Advances in microsensor and radio technology will enable small but smart sensors to be deployed for a wide range of environmental monitoring applications. The low per-node cost will allow these wireless networks of sensors and actuators to be densely distributed. The nodes in these dense networks will coordinate to perform the distributed sensing and actuation tasks. Moreover, as described in this paper, the nodes can also coordinate to exploit the redundancy provided by high density so as to extend overall system lifetime. The large number of nodes deployed in these systems will preclude manual configuration, and the environmental dynamics will preclude design-time preconfiguration. Therefore, nodes will have to self-configure to establish a topology that provides communication under stringent energy constraints. ASCENT builds on the notion that, as density increases, only a subset of the nodes are necessary to establish a routing forwarding backbone. In ASCENT, each node assesses its connectivity and adapts its participation in the multihop network topology based on the measured operating region. This paper motivates and describes the ASCENT algorithm and presents analysis, simulation, and experimental measurements. We show that the system achieves linear increase in energy savings as a function of the density and the convergence time required in case of node failures while still providing adequate connectivity.