What’s Missing from the Public Land Conservation Debate? Property Rights!

Jordan McGillis – February 13, 2018

President Trump’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.

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.

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