFWS encourages federal agencies, state governments, and private associations to work on conservation efforts to avoid a full listing in the future. Those working toward conservation have a wider range of options to experiment with under a candidate species designation because the full statutory requirements of the ESA are not in effect.151

One of the most contentious issues associated with a full listing under the ESA is the disproportionate distribution of costs and benefits—the people who bear the largest burden of the costs are not usually the people who receive the largest benefits. Groups that do not want to bear the costs of a full listing find it in their interest to negate the need for a full listing by engaging in conservation efforts. Federal, state, and local policymakers wanted to avoid a full listing of the sage-grouse because a large portion of sage-grouse habitat exists on public lands where ranching and resource extraction are common.152 Landowners and people in resource extraction industries wanted to avoid a full listing because of the stringent and restrictive land-use policies that the USFWS can impose.153 Additionally, private associations of hunters, bird-watchers, and conservationists had a strong incentive to maintain the sage-grouse populations to protect their preferred means of recreation.154

The candidate species designation sparked a polycentric effort to boost the sage-grouse population in order to avoid a formal listing as endangered or threatened. The success of these various overlapping policies from policymakers and private associations ultimately removed the need for a listing. The polycentric efforts included federal management plans, candidate conservation agreements, the Sage Grouse Initiative, the Greater Sage-Grouse Comprehensive Conservation Strategy, state management plans, and local working groups. The rest of this section describes how the polycentric system generally succeeded and what its shortcomings were.

The Role of Federal Agencies in Sage-Grouse Conservation

Federal agencies play an important role in sage-grouse management because sage-grouse are often found on federal lands. Officials in both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS) wanted to ensure that the sage-grouse would not be listed as endangered. Since sage-grouse live on hundreds of millions of acres of federal land, a full listing would have significantly raised the costs of using federal land for any type of development or resource extraction. To avoid such costs, the agencies began drafting new management plans after the candidate species designation, and they adopted finalized plans in 2015. The new plans amended the previous plans for 98 BLM and USFS units to increase the protection for sage-grouse on nearly 70 million acres of federal land across much of the western United States.155 The BLM and USFS plans led the way for community management. The BLM’s and USFS’s 2015 plans took a polycentric approach because they focused on the development of state sage-grouse management plans that also facilitated “voluntary, multi-partner private lands effort to protect millions of acres of habitat on ranches and rangelands across the West.” Additionally, the BLM and USFS plans facilitated collaboration among federal, state, and private-sector scientists to research the most effective and efficient means of conservation.156

Another polycentric approach that federal officials used was candidate conservation agreements (CCAs). CCAs are voluntary agreements between the USFWS and another party, such as a state government, a private landowner, another federal agency, a local government, or a tribal government. Parties that opt into CCAs commit to reduce threats to candidate species.157 Several state governments, including those of Idaho, Wyoming, and Oregon, all entered into sage-grouse CCAs.158 From 2013 to 2015, CCAs were implemented on 5.5 million acres, including both private and federal lands.159

One CCA in eastern Oregon provides a clear example of how CCAs function. Many cattle ranchers in eastern Oregon lease BLM land for grazing, but this grazing land is also habitat for the greater sage-grouse. In 2013, the USFWS, the BLM, and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association entered into a “programmatic CCA,” which is a broad umbrella agreement among those three entities. The programmatic CCA allows the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association to identify conservation measures that benefit sagegrouse and to assist individual ranchers using BLM land to development “allotment CCAs.” Allotment CCAs are tailored for each rancher’s unique circumstances in order to ameliorate threats to sage-grouse and to encourage grazing practices that benefit sagegrouse on BLM land in Oregon. The BLM and USFWS work with participating permittees to select conservation measures that address threats and provide benefit to greater sage-grouse on the leased BLM land. The conservation measures are voluntary actions performed by private ranchers that supplement mandatory actions under the BLM’s resource management plan or other regulations.160 In eastern Oregon, the sage-grouse CCAs allowed private ranchers greater flexibility to figure out the measures that work best for their unique circumstances, and that also help conserve sage-grouse.

