Coordinating Collective Action: Why Lake Organizations are Like Cookouts

Written by Dane Whittaker

Don’t you wish increasing volunteer involvement was as easy as throwing a good cookout? We know it’s not. Here we provide eight suggestions that may help you overcome the challenge of free-riding.

Wisconsin’s waters belong to its people. Thanks to the Public Trust Doctrine established in the early 1800s, keeping our lakes healthy is our shared responsibility. As lake stewards, you know that warming water temperatures, fluctuating water levels, new forms of recreation, and COVID-19 are all changing the ways lakes are used. Lakes are a place to swim, fish, find inspiration, and they are home for wildlife. Maintaining lakes is a goal we must work together to achieve, but often, the burden is shared by a committed few. Local, regional, and state organizations in the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership contribute to a common good in keeping our lakes healthy. But with so many social and ecological challenges on our hands, including a global pandemic, it isn’t easy.

Sustaining our lakes requires collective action. Collective action is when two or more people work together, and sometimes compromise, to provide a public good. If your neighborhood is having a cookout, self-interest would say not to take anything and eat what your neighbors bring. However, it is rare for people to show up at a cookout empty-handed. The neighborhood cookout is an example of successful collective action that results in full bellies and sometimes too many brownies. Caring for Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes could be left to a small number of individuals, but you’d likely go home hungry. With regional and state partners, lake organizations facilitate collective action and coordinate efforts so that there aren’t ten plates of brownies (i.e., guest speakers) and no potato salad (i.e., lake management plan). A balanced mix of dishes is the key to a good cookout.

When coordinating collective action, lake organizations face several challenges. These challenges, broadly described as ‘free-riding’, include low volunteer participation, homeowners opting out of membership, or visitors heavily using the lake—challenges every lake organization is familiar with on some level.

In 1973, political economist Elinor Ostrom founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. She received the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her comparison of cases where common pool resources, like lakes and irrigation networks, were sustainably managed over time through collective action. Ostrom and her colleagues found that many of these resource-based organizations had eight traits in common.

We conducted a study of Vilas County lake organizations in 2019 to translate the eight characteristics that Ostrom found for lake organizations locally. You can read the full study, Conditions for success in natural resource management by volunteer-based organizations: A study of lake management organizations in Vilas County, Wisconsin, USA, here. Here, we describe these eight traits in the context of Wisconsin lake organizations:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries take into account two distinct attributes. First, the boundaries of the resource must be clear; this is inherent for lakes. Second, who can use the lake must be clear. In Wisconsin, lakes are held in Public Trust for the use and benefit of its people. All of the organizations we talked to had clearly defined boundaries.
  2. The rules fit the lake. Lake organizations provide feedback to rule-making and enforcement groups, like town boards or the Department of Natural Resources, about allowed recreational equipment, activities, and lake use hours. Lake organizations help ensure the rules match the lake’s size, type, and ecological needs. For example, Nichols lake, which is small and shallow, only allows electric motors.
  3. Lake users participate in setting rules. Because people who interact with a lake regularly have a good sense of the local conditions and needs, they can help design rules and lake programs that fit local conditions. Many lake organization members may be unable to vote in local elections, but they are able to have their voice heard through the lake organization. Lake organizations have an inclusive planning and voting process, and often influence local planning decisions. A common question that arises is should visitors and non-residents be able to participate in lake organizations?
  4. Monitoring the lake and its use to detect harmful changes that need to be addressed. Monitoring can be formalized through programs like Clean Boats Clean Waters or the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network. It can also be informal. A kayaker might notice a new plant growing in the lake and report it to a local aquatic invasive species specialist for identification and, if confirmed, rapid response management.
  5. Graduated sanctions by other lake users. Sanctioning is when a rule-breaker is punished. Graduated sanctions say that the punishment’s severity is based on the seriousness of the rule broken and whether the person has broken the rule before. For example, someone sitting on their dock might yell, “Hey, slow down!” to a boat that speeds through a no-wake zone, and then call the sheriff if the person speeds by repeatedly. Graduated sanctions give the rule-breaker the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to learn the rules.
  6. Simple, low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms. Is there an easy way for lake users to resolve disputes? This could be as simple as a discussion at a lake organization meeting. But, suppose the case is more complex, like a water level dispute between two lakes that share a dam. In that case, the lake organizations might invite a DNR scientist to provide information to help them settle the dispute. Establishing a clear path for conflict resolution is vital.
  7. Rights to organize. In some places, this is a challenge. For lake organizations in Wisconsin, state law gives people the right to organize. What may present a more significant challenge is gaining permission from town governments or state agencies to take specific actions. Working through these grant and permit processes ensures appropriate efforts go into managing lakes and that resources go to the lakes that need it the most. We all have some skin in the game – after all, Wisconsin lakes are for everyone.
  8. Organizations work together at different scales. The Wisconsin Lakes Partnership brings scientists, educators, and citizens together to care for our lakes. Under the partnership, local, county, and state organizations work together and share information to benefit the lakes and the people and wildlife that use them.

Sustaining a lake organization is challenging. While we found that most organizations are using the principles above, we did find that successful implementation of #4-6 and 8—monitoring, graduated sanctioning, conflict resolution, and partnering with local organizations—set some organizations apart in working through challenges. We hope that considering these characteristics will help new lake organizations get started and inspire existing organizations to try something new.

As Elinor Ostrom was fond of saying, these characteristics are not a panacea. All eight principles may not fit your organization. You know your lake best; take these as inspiration to improve its sustainability. Our lakes face many challenges, but we have the opportunity to take action together to keep them healthy for future generations.

Who’s hungry for a brownie?


Dane is a PhD student at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University

New study shows the economic impact of clean lakes

As a follow up to investigations into the economic value of waterfront properties in Oneida and Vilas Counties, researchers from UW-Eau Claire, researched the link between water clarity and the sale prices of waterfront homes. This research project was proposed by the Vilas County Land & Water Conservation Dept. and the Oneida and Vilas County Lakes and Rivers Associations, and funded by grants from the Lumberjack RC&D and the UWEC Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

Read more “New study shows the economic impact of clean lakes”