Reviewed by Alexis Schulman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In this book, Judith A. Layzer analyzes seven prominent Ecosystem-based management (EBM) initiatives to determine if EBM delivers the benefits its supporters promise.

2 - Natural Experiments Judith Layzer

Natural Experiments: Ecosystem-Based Management and the Environment by Judith A. Layzer, MIT Press, 2008, 384 pp.

Although the sweeping environmental statutes passed in the 1960s and 1970s produced substantial improvements in US environmental quality, over the years these laws have also been assailed as too top-down, homogenous, and inflexible. Ecosystem-based management (EBM) has found favor among industry critics, as well as scientists, policymakers, and environmentalists, as a panacea to the failings of the conventional, “command and control” approach to regulation. EBM rests on three core principles: the domain of management ought to be defined by ecological, not political, boundaries; stakeholders, those impacted by management decisions, need to be included in decision-making processes; and management rules should adapt over time to changing local conditions. EBM cheerleaders argue that this approach will yield improved environmental health, while protecting other social interests, reducing conflicts, and producing lasting decisions.

But does it?

In Natural Experiments, Judith A. Layzer examines the efficacy of EBM in practice by analyzing seven of the most prominent EBM initiatives in the US, including the Everglades Restoration Plan and the California Bay-Delta Program (CALFED). Lazyer is primarily interested in testing the proposition that EBM improves environmental outcomes, above and beyond what would be expected under the status quo. Methodologically, such an evaluation presents enormous challenges, including the demands of extensive counterfactual analysis across cases that vary greatly. It is not, therefore, surprising that her work is one of very few to address this critical question with any analytical rigor. Applying a multi-pronged qualitative analysis, replete with exceedingly detailed case studies and process tracing, Layzer’s most significant result lends support to EBM skeptics. She finds the collaborative dictum, in particular, “perpetuates, rather than mitigates, the existing power imbalance,” resulting in less protective management plans and poorer environmental outcomes. Instead political leadership—specifically a willingness to prioritize environmental protection over other interests—exerted within the “conventional political framework,” resulted in the greatest environmental gains.

Advocates of collaborative management may rightly argue that process design is critical, and these cases stray far from the ideal set out in the literature. Nonetheless, the question remains: given the failures of the collaborative efforts Layzer assesses, is collaborative environmental management practical for the scale and complexity of the environmental challenges we face? Or is EBM better off without it?

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