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Vol. 16, No. 20
September 25, 2000
Table of Contents

More on the Environment

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Environmental Stewardship
by Steve Bonta

The evidence is in that free-market principles and private ownership of natural resources provide better stewardship of the environment than government controls ever could.

Vice President Al Gore recently announced, as part of his campaign platform, a series of policy initiatives intended to make the next 10 years the �Environment Decade.� Among other things, Gore proposed �dedicating part of the expected budget surplus to create a new National Energy Security and Environment Trust Fund,� �ensuring that the nation�s air and water are cleaned up,� and �investing more in conservation, renewable energy, and in fast-growing technologies that combat pollution,� according to a July 24th press release.

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush also sees a need for expansive government involvement in the environment. In a June 1st speech at Sand Harbor State Park, Lake Tahoe, Nevada, the Texas governor declared that �it�s time to build conservation partnerships between the federal government and state governments, local communities, and private landowners.... What is the federal role? To provide the scientific and financial resources to help states, local communities, and private landowners preserve land and wildlife.� Bush intends to use federal funds to help state governments set up �Landowner Incentive Programs� and a �Private Stewardship Program� to furnish financial incentives for private conservation.

Everyone, it seems, is on the environmental bandwagon these days. For the vast majority of politicians from both major parties, environmentalism has come to mean that the federal government must regulate business and property owners to prevent abuse of our ecosystem and natural resources.

But how could it be otherwise? Many of their constituents cannot see any alternative to the heavy hand of government to ensure the protection of endangered species, mandate cleaner air and water, and prevent our vast forests from being logged into oblivion. Yet there are private alternatives to the eco-regulatory status quo � alternatives that would benefit both development and the environment.

Dangers of State Ownership

Those who plead on behalf of the state as environmental steward assume that government will do the job better and more efficiently than the private sector. But government in most other areas is demonstrably inferior to the private sector, because the incentives that drive the behavior of politicians and government officials are very different from those that operate in the sphere of free, private enterprise. Why would stewardship of our natural resources be any different?

Politicians, after all, do not expend their own revenues or regulate their own properties when they enact environmental laws. Consequently, they need not be concerned about their environmental actions destroying their own livelihoods or placing their own lands off-limits to development. Their main concern is with winning the next election, which oftentimes entails promising quick-fix government �remedies� at the expense of the economy as a whole.

Whatever connection exists between actions and consequences under government management of the environment is further weakened by the fact that politicians have allowed the unelected bureaucracy to issue unpopular regulations that they themselves could not have gotten away with. The result is what legal activist Clint Bolick calls a �separation of authority from responsibility.� Bolick notes that, unlike the market system, which �allocates costs directly to those making the choices, government decision-makers are largely immunized from the consequences of their decisions.�

Of course, it has been said ad nauseam that the public lands belong to the people. Surely the people would not damage the environment, thereby operating against their own self-interest! The fatal flaw in this fallacy is that everybody�s responsibility is nobody�s responsibility. So long as nobody is responsible, environmental abuses will occur. A case in point is the slaughter of buffalo herds to near extinction during the period when nobody owned them and the public range lands were wide open. The government is quick to cite such abuses to justify its own intervention on behalf of the environment, but the truth is that private property owners, not government bureaucrats, possess the strongest incentive to protect the environment.

That incentive is based on the principle of self-interest. A property owner has a strong self-interest in preserving or improving the value of his property; a disinterested bureaucrat does not.

Consider, for example, private management of the forests. As a Pacific Lumber Company brochure explained:

Because a continuous supply of trees is vital to The Pacific Lumber Company, we manage and cultivate our 194,000 acres of forestland carefully. We maintain access roads so we can protect our trees against forest fires, erosion, insects, or damage from human activity. We plant and nurture new seedlings to replace the trees we cut. We watch our lands as carefully as any good farmer would, because our lands represent our livelihood.

Contrast this to federal mismanagement of �public� forest lands, wherein fire hazards are created through inept or nonexistent timber harvesting and access roads are arbitrarily shut down to placate radical environmental interests. Federally owned logging concessions are frequently overharvested by timber companies, which have little incentive to economize on a resource that they do not own. Many federal forests, even those with substantial timber harvesting, are run at a loss to the tune of millions of wasted dollars annually. Such has been the case, for example, in Montana�s Gallatin National Forest, where, according to environmental consultant Randal O�Toole, $2-$4 million a year are lost on timber sales.

