Teamwork makes the Dream Work: collaborative management of the nation's estuaries

Alex Goldstein is completing her master's degree in Coastal and Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also received her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Environmental Studies and Spanish. Alex's experiences leading kayaking expeditions in North Carolina's Outer Banks fueled her passion for environmental education and coastal policy. She was drawn to the study of collaborative watershed management because of the complex and critical nature of improving coastal watershed governance, locally and globally. As an advocate and aspiring naturalist, Alex hopes to continue helping individuals and communities value and protect their natural resources.

"Teamwork makes the dream work" is one of my favorite cheesy sayings from summer camp. As the quote implies, one is more likely to reach a goal with the help of others. A common activity used to demonstrate this idea is the "spider web"- A challenge in which participants must cross from one side of a web of ropes to the other, without touching the ropes, and without more than one person passing through the same opening. The activity reveals the benefits and difficulties of collaboration, illuminating the factors that contribute to success. A diverse, small group might complete the “spider web” in less than ten minutes without talking, while a larger group, with fewer leaders may take an hour. 

Environmental problems are similar in that they arise within a web of diverse human actions, social values, economic systems, and complex ecological processes. Following the wave of environmental legislation in the 1970s, collaborative environmental management (CEM) emerged as a common policy approach to tackling these complex problems. CEM became particularly popular among national efforts to improve water quality and coastal conditions, which saw substantial decline beginning in the 1960s. 

In both theory and practice, CEM makes sense- it is a logical strategy with the potential to increase public awareness, minimize costs, and bring necessary people and groups to the table, even across local and state boundaries. However, starting in the early 2000s, the widespread application and praise of CEM spurred a wave of critiques. After examining a variety of collaborative programs, scholars pointed out that collaboration is not a "cure-all" for governance problems and the excitement over these processes did not demonstrate evidence of environmental improvement (Imperial, 2005). 

So, does collaboration work? Does teamwork make the dream work? 

Contemporary studies say "yes", asserting that CEM can enhance cooperation and foster belief change among stakeholders, generate funds and support for non-regulatory policy measures, increase implementation success, and yield a measurable, positive effect on environmental outcomes. In addition to establishing certain strengths, this recent wave in CEM research aims to identify which factors contribute to the struggles or successes of CEM efforts.   

Watershed governance is a particularly appropriate and popular context for analyzing collaborative management strategies. In the U.S., scholars and practitioners have consistently looked at the National Estuary Program (NEP). Created in 1987, the NEP is a voluntary federal program that facilitates the identification, planning, and implementation of actions to improve water quality, habitat, and living resources within estuaries and their watersheds. Compared to traditional collaborative institutions, NEP networks tend to involve more levels of government, include more experts in policy development, foster stronger interpersonal relationships, and create greater faith in the fairness of local policy. Overall, these strengths paint a picture of successful collaboration within the NEP, but in reality, a variety of factors determine the effectiveness of each of the 28 programs.

Map of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System
Though many of the problems facing these estuaries are the same, the NEP’s 28 watershed management programs vary in size, structure, representation, and political, social, and ecological context. And while the EPA makes broad claims of the NEP’s efficiency and effectiveness, certain participating estuaries have had more success than others. So for my capstone I will be answering the following questions: What are those keys to success? Which factors pose the greatest challenges? And how can these lessons be applied within North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP)? 

After comparing common variables across multiple programs and determining which correlate with more effective implementation, I will develop recommendations for APNEP’s Policy Board. APNEP is unique in that it is the largest and one of the longest-standing programs. Considering the growing cumulative impacts of human activities, population growth, and climate change to the valuable and nationally-significant Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System, it is critical that APNEP understands how they can best set themselves up for success. 


  1. Alex, this sounds like an interesting project and I look forward to learning your results. Good luck!


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