By Charles Sims, Paul Armsworth, Julie Blackwood, Ben Fitzpatrick, David Kling, Suzanne Lenhart, Michael Neubert, Monica Papes, James Sanchirico, Katriona Shea, and Michael Springborn.

Read the full paper here.

Managing social-ecological systems (SES) requires balancing the need to tailor actions to local heterogeneity and the need to work over large areas to accommodate the extent of SES. This balance is particularly challenging for policy since the level of government where the policy is being developed determines the extent and resolution of action. We make the case for a new research agenda focused on ecological federalism that seeks to address this challenge by capitalizing on the flexibility afforded by a federalist system of governance. This new research agenda considers the bio-geo-physical processes that characterize state-federal management tradeoffs for biodiversity conservation, resource management, infectious disease prevention, and invasive species control.

Ecological federalism synthesizes the environmental federalism literature from law and economics with relevant ecological and biological literature to address a fundamental question: What aspects of SES should be managed by federal governments and which should be allocated to decentralized state governments?  States can choose management that reflects the ecological system in their state and the values held by their residents. The greater the difference in the SES across states, the greater the difference in management chosen. However, absent interstate management conventions, state-level managers often ignore how their management affects neighboring states. Federal management accounts for these spillovers between states but is forced to apply uniform, one-size-fits-all management in all states that ignores the differences in the SES in the two states. Aspects of SES that favor state over federal management include ecological heterogeneity, social heterogeneity, and natural laboratories (i.e. experimenting with management approaches locally). Aspects of SES that favor federal over state management include ecological spillovers, social spillovers, and pooling/rationing of resources.