Resource Governance in the American West: Institutions, Information, and Incentives


The American West is a peculiar place. Depending on the location, the West can be drier, wetter, hotter, colder, or more rugged than the eastern United States. Much of the West receives only five to fifteen inches of precipitation each year, compared to thirty to fifty inches in eastern states. Regional variation is also much greater in the West. For example, while eastern Washington and Oregon receive about ten inches of annual precipitation, the western parts of those states receive more than one hundred inches per year. In addition to differences in precipitation patterns, the overall climate, soil types, and topography of the West are strikingly different from those of the East.

Not only are the climates and landscapes of the West vastly different from those of the eastern United States, the formal institutions that have been developed to govern the West’s natural resources differ as well. In particular, top-down institutional governance of land and natural resources has prevailed to a far greater extent in the West than in the East. This trend includes the Homestead Acts and other nineteenth-century land disposal laws, which imposed strict limits on the size of land settlement claims, as well as various policies in the early twentieth century that placed large amounts of western land and natural resources under federal control. The legacies of these policies are evident in many ways today. The federal government owns 46.4 percent of the land in the eleven coterminous western states, compared to only 4.2 percent of the land outside the West. As a result of this large-scale federal ownership, the management of timber, rangelands, minerals, water, and other natural resources throughout much of the West is controlled by centralized government policies and mandates.

This top-down institutional governance presents challenges for efficient management of the West’s natural resources for two primary reasons. First, adjusting management methods to the region’s varied landscapes and climates requires the use of local knowledge and continual adaptation to new realities, but both of these practices are often anathema to centralized control. Second, top-down institutions are often less adaptable to changing circumstances and new values than bottom-up solutions. In recent years, for example, federal and use regulations are based on consumptive uses, particularly timber harvest and cattle grazing. In the meantime, amenity values and other environmental demands have increased pressure for changes in use, yet the existing institutions don’t allow for these new demands and have often contributed to rigidity and inefficiency. The result is that disputes over resource use are often resolved through top-down political means such as regulation and government mandates or through litigation, if they are resolved at all.

Elinor Ostrom’s influential work provides useful insights into the various institutional frameworks for resource governance in the American West. In particular, her work demonstrates the importance of locally responsive institutions that are well adapted to circumstances of time and place. When such institutions are unable to emerge—whether because of institutional rigidity, top-down control by external authorities, or other reasons—resource governance is often inefficient, costly, and conflict-ridden. However, when such institutions do emerge, conflicts over resource use in the West can be resolved more efficiently and cooperatively.

Drawing from the insights of Ostrom and others, this chapter explores the emergence of various institutions governing the management of natural resources in the American West, both past and present, and discusses modern challenges associated with natural resource governance. It concludes by exploring policy reforms that would enable more cooperative, bottom-up solutions to today’s resource management challenges in the American West.

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