Adopting Local Environmental Institutions: Environmental Need and Economic Constraints

Article excerpt

Communities are increasingly turning to local environmental institutions (LEIs) to address unmet environmental challenges. Yet there has been very little empirical analysis of LEIs, and we know surprisingly little about their origins. In this article, the authors use a rational choice framework to examine the incentives and disincentives communities face in deciding whether to establish LEIs. In particular, the authors study the decision of communities to adopt local wetlands bylaws under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. Using event history analysis, the authors find strong evidence that environmental need, economic attributes, and economic constraints have strong effects on the impulse of communities to adopt LEIs.

Keywords: local environmental institutions; policy adoption, wetlands protection

1. Introduction

The past decade has been a period of major reevaluation of U.S. environmental policy. Academic scholarship (e.g., Davies and Mazurek 1998; Chertow and Esty 1997), blue-ribbon commissions (e.g., Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS] 1998; National Academy of Public Administration [NAPA] 1997; President's Council on Sustainable Development [PCSD] 1996), and politicians (e.g., Bush 2003; Clinton and Gore 1995) alike have recommended that the command-and-control regulation central to the existing environmental protection system be supplemented with, if not replaced by, more flexible approaches. In addition to the broader application of market-based mechanisms and voluntary approaches to pollution control and natural resource management, reform advocates have called for greater resort to place-based solutions (e.g., Shutkin 2000; Mazmanian and Kraft 1999; John 1994).

This momentum toward place-based solutions and the creation of local environmental institutions (LEIs) is fueled by the desire to make environmental policy more responsive to local values and interests and to move away from "one-size-fits-all" environmental programs crafted by distant government agencies. By giving communities more say in environmental decisions, advocates of LEIs argue, policies will meet less resistance and generate stronger environmental protection with lower transaction costs.

Despite all of their perceived benefits, not all communities are eager to create LEIs. What accounts for early adopters? Why do some communities fail to follow the lead of their neighbors in establishing LEIs? In this article, we search for evidence of systematic structural influences that explain why some communities choose to build LEIs while others do not. Specifically, we examine whether the adoption of LEIs fits the standard rational choice framework of incentives and disincentives facing community action, using the case of local wetlands protection in Massachusetts to test the arguments.

The article proceeds as follows. In the next section, we discuss several types of LEIs, differentiating between what is often considered the archetype-community-based environmental protection-and two alternative models of LEIs we study in this article. In section 3, we describe the system of local wetlands protection in Massachusetts. In section 4, we consider the incentives and disincentives facing communities in their decision as to whether to adopt a stronger type of LEI. In section 5, we present and discuss our regression results. Last, in section 6, we offer some brief conclusions.

2. Local Environmental Institutions

The best-known and most intensely studied type of LEI is often referred to as community-based environmental protection (CBEP).1 CBEP represents a myriad of activities in which communities take the lead in creating and implementing environmental protection. Although there is no authoritative definition of CBEP, there is considerable consensus about its defining characteristics.2

First, CBEP institutions are place based, providing the opportunity for policy to be informed by local knowledge and sensitive to the preferences and values of local actors (John 1994). …