Reviving Environmental Regionalism

Charles H. W. Foster, Octubre 1, 2002

Throughout North America, there is a growing trend to approach land use, natural resources and environmental problems on a regional basis. Since existing government agencies often lack broad authority, local and environmental leaders are increasingly taking the initiative to address the social, economic and environmental issues of a particular place by reaching across conventional political and jurisdictional boundaries, sectors and disciplines.

Interest in environmental regionalism has ebbed and flowed over the years, but its roots are as ancient as humankind’s first home in Africa’s Rift Valley and the early civilizations of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Regionalism flourished in Europe during the early nineteenth century and emerged in the U.S. in the form of the western explorations by Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell. In the 1930s, regional interest in the U.S. surfaced again in the form of Lewis Mumford’s ecological regionalism and the initiatives of the New Deal. After World War II, the U.S. Congress was persuaded to experiment with unifunctional and political forms of regionalism, such as the federal-state river basin and regional commissions. At the turn of the twenty-first century, prompted by dissatisfaction with the growing numbers, scale and complexity of governmental functions, and coincident with the public commitment to civic forms of environmentalism, the stage was set for the current revival of interest in regionalism.

What Is An Environmental Region?

An environmental region usually has some combination of the following attributes:

  • a special place that people care about and identify with;
  • a named area that “stirs the blood and arouses passion”;
  • a place with a unity or homogeneity of some sort;
  • an area defined by common system functions;
  • a place with a similar context and culture;
  • an area with a psychic identity (a “region of the mind”); and/or
  • a place with a history (“story”) around which people can convene, organize and plan for what they want and need (C. Foster 2002a).

Examples of these places abound at different scales throughout the U.S.: Chesapeake Bay, the Northeast’s Northern Forest, the Great Plains (popularly termed the Buffalo Commons), the Southwest’s Sonoran Desert, the Rocky Mountains, California’s Great Valley of the Sacramento River, and the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound. The ambitious “Y2Y” (Yellowstone to Yukon) and Northeastern Landscape projects are designed to secure wildland corridors in crucial regions across the borders of the U.S. and Canada.

But environments need not be large to become good candidates for regional action. For example, a cranberry bog lying in two small Massachusetts towns was the spark for an eventual statewide statute permitting jurisdictions of all sizes to enter into joint powers agreements for environmental purposes. In the Deep South, high-level political negotiations currently preoccupy municipalities, states and federal agencies in the northern portions of the three-state, 20,000-square-mile Apalachicola/Chattahoochee/Flint (ACF) Basin while citizen environmental interests remain focused on the relatively modest, still unspoiled reaches at the southern end of the basin. The famous Quincy Library case in northern California was an initiative prompted by three local citizens, meeting at the town library, to forge a common strategy for nearby national forests. And, on Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound, one of the earliest land management collaborations involved local citizens and jurisdictions serving as surrogates for the National Park Service. In fact, such is the breadth and diversity of regional environmental initiatives across the country that national collaboration expert Julia Wondolleck of the University of Michigan has likened them to snowflakes— none exactly alike.

The Harvard Environmental Regionalism Project

Responding to an apparent resurgence of interest in regionalism throughout the U.S. and Canada, researchers at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in the spring of 1998 asked nearly 150 prominent North American regionalists how regions might be used to advance environmental protection, use and management. The survey paralleled a similar New Deal-era inquiry into the possible use of regions for social and economic development and resulted in an outpouring of opinions (C. Foster and Meyer 2000). Some respondents advised that regions are bounded and shaped in response to a number of physiographic, hydrologic and biotic factors, while others noted influences built around a strong human sense of place.

Regions tend to be less distinct at the margins than at the core. In fact, many regions exhibit a kind of fractal, multi-core quality, operating through individual components that are layered, nested and organized hierarchically. But all seem to work best when they address real, politically relevant issues occurring in a “problem-shed” context. Thus, regions should be viewed as conceptual frameworks for analysis and practice, and ways to organize processes and relationships in order to harness capabilities and integrate policies and programs within a given area, rather than as definitive lines on a map.