Public Failures

The disaster at Love Canal, the toxic waste dumping site in upstate New York that contaminated a large residential area, is a classic instance of the potential consequences of government mismanagement. The Hooker Electrochemical Company began dumping waste into the abandoned canal in the early 1940s, after carefully lining the canal with impermeable clay to ensure that the chemicals never leaked out. When the canal was filled, it was sealed with a waterproof clay cap to prevent rainwater from washing the chemicals out. In the early 1950s, however, the local school board forced Hooker to sell the site to construct a new school.

Despite Hooker�s warnings of the dangers of the buried waste, including details of the chemical hazards that Hooker insisted be included in the transfer papers, the school board proceeded to build the school, scraping away part of the clay cap in the process to use as dirt for other construction sites. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the city built a sewer line right through the property that punctured both the walls and cover of the waste container. Still later, the state built an expressway through the site, resulting in further punctures. Finally, the school board sold the southern part of the site for residential development, the area where most of the waste was concentrated. Yet despite the clear facts of the case � that local and state government acted irresponsibly, even in the face of repeated warnings from Hooker Electrochemical � it was Hooker that received the blame when toxic contamination of residential water supplies forced entire neighborhoods to be evacuated beginning in the late 1970s.

Under totalitarian regimes, where the private sector is completely suppressed, the consequences of state mismanagement of the environment are starker still. The horrific images in National Geographic�s June 1991 issue documented the environmental devastation wrought by Communism in Eastern Europe. Places like Copsa Mi�a, in Romania, where buildings, grass, and even sheep were coated with a black carbon precipitate produced by a tire plant, are reminders of the tragic consequences of imposing totalitarian controls on modern industry. The former Soviet Union abounds with environmental disasters, from the horribly polluted Volga to the nearly drained Aral Sea, whose former ports and fishing villages are now ghost towns stranded in the desert miles from the water�s edge.

Despite such instances of gross governmental incompetence in environmental issues, the notion persists that environmental regulation is a necessary evil. After all, we are told, �public goods� such as air and water are not subject to the constraints of private ownership. Since we have no incentive to safeguard that which we do not own, regulation is necessary to enforce a conservation ethic. However, there are free-market alternatives worth considering. The most compelling is to extend private property rights to air and water, a solution that, to be workable, would require nothing more than effective liability laws. Recounting the history of such laws in the United States, economist Walter Block, in an article published by the Foundation for Economic Education, observed:

Up until approximately 1830, the courts had based their decisions in �nuisance cases� (we would now call them environmental litigation) on a reasonably close approximation to a free enterprise legal system. If a farmer could show that the railroad engine was spewing forth sparks and setting his haystacks on fire, he could collect damages. If the housekeeper complained that factory fumes were dirtying the clean laundry she hung on her clothesline, she would typically be granted a cease and desist order. Injunctions were invariably granted to downstream users victimized by upstream waste dumping.... But in the 1850s and thereafter, a new philosophy began to permeate the legal fraternity. It was determined that the �public good� required economic progress. In the view of an increasing preponderance of judges, this could only be attained by supporting manufacturing. So when the aggrieved victim of pollution next appeared before the bench, they said, in effect, �Our primary goal is to facilitate a rising GNP [Gross National Product]. In order to do so, we must give carte blanche to polluters. Your selfish private property rights are in the way of the greater good for the greater number, and must be swept aside.� Under these conditions, all market-oriented environmental incentives came to a halt.

In our day, of course, the pendulum of legal opinion has swept to the other extreme, with the �greater good� typically being construed as a healthy environment, in the interest of which property rights of large corporations and small landowners alike are routinely trampled underfoot. The eco-regulatory regime is thus a remedial evil made necessary by the abandonment of critical legal property protections in the mid-19th century.