In addition to new management plans and CCAs, one of the most effective and polycentric approaches to sage-grouse conservation from the BLM and USFS was the partnerships formed through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). More than 1,100 private individuals across the West participated in the SGI, which had the dual goal of restoring about 4.4 million acres of sage-grouse habitat while also allowing economic development on federal lands.161 The SGI works through voluntary cooperation, incentives, and community support to protect sage-grouse habitat and increase sage-grouse populations. The initiative accomplishes these objectives by aiding ranchers with conservation measures on private rangeland, such as by preventing the spread of noxious weeds, removing conifers that threaten sage-grouse habitat, securing conservation easements in residential areas, performing wetland restoration projects, and making fences more visible to sage-grouse to reduce deadly collisions.162 The SGI is funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has spent more than $296.5 million on the SGI between 2010 and 2018. A further $128.0 million has come from other conservation partners and landowners, bringing total SGI investment $424.5 million.163 It should be noted, however, that the example of the SGI may have limited applicability to the vast majority of imperiled-species problems because game species and other charismatic species often attract more attention and financial resources than non-game or less charismatic species.

The Role of State Governments in Sage-Grouse Conservation

Just as the candidate-species listing prompted federal officials to revise their sage-grouse management policies, it also prompted state officials to create new policies to avoid the need for a full listing under the ESA. In 2011, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar invited the eleven states with sage-grouse populations to produce updated sage-grouse management plans. These plans could be individualized to each state, and Secretary Salazar encouraged state policymakers to balance economic development and management of the species.164 Several western governors, including the governors of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, issued executive orders to implement state conservation plans that would eliminate the need for listing the species under the ESA.165 By 2015, most of these western states had implemented new conservation strategies or strengthened their existing strategies for sage-grouse preservation.166 Federal plans focus on only federal lands, which makes state plans important because they restrict activities across entire states. In some respects, state management may be more influential than federal management because it covers a broader area of sage-grouse habitat—not just habitat on federal lands.

Before and after the 2010 candidate species designation, western states have engaged in a “laboratory of democracy” in which different states have taken different approaches to sage-grouse conservation. Even though they experimented with different approaches, the states have pursued a common purpose. State leaders learned from the successes and failures of the plans adopted in other states, and they tailored their conservation strategies to comport with the desires and cultures of local people. One of the clearest examples of mutual learning and interjurisdictional cooperation is the Greater Sage-Grouse Comprehensive Conservation Strategy. This strategy was formed by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) in 2006 to facilitate partnerships and mutual learning between state wildlife agencies. (WAFWA is an association of the various wildlife agencies from twenty-four states and Canadian provinces.) The Greater Sage-Grouse Comprehensive Conservation Strategy is an ongoing endeavor in which various state and provincial officials meet with one another in forums and workshops, discuss various approaches to sagegrouse conservation, and engage in mutual learning by reviewing successes and failures.167 Additionally, many of the conservation actions funded by the SGI are tied to decisions made in the Greater Sage-Grouse Comprehensive Conservation Strategy.168

The Role of Local Working Groups in Sage-Grouse Conservation

Some states were able to devolve the implementation of their conservation plans further, facilitating an even more polycentric structure. For example, Utah’s policymakers created a new sagegrouse management plan in 2013 and implemented it in 2015.169 Roughly half of Utah’s greater sage-grouse live on private lands, which means that local communities and private landowners are necessary participants for successful conservation. One of Utah’s strategies for sage-grouse conservation has been the Community-Based Conservation Program (CBCP) and local working groups. The CBCP is run by a Utah State University extension program and staffed predominantly by university-affiliated researchers. The goal of CBCP was to provide incentives for private landowners and local communities to engage in conservation as an alternative to direct regulations. The CBCP facilitates local working groups for sage-grouse conservation throughout Utah.170

Each local working group incorporates representatives of many parties and interests, such as university scientists, federal officials, state officials, county officials, private landowners, livestock operators, private organizations, industry leaders, and grazing associations.171 Local working groups were first implemented in 1996 to bring together state and federal agents, local landowners, and other interested parties to conserve sage-grouse.172 Each group has its own conservation plan and works to reverse the decline of sage-grouse in its area. Utah currently has eleven local working groups, and several other states have formed similar groups. Now there are more than sixty across the western United States and Canada.173 Utah’s local working groups are financially supported by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah State University Extension, the Berryman Institute, private landowners, public and private natural resources management organizations, and wildlife conservation organizations.174

