Property Rights Are the Key to Protecting Land

We often hear that only government can protect the environment through outright land ownership or heavy regulatory control of private land. Yet, time and again, private landowners’ stewardship has proven to be far superior to that of public land managers and regulators. That’s because private property and secure property rights give landowners the right incentives to take care of what they own. And unfortunately, federal regulations often undermine private conservation efforts.

In the new edition of Free to Prosper, a set of pro-market policy recommendations by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, we offer a series of sensible solutions to help improve private environmental stewardship through respecting property rights.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and wetlands regulations impose the costs of compliance on landowners, which gives regulators no incentive to contain costs. The solution? Enact meaningful compensation for regulatory takings that exceed 10 percent of a property’s current-use value.

Federal lands are, on average, in worse environmental condition than private lands and produce much less economic activity. That’s because management of federal lands, which comprise 27 percent of the American land mass, is largely based on the destructive notion that human activity is inherently bad for the natural world. 

Many federal lands are now in a parlous state that directly correlates with declining resource production and the impoverishment of rural communities in areas of the West where the majority of lands are federally owned. For example, preventing timber harvesting in National Forests has led to catastrophic fires across the West as fuel for fires builds up over decades. It is time to unlock federal lands, restore multiple-use management, and increase resource production.

The new Congress and administration should work to stop federal purchases of private land and instead work to privatize federal land or transfer it to the states.

Finally, planning for speculative climate change impacts now permeates much of federal land management policy and planning. This has given federal land managers an excuse to include private property in their plans. In addition, the speculative future “social cost of carbon,” an arbitrary figure based on bureaucrats’ politicized guesstimates, is now being used in federal environmental permitting decisions. Congress should prohibit using this artificial metric in federal land management and environmental permitting.

For more on CEI’s recommendations for conservation policy, see here.