Although environmental attributes will be prominent and compelling in any environmentally based region, they should not be controlling. More important will be the inhabitants’ own values, perspectives and priorities, which may include a range of environmentally relevant economic, social, political and cultural objectives. Such regions, like the environment itself, will turn out to be dynamic, not static. The best regions will employ a changing mix of largely organic activities supported by the programmatic services of established governmental agencies and political jurisdictions. Their scales must be large enough to encompass the problem or problems to be addressed, but not so large as to lose any prospect of a supportive constituency. The region’s form and administrative structure should be fitted carefully to its proposed programs and functions, and should operate as a viable business organization.

Despite passionate individual adherents for certain kinds of regions (for example, watersheds or ecoregions), no single best type of environmental region seems to fit all circumstances. Each region must reflect its own biological and cultural diversity and represent the needs of both the present and future occupants of the area in question. The survey respondents recommended starting with a sizable, recognizable, organic landscape, preferably one with a coincidence of natural and cultural features, where sufficient regional consciousness already exists to make the area identifiable (and even nameable). Pluralistic and deliberative processes should then be employed to define the required regional entity. In some instances, preexisting governmental authorities (such as the Endangered Species Act) can serve as the spark; in others, environmental functions may simply be added to established regional agencies for planning, transportation, economic development or metropolitan affairs. Whatever form it may take, and whatever its program objectives may turn out to be, the regional organization must not waver from its goal of achieving meaningful, positive and timely change in the state of the environment by either improving its present condition or removing impediments to its proper management, protection and use.

The Harvard researchers concluded that successful environmental regionalists will need a “tool box” of technical and financial assistance delivered to them through one or more “centers of excellence” established to serve on-the-ground networks of practitioners. Responding to that challenge, the Lincoln Institute has been supporting an inquiry and evaluation of the center of excellence concept through a project known as ENREG (environmental regionalism).

The ENREG Project

The project began with the drafting of a white paper, “Fostering Conservation and Environmental Regionalism: A Blueprint for Action,” describing the rationale for and likely attributes of a national environmental regionalism program (C. Foster 2002b). Separate audiences of regional practitioners and organization/agency representatives reviewed and debated the paper during sessions in Salt Lake City in December 2001 and at Lincoln House in Cambridge in April 2002.

After reviewing an extensive inventory and assessment of ongoing regional initiatives (McKinney et al. 2002), the western practitioners agreed that regionalism is by definition an integrative concept, eventually touching a whole circle of social, economic and political, not just environmental, issues. They noted that regionalism was growing in popularity for several reasons: necessity, self-interest, and as a way to design a shared future and avoid a common fate. They listed a number of obstacles and challenges facing regional initiatives in the West, describing such keys to success as new and creative processes, partnerships, coalitions, planned redundancy, and the exercise of a learning, adaptive attitude on the part of regional practitioners. As strategies to support and promote regionalism, they encouraged experimentation with different models, use of Internet tools to foster communications and networks, and the development of training programs for regional practitioners built around actual case experience. While they agreed that a common framework for promoting and supporting regionalism would be helpful, they cautioned against any attempt to institutionalize what was in essence an organic movement (McKinney, Harmon and Fitch 2002).

The eastern group used four case presentations to begin sorting out what regions are for, how they might be founded and used, what role government should be asked to play, and the implications of regionalism in a global sense. In terms of general precepts and strategies, participants were encouraged to be bold, positive, goal-oriented and adaptive. Those seeking to encourage and support regional initiatives should be sure that the right science and data are available at the right time, and that research and documentation do not overlook the crucial role to be played by people in achieving the necessary behavioral/societal changes (Foster 2002a).

Both groups agreed on the need for specialized education and training in regional environmental practice. The westerners urged training in designing regional initiatives, managing regional organizations and undertaking collaborative problem solving. The easterners suggested a curriculum that would start with concepts, principles and history, and then turn to the skill sets and processes needed to build an effective constituency for change. All favored research and documentation into what works in actual practice, what doesn’t, and why.

The Next Steps

Given these encouraging developments, what does the future portend for ENREG and the field of environmental regionalism it is advocating?

