Protecting the Environment Through the Ownership Society — Part II

Studies | Environment

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


Applying Ownership to Public Lands

"Some public lands are not environmentally siginificant."

Many, and perhaps most, of the problems detailed above could be remedied by applying ownership principles to the management of all public lands - national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, public grasslands and so forth - and ocean resources. There is no compelling reason to keep properties that are not environmentally unique or significant in the public domain, rather than sell them to private parties (individuals, companies or nonprofit organizations). The private sector currently preserves, protects and promotes many historically important properties and manages the majority of the country's forests and rangelands. Moreover, it manages them in ways that promote environmental quality and benefit the owners and the public at large.

No Environmental Reason. The federal government acquires and protects some properties for political reasons, rather than environmental concerns. For instance, there is really no compelling reason, other than the desire of legislators to bring home pork or to have themselves memorialized for posterity, why there is a national park, recreation area or forest in every congressional district. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the national wildlife refuge system, notes that there are 545 national wildlife refuges in the United States - slightly more than one for each member of Congress - and at least one within an hour's drive from every major U.S. city.71

Furthermore, many public properties are valued for their association with especially important historical events, persons or industries vital to the development of the United States, but they have no particular environmental value.72 Other public lands in a largely natural state are valued primarily for their rural or relatively wild nature; however, they neither contain any particularly unique or breathtaking environmental features, nor do they provide ecosystems or critical habitats for species that are not already provided, as well or better, on other lands.

Previous Attempts to Dispose of Public Lands. There have been several proposals to sell or privatize some federal lands but they have all failed. For instance:

  • Legislation proposed in 1995 would have established a commission to identify and recommend the disposition of units of the National Park System that are not unique, don't fit the system's overarching goals or might be better managed by other agencies or the private sector.73
  • In 2005, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) proposed selling 15 units of the National Park System - including six national historical sites, three national monuments, three national preserves, two national parks and one national memorial.74
  • The Bush administration proposed selling 300,000 acres of national forest and thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management lands.75

None of these plans progressed very far due to well-organized opposition by major environmental and outdoor sports interest groups.

"Land that is not environmentally significant could be sold."

Selling Federal Land. Surely as an experiment the United States can safely and perhaps profitably sell some of the hundreds of millions of acres of federal land. For example, portions of national forests could be sold for market value. If there is one private owner of land abutting the property, it could first be offered to that owner for continuity of management. If that landowner is not interested or the forest abuts state lands or multiple private properties, it could be auctioned to the highest bidder.

Forest product companies, sportsmen's clubs and environmental groups would likely buy certain forested lands. Undoubtedly the range of interests bidding on the forests would be limited only by location, access and the imagination of the bidders. Some of these lands will likely be developed. And while they will no longer be public forests, many and perhaps most will be managed in ways that protect their natural character. For instance, forest companies have an incentive to manage their forests in sustainable ways, which enhances both their environmental and economic value. Unlike the federal government, private companies do not have the general treasury to bail out money-losing operations and therefore do not build uneconomical roads in ecologically fragile areas to cut down uneconomical trees. Furthermore, privatizing public lands would have the additional benefit of improving the tax base in rural areas and reducing the strain on the federal budget.

Public versus Private Management. Private property owners have flexibility in managing their lands, whereas federal forest management is too often hampered by rigidity. For instance, when a wildfire struck near Storrie, Calif., in August 2000, more than 55,000 acres burned, mostly in the Plumas National Forest (28,000 acres) and Lassen National Forest (27,000 acres). Also burned were about 3,200 acres of private forestland managed by W.M. Beaty and Associates. However, the responses of Beaty and the Forest Service couldn't have been more different. By 2001, Beaty foresters had:76

  • Reduced the chance of a future catastrophic wildfire by removing smaller dead trees and woody material - generating enough clean biomass fuel to fuel 3,600 homes for a year.
  • Harvested larger dead trees suitable for lumber processing - amounting to 64.5 million board feet, enough to build 4,300 homes.
  • Spent millions of dollars to reforest the burned land, planting nearly one million seedlings of seven different tree species.

By contrast:

  • The Forest Service removed dead trees and other fuels from only 1,206 acres and replanted 230 acres in the Lassen National Forest.
  • In the Plumas National Forest, the Forest Service was prevented from removing dead trees and reforestation occurred on only 181 acres.

This scenario was played out previously after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Very little reforestation occurred under the federal policy of "let nature take its course," and 26 years later much of the federal land still looks like a moonscape - mostly denuded, hardened mud. But adjacent state and private lands are lush and flourishing.

"Private forest managers aren't hindered by inflexible regulations."

Private forest owners are not hindered by bureaucratic federal rules requiring multiple studies, public hearings, comment periods and court challenges. Thus, they are better able to prevent infestations that kill forests and, if struck by disease, they are able to act quickly. Promptly removing dead and dying timber can prevent infestations from spreading to other areas and prevent potentially catastrophic fires. Private companies keep the number of trees per acre at an optimal level. This reduces fire hazards and lets sunlight reach the forest floor, which helps regrowth and biodiversity. In fact, their lands are often managed so well that they are considered prime campgrounds and are leased by hunting clubs. [See the nearby "Case Study: North Maine Woods, Inc."]

"Private forests are managed for sustainable multiple uses."

