By Jordan Lofthouse, August 20, 2016
The presidential election has renewed the debate over conservation versus development on federal public lands. Hillary Clinton has been campaigning on a platform of “collaborative stewardship” to promote both conservation and development. Donald Trump, in his ever-so-eloquent style, said we “have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land.”
About one-third of the United States is owned and managed by the federal government. National parks and wilderness areas already conserve vast tracts of land that have been set aside permanently to be preserved for future generations.
The other hundreds of millions of acres of public land (most of it is multiple use) are constantly up for debate. Conservation groups press for more protections and restrictions. Developers lobby to open up access for mining, logging, drilling, etc.
The problem with publicly held land is that someone will always be unsatisfied. Conservationists will always want to conserve more. Developers will always want to develop more.
As long as the United States has had federally owned land, people have debated about what is the best way to use it, and those debates will surely continue to exist for as long as public land exists. Morals and preferences are subjective, so a conservationist’s view is just as valid as a developer’s. With regards to land use, everyone’s views are simultaneously right and wrong, depending on who you ask.
So that leads to the big question: How do we decide what places to conserve or develop, and how much do we decide to conserve or develop? In most cases, those decisions come down to the politicians and bureaucrats in power.
These government officials aren’t all-knowing or benevolent. They, just like anyone else, are concerned with getting what they want and making sure that their preferences are fulfilled, but government officials don’t work in a vacuum. Special interest groups lobby the politicians and influence the bureaucrats to get what they want.
The problem with all this lobbying and persuading is that it costs a lot of money and time. All that time and money could have been put to better uses than just trying to persuade the bigwigs in government cubicles. Imagine if all that time and money had actually been spent achieving more conservation or engaging in development that makes people more prosperous.
In addition to the political problems, American public land suffers from two tragedies: the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of the anticommons. When people own a piece of land as a group, they feel less individual responsibility for it. They try to get as much value out of the publicly held land as quickly as they can — more quickly than their competitor-neighbors. This tragedy of the commons has happened regularly in U.S. history, especially with mining and ranching in the West.
On the other hand, the tragedy of the anticommon happens when too many people are decision-makers. Perhaps someone proposes a good idea, but too many people in the process have veto power. A dozen bureaucrats can say yes to a plan, but one naysayer in a random agency can shut down a project that a majority of people agree with. When both tragedies are at play, bad outcome results for both conservation and development.
How do we get out of the eternal tug-of-war of political ploys from both the conservation and development factions? One possible solution is to allow people to put their money where their mouth is. Conservationists and developers could buy up public and private land to manage as they see fit. Private land ownership would overcome both tragedies of the commons and the anticommons.
Some people may say that conservationists are at a disadvantage because developers have all the money. People who think this way haven’t been looking around. One of the best examples of free-market environmentalism is happening on the Great Plains of Montana. Environmentally minded donors from across the United States have given millions of dollars to the American Prairie Reserve as a way to preserve and restore one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. When it is completed, the reserve will be roughly one and a half times the size of Yellowstone, and provide habitat to hundreds of animal and plant species, many of which are endangered.
We have to be more creative in the ways we approach conservation and development. Leaving behind the dead weight of a costly, inefficient and burdensome political process can allow environmentally minded entrepreneurs to find new means of conservation and innovators to find new ways to promote development that allows us to flourish.
About the Author
Jordan Lofthouse is a policy analyst at Strata, an energy and environment research center based in Logan, Utah.
At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.