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Currently, many approaches to solving policy problems seek to create community-based, less coercive solutions that are creating the conditions for the birth of new regional governmental institutions. We argue that networks form the core of these emergent structures and that federal programs can play a positive role in developing local networks. Our empirical work compares networks in estuaries included in National Estuary Program with networks in comparable estuaries that were not. We find that the networks in NEP areas span more levels of government, integrate more experts into policy discussions, nurture stronger interpersonal ties between stakeholders, and create greater faith in the procedural fairness of local policy, thus laying the foundation for a new form of cooperative governance.