First, the Lincoln Institute is developing a short course on practical strategies to help citizens and officials initiate, manage and sustain regional initiatives. It is being designed for people interested in starting and operating regional initiatives or organizations, such as individual activists, local advocacy groups, governmental officials, and business and industry leaders. The course builds on recent work supported by the Lincoln Institute (see K. Foster 2001 and C. Foster 2002) and uses a combination of lectures, case studies and simulations to provide background information and teach practical skills. The first offering of the course is planned in the spring of 2003 for a group of 20 to 30 prospective practitioners and their associated organizations interested in solving environmental problems according to “the natural territory of the problem,” whether that be watersheds, ecosystems, metropolitan areas, or other types of regions. Ideally, the course will provide an opportunity for people from a common region to come together and begin the process of thinking and acting regionally. Future courses may be convened by one or more local organizational cosponsors that will be responsible for the recruitment of practitioners and many of the logistical and organizational arrangements and for working with the Lincoln Institute to provide instructional resources.

Second and closely allied with the short course is an executive seminar for senior regional practitioners who will be invited to share information and learn from one another through a peer exchange process, thereby building and sustaining viable practitioner networks and refining the instructional principles and strategies through the use of experiences drawn from the real world. The first executive seminar will be held in the West in March 2003.

Third, former ENREG national advisor Richard Doege is seeking supplemental funding to establish a national center of excellence on environmental regionalism. His efforts focus initially on case study research and on outreach to Congress, federal and state agencies, and national environmental NGOs. The objective is to develop a constituency for legislation, governmental practices and civic action that can promote sound environmental protection and management through the exercise of regionalism. The case studies are expected to be a critical resource for developing Lincoln’s training curriculum, and the contacts with organizations and agencies will help identify additional venues, targets and cosponsors for future courses. Through his liaison with Congress, Doege has already identified a number of regionalist provisions in important pending legislation. His future outreach efforts will aim to inform Congress and the national environmental community about ENREG’s research findings and help ensure that Lincoln’s curriculum objectives reflect the current status of regionalism in governmental circles.

Finally, the ENREG planners have in mind the ongoing development of curricular materials. For example, the initial elements of theory, skills and practice will be just the first steps toward an entire “library” of subject matter from which course organizers can make their own selections. Some courses may lend themselves to conversion into distance learning modules so that training can proceed either in conventional course settings or through home computers via the Institute’s web-based instructional program, Lincoln Education Online (LEO). This combination of face-to-face courses and distance learning will advance the Institute’s long-term mission of making knowledge comprehensible and accessible to citizens, policy makers and scholars throughout the world, and ENREG will have more than fulfilled the promise perceived by its proponents at the time of its founding just a year ago.

Charles H. W. Foster is adjunct senior research fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Harvard University, a former Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs and a former dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His colleagues in the ENREG inquiry were Matthew J. McKinney, executive director of the Montana and Western Consensus Councils, and former Harvard Loeb Fellow Rebecca Talbott, a career intergovernmental partnership specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.


Foster, Charles H.W. 2002a. Conference summary. ENREG Eastern Regionalism Conference (April). Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

_____. 2002b. Fostering conservation and environmental regionalism: A blueprint for action. ENREG working paper (June 30). Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Foster, Charles H.W. and William B. Meyer. 2000. The Harvard Environmental Regionalism Project. Discussion paper 2000-11. Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Foster, Kathryn A. 2001. Regionalism on purpose. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

McKinney, Matthew, Will Harmon and Craig Fitch. 2002. Regionalism in the west: A working session with practitioners. (February 25). Helena: Montana Consensus Council.

McKinney, Matthew et al. 2002. Regionalism in the west: An inventory and assessment. Public Land and Resources Law Review. Missoula: University of Montana School of Law.

ENREG National Advisory Board

Robert L. Bendick, Jr., Southeastern Division vice president for The Nature Conservancy, Florida; former New York deputy commissioner for natural resources and director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Richard L. Doege, Esq., Specialist in environmental economics and public policy; advisor to Congress in the areas of energy and the environment, Washington, DC; former business executive and legislative counsel.

Marion R. Fremont-Smith, Esq., Senior counsel at Choate, Hall and Stewart, Boston, and senior research fellow at the Kennedy School’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations; former Massachusetts assistant attorney general in charge of the Division of Public Charities.

DeWitt John, Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Bowdoin College, Maine; former director of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Center for the Economy and the Environment.

Chester M. Joy, Esq., Senior analyst for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. General Accounting Office, Washington, DC.

Ethan Seltzer, Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University, Oregon; former land use supervisor for Portland Metro.