Watt vs Peterson

Watt vs Peterson

September 14, 1983
Originally published in The New York Times

Most editorial comment on the running argument between Interior Secretary James G. Watt and Russell W. Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society, totally misses the critical point of the exchange. The issue is not whether Mr. Watt or Mr. Peterson would better manage public land but rather that they are prisoners of their public positions as political decision-makers.

Politics is thought to be the art of the possible, involving compromise, but in the supercharged world of environmental politics this is not always true; there, the prevailing attitude is "us or them." It is a world in which there are few incentives to acknowledge the claims of others, a world in which absolutism and rigidity prevail.

Mr. Watt places a relatively higher value on obtaining commercial value from public lands than does Mr. Peterson; Mr. Peterson places higher value on preservation. Nothing unusual here, we all have our preferences. The crucial difference occurs because both individuals are operating in the political arena. Privately, the two might well be able to resolve their differences; yet as public figures, captives of powerful political forces, they cannot. Thus, Mr. Watt becomes "the greatest danger to the U.S. since ..." while Mr. Petersor is viewed as preferring "useless" seal darters to economic growth and as national security.

The result of all this is a sterile and polarized debate. The preservationis who is willing to risk commercia development is accused by other preservationists of selling out. The Audubon Society allows some corn mercial development of its own pre serves, yet — to maintain its born fides in the environmental corn munity — it regularly denounce development on public lands. To continue this is senseless. Developer will attempt to develop more public lands; environmentalists will in creasingly attempt to preclude development. Meanwhile, public lands will continue to suffer from cyclical changes in land-use philosophy.

An alternative does exist. The soh lion is to revive the poorly understoo and even more poorly implemente policy of privatization. People beheld differently when they own something outright: Sheer self-interest requires flexibility. Private landowners face hard choices and can't hide behind purist rhetoric. Preservationists, for example, recognize that a decision not to allow drilling may force them to sacrifice other preservationist programs. Audubon allows oil and gas drilling in its Rainey wildlife sanctuary in Louisiana not because it believes there is no environmental risk but because it believes it can use the royalty income to finance other environmental programs. Similarly, private ranchers undertake costly conservation programs, provide hay to deer and antelope during difficult winters and avoid environmentally destructive projects not because they are nature lovers but because such actions preserve the value of the land, provide hunting fee earnings and make economic sense. is Accordingly, the Interior Department should work with environmental, mining, forestry and grazing interests to select sizable portions of the public lands for an experimental privatization program. For example, the Wilderness Society might be given title to proposed wilderness areas; the Audubon Society, title to a proposed wildlife refuge; and the Sierra Club, title to some old growth forest in Oregon supporting spotted owl populations. Land seen as grazing land could be transferred to the current holders of the grazing rights. The choices involving forest lands are more difficult, but considering how the International Paper Company has balanced timber production with public amenities, we should at least consider the possibility of transferring ownership of some second growth timberlands to a consortium of timber firms.

The intent would be to create a package of transfers of land that would be privately owned and managed. If Audubon believed an area was too delicate to support development, it could manage it in this way, even precluding visitors, secure in the knowledge that its private ownership prevented any politically motivated development. We should then compare the experience of these lands with lands remaining in the public domain. Surely, the results would be clear. No one acts as irresponsibly with their own resources as almost everyone does with the commons. The Audubon experience at Rainey proves that bitter conflicts over "incompatible" multiple uses that characterize all debates over the future of the public domain can be re-staved under a regime of - careful, Wise private stewardship. Private ownership is not foolproof; it simply makes it more likely that fools will be disciplined and wise men rewarded.