The Private Sector's Track Record of Protecting Land. As explored in "Protecting the Environment through the Ownership Society - Part One," there is no reason to expect environmental harm from transferring public resources to private ownership. Indeed, there are reasons to think the ecology on some of these lands would improve. Individuals and private organizations in the United States have a long history of protecting environmentally valuable lands that predates efforts by the federal government. For instance:77

  • While state governments were awarding bounties for killing birds of prey, a concerned citizen helped found the private Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania to prevent the slaughter of thousands of hawks, falcons, ospreys, eagles, owls and other endangered birds.
  • While state governments were awarding bounties for killing seals and sea lions, a for-profit corporation protected the only mainland breeding area for the endangered Steller sea lion.
  • While the federal government owns only 4.7 million acres of wetlands and has encouraged the destruction of private wetlands, about 11,000 private duck clubs have managed to protect 5 million to 7 million acres of wetlands from destruction.

Also, the focus of many of the environmental organizations that could be expected to bid on any public lands put up for sale is to protect land in an untamed state. [See the sidebar "Private Organizations Protect the Environment."]

"Private organizations protect millions of acres of wildlife habitat."

Alternatives to Outright Privatization. For political reasons, it may be impossible to sell certain public lands. That does not mean forgoing all the benefits of private ownership of such lands. There are various mechanisms or institutional arrangements that would still bring many of the benefits of ownership without removing land entirely from public control.

For instance, it is unlikely the public would allow the federal government to sell crown-jewel national parks like Yellowstone or wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In such cases, Congress could establish Wilderness Endowment Boards to own and manage them, as suggested by economists Richard Stroup and John Baden.78 These government-chartered, nonprofit entities, whose board members would be approved by Congress, would have a narrowly-defined fiduciary duty to protect and enhance the natural values of the land under their charge.

After some initial start-up federal funding - perhaps equaling the amount devoted to the management of each property in the previous few budget years - each board would be free to manage the lands as it saw fit, constrained only by its legislative charge. Each board would likely allow a variety of different activities. For instance, some would allow limited logging, fee-based hunting, and/or snowmobiling or other types of mechanized access. Other boards might allow limited resource production like mining or oil and gas extraction, while others still might ban all human use (exploitation) entirely.

None of these activities are necessarily incompatible with the goal of protecting the environment. Both the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, for example, have historically allowed oil and gas production on some of their properties. They used the royalties to expand and improve their preserves. And many ranches and private forests noted for providing habitat for rare and endangered species or for preserving unique environmental features also allow commercial hunting and/or resource production.

Each individual board would decide how to balance use, recreational access and strict "off-limits" preservation, bound only by their understanding of what is necessary to preserve and enhance the land while generating the revenues necessary to manage it.

Figure III: Timber Growth in Montana's Public Forests

"Public lands could be turned over to nonprofit organizations."

Reintroducing Competition. Public lands retained by the federal government could still receive some of the environmental benefits of ownership if there were competition within the public system between federal, state and local governments.79

State and local foresters manage millions of acres. In contrast to federal forests, state forests often make money. They are also healthier environmentally. For example, teams of experts from federal and state agencies, environmental organizations and the timber industry in Montana and Minnesota compared the environmental effects of state and federal forest management practices.80 They all concluded that state foresters better protected watersheds and waterways from the impacts of logging and other activities:

  • In Montana, 99 percent of the watersheds in state forests were protected from all impacts from logging, compared to 92 percent in federal forests.
  • All impacts on state forest watersheds were minor and temporary, whereas 3 percent of the impacts on federal forests were minor but long-lasting, serious and long-lasting, or serious but temporary.
  • In Minnesota, 90 percent of county lands had the highest compliance rate with "best management practices" for protecting water quality; federal forests had a slightly lower compliance rate at 87 percent.

"State agencies could better manage some federal lands."

In Montana, state forests also excelled by a second environmental quality standard: timber productivity (measured by annual growth rates). Federal foresters use clear-cutting and even-aged management, meaning all of the trees replanted in an area are the same species and age. State foresters make greater use of uneven-aged, selective timber harvests and selective thinning through logging and controlled burns. As a result, state forests grow faster:81

  • From 1988 to 1992, among the national forests in Montana, Lolo National Forest had the highest average annual growth rate at 58 percent - more than 8 percent lower than state forests in the western region.
  • In Montana's southwest-central region, state forests averaged 67 percent of their productive potential, while the Lewis and Clark National Forest averaged only 30 percent. [See Figure III.]
  • The Gallatin National Forest, an old growth forest in the
    southwest-central region, actually had a negative growth rate - more trees were dead or dying than growing.

Since productive forests filter pollutants and resist landslides, the better water quality and superior timber management practices on state forests also benefit wildlife.

Congress could allow any state or county that demonstrates superior economic and environmental performance to take over the management of the national forests within their state or area. Congress could give fixed but declining block grants during a transition period to the forestry agencies that apply and allow them to retain any revenues generated. The program should be allowed to run for several years so state and county foresters could counteract the effects of federal mismanagement. At the end of the trial, states and counties that have improved a forest's economic and environmental performance could be granted the forests outright and federal payments ended. If forests have not improved, they could be returned to federal control and new management experiments implemented.

"State forests in Montana are more productive than federal forests."

This proposal should improve the environmental and economic performance of all public forests. Why? Because Forest Service managers - faced with a loss of revenues and authority - would have to improve performance to maintain control of federal forests. Underperforming state and county foresters would have an incentive to improve their performance in order to gain the opportunity to manage federal forests and thus benefit from greater authority and more revenue.

Some states have shown that the public can have the best of both worlds: public lands that are profitable and protected. If Congress allowed states to manage the federal lands within their borders, wildlife and U.S. taxpayers would benefit.  


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