Private Sector Success

But what of government parks, preserves, and other measures to protect endangered animals and their habitats? Surely the private sector is ill-equipped to protect animals and habitats they know and care little about! Such thinking has produced our vast system of federally owned National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Areas. It has also given us the Endangered Species Act, under which creatures ranging from the majestic Whooping Crane to inconsequential insects, minnows, and fairy shrimp now enjoy federal protection, including severe restrictions on private landowners who happen to harbor an endangered plant or animal on their property. But the proponents of state-sponsored environmentalism conveniently ignore the fact that modern environmental legislation and regulatory agencies have come about in the larger context of widespread concern for the environment, a luxury that wealthy nations such as our own can afford. The same movement that created pressure for federal environmental controls has also given rise to numerous successful private initiatives to protect both the environment and the creatures in it.

The first major instance in the United States of an endangered species being rescued from extinction is, in fact, a saga of private initiative. We have pointed already to the senseless slaughter of the buffalo on public lands. In the 1870s, when this slaughter was taking place, six men � James McKay, Charles Allowav, Charles Goodnight, Walking Coyote, Frederic Dupree, and Charles Jones � began capturing and breeding buffalo. Nearly all plains buffalo today are descended from the private herds of these men, and it is estimated that roughly 90 percent of the 250,000 buffalo surviving today are in private herds.

One outstanding example of a private nature preserve in the United States is the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, located atop a ridge in Eastern Pennsylvania that attracts tens of thousands of migrating raptors each fall. Founded in 1934 by Rosalie Edge, who deplored the use of the mountaintop by hunters who used the hawks for indiscriminate target practice, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary today attracts thousands of recreational birdwatchers, students, and ornithologists who watch flights of hawks, eagles, ospreys, vultures, and falcons sail past the rock outcroppings that serve as lookouts. As a lifelong, avid birdwatcher who grew up in Pennsylvania, this writer has fond childhood memories of crisp autumn days atop Hawk Mountain, where, on one memorable October day, he saw his first bald eagle.

The Roney Ranch in central California is another excellent case. This commercial ranch, located in a unique habitat in central California, is dotted with so-called �vernal pools,� temporary ponds and puddles that support a unique array of flowers, grasses, and aquatic life (including several kinds of fairy shrimp). The Roneys use careful grazing practices to maintain the fragile environment while running a successful ranching business.

Then there�s Deseret Land and Livestock, a private, for-profit corporation owned by the Mormon Church, located in northeastern Utah. The cattle on the ranch are moved frequently from one pasture to another, keeping overgrazing to a minimum. Large herds of elk and deer coexist with the cattle and are managed by controlled hunting. Cattle are kept off the best fawning areas during the critical season. As a result, the elk population has grown to the point that elk from the ranch have been transferred to public lands to replenish herds elsewhere.

Examples such as these could be multiplied hundreds-fold, as private individuals and organizations have taken steps to protect privately owned habitat, for purposes ranging from better hunting and fishing to wildlife observation. Close relatives of this author have effectively turned several hundred acres of Pennsylvania forestland into a private nature and hunting preserve, complete with trails, benches, and brochures. The area teems with bird and animal life, including deer, turkeys, and black bear, and is a popular site for local hikers. In return for helping with the upkeep of trails, certain hunters are allowed to hunt deer, turkeys, and small game during the appropriate seasons. Arrangements such as this are found all over the United States, providing compelling evidence that, indeed, many private landowners will be motivated to take steps to preserve the environment without being forced to do so.

Nor are such phenomena confined to the United States. Private game parks in southern Africa have logged spectacular successes in preserving threatened animals like the black rhino. While many of these parks cater to trophy hunters, they also derive substantial income from those wishing simply to view the wildlife by jeep or on foot.

None of this is to say that most landowners will set aside their land from development or create nature preserves. But one of the conditions of freedom is tolerance for differing priorities, preferences, and goals. While one man may be inclined to protect a tract of woodland for hunting or hiking, another may prefer to harvest all or part of the lumber and sell the land to a developer. Given the diversity of talents and interests in our immensely complex world, we must enjoy the freedom to acquire, use, and dispose of property as we see fit.

There need be no contradiction between free-market principles, and indeed, political freedom generally, and protection of the environment. The evidence confirms that the incentives offered by private ownership are far more favorable to the health of the environment than are state controls. As is so often the case with human affairs, freedom is the best solution, when we are willing to give it a chance.

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