Searching For a Responsible Localism

By Harvey M. Jacobs

The Biden administration swept into office with a flurry of executive orders. One seeks to reduce the amount of fossil fuels extracted from federal lands. That has elicited support from national environmental groups (though some say the order won’t go far enough) and local tribes while it is being roundly criticized by local officials, who say it will hurt their economies. In this first in an occasional series from emeritus University of Wisconsin Professor Harvey Jacobs, he explores the thorny issue of who gets to decide how resources – whether privately or publicly owned – should be used. 


I have rarely been identified as a moderate.  Sometimes as a libertarian, sometimes as a social democrat, sometimes as a socialist, but almost never a moderate.  But Dave Cieslewicz and I agree that it is essential for those across the political spectrum to hear each other, listen to each other, and try, as best as is possible, to understand why ‘the other’ thinks as they do about issues and policy.

In this occasional series I want to explore a set of issues that emerge from environmental management.

Today’s political polarization is about a lot of things, but deep in its most modern roots are disagreements about the ownership and management of private and public lands and other natural resources.  This series will explore some of these core issues.

Prof. Harvey Jacobs

An Historical Preface

For several decades (since Ronald Reagan’s presidency) support for environmental issues has been increasingly polarized.  Republicans are characterized as against environmental laws, policies, and programs, while Democrats are characterized as in favor of them. That this is the situation is actually quite strange.  Many of the most prominent environmental policy activists of the 20th century were Republicans.  In the early part of the century President Theodore Roosevelt is largely credited with jump starting the modern conservation movement.  In the 1920s future President Herbert Hoover when he served as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge helped promote zoning as a then-new land use management tool for cities.  In 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  In the 1970s Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York created the Adirondack Park Agency, and President Richard Nixon shepherded the passage of the National Environmental Policy, the Endangered Species, and Safe Water Drinking Acts, established the Council of Environmental Quality, and created the Environmental Protection Agency. All of these were Republican – though most often bi-partisan and moderate – initiatives most of which are understood today as significant by a broad swath of the American public.  So how did we get to the polarized present?

Local v. Regional Control

One of the big issues that separate protagonists (again loosely characterized as Republicans and Democrats) is what level of community (government) should have control over land and natural resource management, when such control is deemed to be necessary.

Local control advocates (largely Republicans) argue that resources are strongly place based.  They can vary in character over very short distances.  Thus they are best understood by those closest to them.  And those closest to them have strong incentives to treat resources sustainably, because owners directly benefit from resource sustainability.  Alternatives to local control may be true in theory, but in practice non-local forms of management are captured by special interests who act against local interests.  Regional control is socially and environmentally irresponsible.  And besides local control is deeply and fundamentally American – think the New England town meeting.

Critics of local control (advocates of some from of non-local [regional] control) (largely Democrats) agree that the arguments for local control can be true in theory.  But they argue that these arguments are often violated in practice.  In fact, the history of local control evidences a practice that is often parochial, elitist, discriminatory, unsustainable, often seeks to maximize the self-interest of the local owner and community against other owners and local communities.  Local control is socially and ecologically irresponsible.  And in an increasingly complex world, locals rarely have the expertise they need to make well informed local resource management decisions.

So who is correct in this argument?  They both are!  Both sides to this issue have elements of truth in their presentations.  Locals do understand local resources better than non-locals, but locals often do not have the expertise to make well informed resource management decisions.  Local control can be parochial and self-interested, but non-local control can easily be captured by special interests.

Since the beginning of the 20th century those across the political spectrum have taken up the call of ‘local control’ or ‘regional (central) control’ when it has best served their interests.  Local (or regional) control isn’t an issue solely for Republicans or Democrats, those on the left or the right, market or government advocates. Instead it serves as a proxy for a deeper set of issues about who gets to decide about natural resource use and whose interests are taken into account in these decisions. 

If we could all just pause and take a deep breath, I believe there is every reason to think we could invent a form of governance that is both local and yet addresses some of the main concerns of its critics – something I have long called responsible localism.

Harvey M. Jacobs is a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where for over 30 years he taught in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.  More information about him and his work is available at


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “Searching For a Responsible Localism

  1. Harvey, Dave,
    Seems to me that if you’re not talking about a history of race (not to mention genocide and land theft) in the US you are missing a big part of the conversation. From the Civil War, to an abandonment of Reconstruction, to the disproportionate “gifting” through federal policy of land to predominantly white people and institutions (hello, Land Grant Universities!), the understanding of property needs to address race. I mean, the country was built on the notion that property included Black bodies. And with that inclusion I think the conversation about local v something else gets a sharper edge. There needs to be some guarantor of rights–and the overlap of individual and bodily rights with that of property, resources, and space–seems to indicate a strong federal role; at the very least it broadens your analysis significantly. As Robert Mier noted, race is often the last way that planning is framed; instead, he suggests, it should be the first. My sense if that you likely would agree with my observation; I wonder if in today’s world that labels us something other than moderate.


    1. brandenborn,

      Of course you are correct. And your examples (race, genocide, land theft [BTW, I’m mostly done with Simon Winchester’s new book, Land, which deals with all these issues; there is a review in the Jan. 18 issues of The New Yorker]) are clearly ones which all of us would agree are examples of IRresponsible localism. As was-is the argument for southern states advocating State’s rights, which set up a situation favoring massive disenfranchisement and discrimination.

      But does that mean that in all instances local control is wrong or bad? What about neighborhood associations, neighborhood planning, community gardens, local food planning efforts (which I know you’ve written on), co-housing efforts, community land trusts, etc.; can’t these be, in the best of circumstances, examples of responsible localism?

      I completely agree with your point – ‘There needs to be some guarantor of rights–and the overlap of individual and bodily rights with that of property, resources, and space–seems to indicate a strong federal role;’ and that is precisely where the Civil Rights movement and related legislation stepped in. It was reacting to irresponsible localism and argued that certain guarantees necessarily overrode local actions.

      But this doesn’t address the fact the irresponsible localism’s replacement can be irresponsible regionalism, and then where does leave us?

      My overall argument is that trying to wrench control away from locals sets up a situation with an uncertain outcome; instead why not try to reform local control so it yields an outcome we are can all — locals and non-locals — find more acceptable.

      There is no perfect solution here; just a more workable one.

      Harvey Jacobs


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