The Parker Mountain Local Working Group in central Utah brought together Utah land managers, USFS officials, USFWS officials, Utah State University Extension county agricultural agents, county commissioners, local agricultural producers, and members of a relatively large private grazing association. The group decided to first gather information on local sage-grouse populations before making any management changes. After each phase of the various research projects, the group convened to discuss the findings and propose management plans. The group determined that mechanical and chemical treatments were effective at making the habitat more conducive to sage-grouse reproduction.175 Mechanical treatments, such as mowing, and chemical treatments, such as the herbicide tebuthiuron, are meant to improve the growth and dietary quality of sagebrush for sage-grouse.176 Plots that were treated with tebuthiuron had the highest sage-grouse habitat selection, so the USFS, the BLM, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources decided to treat larger brooding areas with tebuthiuron, which increases the herbaceous understory that is necessary for sage-grouse.177

The West Desert Local Working Group in Utah also succeeded in boosting local sage-grouse populations. Participants included officials from a variety of federal, state, county, and tribal agencies, as well as from grazing associations, recreation agencies, and conservation districts. In spring 2015, the group held several brainstorming sessions about ways to understand and manage the continuing decline of the area’s sage-grouse population. Adopting a unique approach to the situation, the group discussed bringing sage-grouse from other places to augment the local sagegrouse population. In 2016, the group began a translocation project to bring in sage-grouse from two areas in Utah with stable populations. This project provided data on how the newly translocated sage-grouse survived, reproduced, and moved. 178

The efforts and results of these working groups illustrate how conducting management and research at the local level has allowed local knowledge to be used in conservation. The several local working groups in Utah have “capitalized upon one another’s research results.”179 Because Utah State University Extension serves as a hub, local working groups throughout the state can see how other groups have engaged in research and management. For example, the West Desert group was able to learn from other local working groups about the value of conifer removal for sagegrouse habitat improvement.180 In addition to facilitating knowledge-sharing, the polycentric model of local working groups built a sense of legitimacy and ownership over the sage-grouse conservation project that may not have existed if research plans and management strategies had been forced upon local actors by far-removed federal officials.181

The case study of the greater sage-grouse shows how federalism can enable “laboratories of democracy.” Using multiple jurisdictions as laboratories of democracy is closely related to the popular concept in conservation biology of adaptive management. Adaptive management refers to the integration of design, management, and monitoring to systematically test assumptions in order to adapt and learn. Adaptive management includes the modification of management decisions when better information is available.182 Elinor Ostrom argued that polycentric systems have “mechanisms for mutual monitoring, learning, and adaptation of better strategies over time.”183 Scholars and policymakers who are concerned with using adaptive management strategies in conservation should focus more on the advantages of polycentric solutions that allow for learning and adaptation to take place. The connection between the Ostroms’ body of research and the adaptive management literature is an area ripe for future study.

Although Utah has experienced conservation successes through its highly polycentric approach, wildland resource scholars Lorien Belton, Nicole Frey, and David Dahlgren warn that such an approach may not work everywhere. They argue, “The scale of engagement in sage-grouse issues across the western United States, as reflected in Utah, is unprecedented and therefore may be difficult to use as a model.”184 The exact framework of Utah’s system may not be applicable everywhere, but polycentric approaches can take many different forms. The exact configuration of the system and the specific authorities in any given level can be tailored for different circumstances.

Learning from the Polycentric Approach to Sage-Grouse Conservation

From 2010 to 2015, federal, state, and local officials were able to prove that they could engage in effective conservation efforts. The USFWS decided in September 2015 to withdraw the greater sagegrouse from the candidate species list and not to list it as threatened or endangered. The justification for the decision stated,

Based on the best available scientific and commercial information, the Service has determined that the primary threats to sagegrouse have been ameliorated by conservation efforts implemented by federal, state, and private landowners. . . . Therefore, the Service has determined that listing the sage-grouse in all or a significant portion of its range is not warranted at this time.185

Policymakers and scholars must be careful not to oversimplify the successes of the sage-grouse case study. From 2010 to 2015, the polycentric governance structure appears to have “solved” the collective action problem related to sage-grouse conservation, but the sage-grouse has several characteristics that make it unique. Game species and other charismatic species like the sage-grouse can often serve as “flagships” that stimulate public support for conservation in a particular area.186 Not only is the sage-grouse a flagship species, it also has a widespread range across several states, popularity with recreationalists, and relatively abundant conservation funding from both private and public sources. Much of the grouse habitat restoration money, especially money used by the Sage Grouse Initiative, came from oil and gas operations, farming and ranching associations, mining corporations, and private land trusts.187 The combination of interests that contributed to the sage-grouse conservation efforts had more financial resources than the interests that work to conserve many other species of concern. Without such a widespread, well-funded conservation effort, the sage-grouse conservation effort may not have been as successful.

