Property rights missing from public land conservation debate

Property rights missing from public land conservation debate
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s decision last month to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by over 80 percent has elicited an impassioned reaction from environmentalists, conservationists and recreationists.

Outdoor sportswear purveyor Patagonia, Inc., perhaps most visibly among the dissidents, launched a campaign to challenge the president’s decision on both legal and moral grounds under the banner: The President Stole Your Land. Whether it is an advertising stunt or a good-faith ode to the company’s values, Patagonia’s effort has heightened public awareness of a topic hitherto unfamiliar to most people: federal lands policy.

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Though our culture mythicizes the rugged individualist ethos of the Wild West, about half of all land west of the Great Plains is actually owned by the federal government and controlled by Washington agencies.

 

Over 60 percent of the total acreage in the states of Nevada, Alaska, Idaho and Utah — the focus of the present controversy — is federal land. Even California is 45 percent federally-owned. 

As a percentage of the United States’ total area, the 640 million acres of federal land make up a whopping 28 percent.

 With so much acreage in the hands of federal agencies, federal lands policy has real significance in terms of our environmental quality, asset utilization, and economic output.

So how is it all managed? 

The over 600 million acres in the federal estate are controlled by an alphabet soup of government entities ranging from the Forest Service to the National Parks Service to the Bureau of Land Management.

The purposes of these agencies vary, but one standard — the multiple use doctrine — serves as the general guiding principle for most of our federal lands.

This doctrine, established with the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act of 1976, dictates that agencies consider "management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people."

Unfortunately, this is often executed poorly. Consider, for example, the longstanding issue of so-called overgrazing on federal lands in the west.

Environmental protection groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity argue that the Bureau of Land Management is subsidizing the destruction of native vegetation and wildlife habitats by charging ranchers a submarket rate for livestock grazing access.

While this suits the ranchers, does the practice meet the present and future needs of the Center for Biological Diversity’s thousands of supporters? 

Dilemmas like this in federal lands policy that pit interest groups against one another should come as no surprise. The multiple use guiding principle, which demands the “combination that will best meet” Americans’ needs, holds the Bureau of Land Management and its counterparts to an impossible standard.

It is not the case that government agencies and their dutiful employees mean ill — we all know how earnest park rangers are — it is that agencies lack the capacity to administer resources in a way that reflects the best combination of uses.

Economists like Friedrich Hayek teach us that knowledge is diffuse, that valuations differ, and, therefore, that a concentration of economic power in government can lead to inefficient, harmful judgments.

Applied to federal lands policy, this principle indicates that guidance from Washington cannot tell us how to utilize land to best meet the present and future needs of the American people. What Hayek’s insight suggests, rather, is that the way to best meet the present and future needs would be to enable the American people themselves to make determinations based on their own knowledge and valuations in a price-based marketplace.

There is a popular misconception that markets are “short-sighted” and do not take future needs into account. But if this were true, then farmers would slaughter all of their livestock and would eat all of their seed corn.

Indeed, the “tragedy of the commons” is a well-known phenomenon in which overgrazing, overfishing, deforestation, and other issues occur because of a lack of property rights. For a recent example, consider the African white rhino, which was in danger of extinction due to black market poaching until private property rights in the rhinos were introduced and the species was saved. For the very same reason, nobody ever worries that cows will go extinct.

With more than a quarter of American land under federal ownership, a market transition would be no small feat, but through a deliberate, judicious process, property rights could gradually be allocated to transfer decision-making from planners in Washington agencies to active market participants. When property rights are allocated, economics teaches us, incentives promote efficient use that reflects the value properties hold.

Many Americans support federal land ownership as a means of conservation, but this view misses the problems created by public ownership, such as the aforementioned overgrazing and poaching.

Groups that value land preservation, like the Center for Biological Diversity and Patagonia, Inc., would have just as much of a right to participate in the marketplace as would ranchers or companies that might use the land for commercial development.

With the implementation of a price-centric system for federal lands policy reform, individuals, advocacy groups, and companies alike would be able to express the value they attach to the land not through lobbying the government, as we see now, but through trading.

Rather than fuming at President Trump’s Bears Ears downsizing, conservationists and recreationists should consider whether they truly want the lands they love to be controlled from the sterile confines of federal offices in Washington or whether they might benefit from a more open, free system.

Jordan McGillis is a policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research.