Although many researchers have observed that institutional setting is critical in resource management, little is known about how the structure of local governance facilitates or inhibits land and water resource management and thereby affects ecological systems. Does disaggregated local governance that enhances local autonomy have a positive effect on resource management and planning? Or does political fragmentation tend to induce destructive interjurisdictional competition over resources? Under what institutional circumstances can favorable management outcomes be achieved? This exploratory research project will analyze land-use changes and shifts in water quantity and quality in the Interior Plains, the largest physiographic division in the U.S., where a large degree of heterogeneity in political fragmentation exists. Focusing on the Interior Plains of the United States, the investigators will empirically examine the influence of institutional settings on the effectiveness of water resource management, with special attention given to political fragmentation in local governance. The project will be conducted in three phases. In the first phase, the investigators will measure political fragmentation in local governance at both regional and 12-digit watershed scale levels using a variety of metrics. In the second phase, they will analyze land-use changes using an econometric approach, with explicit consideration given to political fragmentation. In the third phase, they will investigate how the relationship between land use and water quality and quantity varies with the degree of political fragmentation.

This project is expected to shed light on the critical connections between institutional arrangements and natural resource systems. A better understanding of these connections will facilitate more meaningful and constructive dialogue about the structure and nature of communities and their collective actions. The project will produce tangible outcomes, such as an integrated georeferenced database designed to enable empirical analysis of the institutional structure, land use, water resources, and their linkages. This database will be a useful resource for a wide range of future relevant studies across scales of decision making. Furthermore, the research findings will contribute to development of more effective and complete planning and resource management practices in the large study area and neighboring regions. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

Project Report

Successful resource management requires both thorough understanding of ecological systems and well-organized institutions that enable us to effectively monitor the environment and take appropriate actions in a timely manner. While the importance of institutional settings in resource management has increasingly been recognized, our knowledge about the ways human institutions (such as municipalities) can influence resource management practices is still limited. In particular, we lack a clear understanding regarding how differing institutional circumstances might provide positive or negative resource management processes and outcomes, and why this is the case. This exploratory CNH project aimed at expanding our knowledge base of the critical connection between human institutions and natural resource management. More specifically, the project attempted to examine how political fragmentation in local governance – one of the most important dimensions of our institutions – can influence land and water resource management outcomes, focusing on the Interior Plains, the largest physiographic division of the United States. To accomplish this objective, the research team measured political fragmentation using a range of metrics at multiple geographical scales and analyzed how land use and water quantity and quality indicators vary with the degree of political fragmentation. The project investigators also organized and conducted two workshops to disseminate the research findings and to better understand how project outcomes can support real-world decision making. The project highlighted that a large degree of variation in political fragmentation exists across and within regions. Further, statistical analyses of the data for a large number of watersheds suggested that political fragmentation (both at micro- and regional-scale) can have significant implications for natural resource management. In particular, watershed areas shared by many jurisdictions tended to have a distinct land use pattern and slower pace of water quality improvement, although other factors also played significant roles in determining land and water resource management outcomes. It was also found that as watersheds become more urban, the volume of stream flow (particularly channel forming flow) increases leading to likely increases in flooding. Inter-jurisdictional and/or public-private cooperation could contribute to addressing the challenges arising in areas with fragmented governance structures. The project’s workshops presented ways to engage both scholars and practitioners and to make strides toward cooperation for more effective resource management, which is essential for the public health, safety and prosperity.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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Kansas State University
United States
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