Protecting the Environment Through the Ownership Society — Part II

Studies | Environment

No. 295
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
by H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.


Executive Summary

The United States was founded on the principle of private property ownership as the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity. Yet, more than 40 percent of the land is owned by government, and the federal government controls ocean resources within 200 miles of the coast.

Unfortunately, government has poorly managed the public's natural resources. It has been unable to balance public land uses, such as logging and recreation, with preservation of lands in their original state. Because of shifting priorities, national parks and forests have at times been either overused or neglected. As a result, public lands have been degraded and the wildlife that depends on them destroyed. Government efforts to regulate ocean resources have been even more schizophrenic, simultaneously subsidizing commercial fishing while imposing restrictions to halt declining fish populations.

National Parks. Too many people using anything will destroy it, and national parks - many of which are ecologically fragile - are no exception. The National Park Service has maintained low or no entrance fees to encourage the maximum number of visitors, but this has led to overuse and insufficient funds for properly maintaining roads and facilities. It has suppressed natural fires - while spending billions of dollars fighting forest fires. And since deer, elk, pronghorn sheep and bison are popular park attractions, such predators as wolves and bears were hunted and trapped.

The Park Service has been successful in attracting visitors (287 million people in 1999) and increasing the number of grazing animals - but at a high price.

  • In the most popular parks, visitors regularly complain of air pollution from automobiles, cars interfering with scenic views and traffic jams hampering the natural experience.
  • The absence of predators to regulate populations and periodic fires to stimulate plant growth led to an overpopulation of grazing animals.
  • In Yellowstone, elk have almost entirely driven out deer, bighorn and pronghorn sheep, and even beaver populations, or pushed them into poorer habitats, leaving them prey to disease and boom-and-bust population cycles.

In contrast, individuals and private organizations have a long history of protecting environmentally valuable lands. For instance:

  • The Audubon Society maintains more than 100 sanctuaries and nature centers comprising more than 300,000 acres.
  • The Nature Conservancy protects and maintains 15 million acres in the United States in nearly 1,400 private preserves - an area greater than the states of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined.

National Forests. Like national parks, national forests have also suffered from conflicting management goals and environmental degradation. Logging and the roads built to access timber have often been environmentally destructive. For instance:

  • In the Northern Rockies, some trout and salmon streams have been severely damaged by several feet of silt or mud runoff from logging roads and clear cuts.
  • Road construction created inroads for exotic, often harmful species of wildlife, plants and parasites.

The Forest Service has also tried the "let-nature-take-its-course" approach by designating roadless areas and limiting logging. But the forests' health has continued to decline because they are overcrowded with too many living, dying and dead trees:

  • Historically, large ponderosa pines grew in stands of 20 to 55 trees per acre in the Western national forests; today they grow in densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre.
  • National forests in California have an estimated 10 to 20 times more trees than is "natural."

When forests become too dense they are more susceptible to disease and infestations. Keeping the number of trees per acre at an optimal level helps regrowth and biodiversity by allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor. Overcrowding also increases the likelihood and severity of fires. According to Forest Service figures, 60 percent of national forest land is unhealthy and faces an abnormal fire hazard. And of the more than 90 million acres at high risk for catastrophic fires, 14 million acres are designated roadless areas, where access is limited.

Bureaucratic paralysis often infects federal forest management efforts. For example, after a forest fire in California burned both public and private land:

  • The Forest Service removed dead trees and other fuels from only 1,206 acres and replanted 230 acres in the 27,000-acre Lassen National Forest.
  • Only 181 acres of the more than 28,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest were reforested.

By contrast:

  • Private foresters reduced the chance of a future catastrophic wildfire by removing 30,633 tons of dry material, enough to fuel 3,600 homes for a year.
  • They harvested enough larger dead trees to build 4,300 homes.
  • And they spent millions of dollars to reforest the burned land, planting nearly one million seedlings of seven different tree species.

Private organizations have also successfully managed forested land for multiple uses. For example, North Maine Woods, Inc., a land management trust, owns almost 3.5 million acres and allows both logging and recreation:

  • The trust maintains 17 access checkpoints on roadways where visitors register, pay a small fee and obtain permits for campsites.
  • The fees, comparable to those at local government parks, along with profits from logging operations, are used to maintain roadways, improve campsites and clean up litter.

Ocean Fisheries. There has been a rapid and unprecedented decline in American and world fisheries under government regulation. In the 1960s, the government began subsidizing fishing through grants, tax breaks and below-market loans that resulted in more fishers chasing fewer fish.

  • In the past 50 years, populations of large fish species - including tuna, swordfish, cod, halibut and flounder - have decreased 90 percent worldwide.
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service lists 98 species as overfished.
  • Due to overfishing, half of all U.S. fisheries, and a quarter of the major fish stocks worldwide, are in jeopardy of an abrupt, severe, irreversible decline.

While government-operated fisheries are declining, privately owned fisheries have prospered. For example, of the 133 million tons harvested from inland and ocean fisheries in 2003, 40 million came from aquaculture, or private fish farms and hatcheries. The four U.S. ocean fisheries that have been privatized now have smaller fishing fleets, higher incomes for fishermen, and larger, healthier fish stocks.

Ownership in Action. The concept of ownership can be extended to public lands and ocean fisheries. For example, some federal lands could be sold or auctioned off to private parties (individuals, companies or nonprofit organizations). Or management could be transferred to congressionally-approved boards or to states or counties that have demonstrated superior economic and environmental performance.

As for fisheries, financial incentives to overharvest marine resources should be eliminated and replaced with property-based solutions that create incentives for conservation. A system of tradable rights, called individual transferable quotas (ITQs), could be implemented, entitling fishermen to a certain portion of the catch.

Where strict private property rights cannot be established, new markets can be created or economic incentives can be brought to bear on the management of the resources in question in order to improve the environment.


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