Events since 2015 show that the situation is complex, and conservation of the greater sage-grouse is not guaranteed into the future. The legal protections for sage-grouse under federal law are politically tenuous. For example, the Trump administration has changed the BLM and USFS land management plans for sage-grouse conservation.188 The Trump administration has also changed several regulations under the ESA, which largely motivated state and private actions for sage-grouse conservation.189 Congress is also considering bills that would change the ESA, and several changes made in 2019 have directly affected the greater sage-grouse. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 stipulates that no appropriated funds “by this or any other act” may be used to list the greater sage-grouse under the ESA. It is uncertain how long that stipulation will exist or how it will affect sagegrouse conservation in the future.

Owing to various institutional changes at the federal level, sage-grouse populations may fall in the future. However, even though federal policies may change, the polycentric setup of the American system can still help conserve sage-grouse. States and counties can make their own policies. States can make compacts with one another, like the Greater Sage-Grouse Comprehensive Conservation Strategy, to preserve the sage-grouse even without federal oversight. Private organizations and individuals can attempt to persuade their neighbors to engage in conservation. The polycentric character of sage-grouse conservation may still aid conservation efforts if states create new policies or maintain the restrictions that federal land management agencies under the Trump administration have now relaxed. For instance, state oil and gas commissions may continue to regulate under the older, more stringent restrictions even after the BLM has weakened its protective mitigation standards. Likewise, some state agencies may choose to keep stricter regulations on the books or experiment with more effective policies. Thus, the polycentric arrangement for sage-grouse conservation provides protection against institutional failure because policy changes at the federal level do not necessarily determine the entire outcome. Interstate associations, states, counties, and private associations have the ability to continue engaging in conservation, even if the federal government has rolled back some protections.

From 2010 to 2015, there were undeniably top-down policies affecting sage-grouse conservation, especially the threat of the full listing under the ESA. In the case of the sage-grouse, the trigger for the highly polycentric approach to conservation was the threat of a top-down imposition of public policies through the ESA. However, since federal officials allowed lower levels of government to engage in their own conservation policies, sage-grouse populations were able to increase, removing the need for a full listing. Power may be highly decentralized in a polycentric system, but there is still a role for higher levels of government. In this case, the pressure of federal agencies served as a catalyst for a polycentric conservation effort. In other instances, such federal pressure may be unnecessary or unwarranted. As Elinor Ostrom argued, “Patterns of relationships among individuals and groups tend to be relatively complex and rarely lend themselves to simple explanations. Reforms based on overly simplified views of the world have led to counterintuitive and counterintentional results in both urban and CPR environments.”190 Although public administration is a complex phenomenon, polycentric systems “are more likely than monocentric systems to provide incentives to self-organized, self-corrective institutional change.”191

4. Conclusion

Each society faces its own unique environmental challenges, and there are countless ways to tackle those challenges. Solutions can come from formal policymakers, private associations, communities, markets, or any combination of these entities. Balancing effective environmental policy with democratic self-governance can be a challenge. The Ostroms’ research, however, has shown how polycentric systems can effectively solve environmental problems while also promoting a form of citizen-centered governance.

Sage-grouse management in the western United States provides a clear example of a polycentric approach to self-governance because the people who live near and interact with the environmental problems at hand are intimately involved in the formation, monitoring, and enforcement of social rules. Sagegrouse management was democratic because people directly affected by environmental problems were given the freedom to create institutions that resolved those problems. Each institution was tailored to the specific contexts and cultures of the local people. As Vincent Ostrom explained, “What it means to live in a democratic society is much more demanding than electing representatives who form governments. Not only are democratic societies constructed around the essential place of citizens in those societies, but they cannot be maintained without the knowledge, moral integrity, skill, and intelligibility of citizens in the cultivation of those societies.”192

The Ostroms’ normative and analytical approach is much more widely applicable across environmental policies in the United States and throughout the world. Policymakers should look for ways to facilitate polycentric structures or community governance in these arenas. With more self-governance, local people will be able to use their dispersed and tacit knowledge to devise new ways of tackling problems. When local people are involved in the rulemaking process, they see rules as legitimate and help monitor and enforce these rules. Systems with these characteristics become self-enforcing, decreasing the need for centralized oversight. As new environmental problems arise in the world, polycentric systems offer one of the most robust and innovative ways to find solutions in a world of dynamism and diversity.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.