Enhancing The Private Role For ‘Public Goods’

John Kenneth Galbraith once observed that in America our gardens are beautiful, while our public parks are in a state of disaster. While Galbraith saw this as an argument for an expanded role for government, it actually illustrates how private property advances not only economic goals, but also a wide variety of aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual values as well.

Too often, environmental protection is viewed as an area where government must always “do more.” But private parties often play key roles in many of these areas – and could play much larger roles if empowered to do so.

We need to reconsider policies that hold private property owners back from playing positive roles in environmental protection. The Endangered Species Act, for example, discourages people from making their lands more wildlife-friendly by raising the risk that they will lose the use of that land, without compensation, if a listed species is found on it.

Extending ownership rights to America’s flora and fauna would create powerful incentives for greater conservation efforts. Policy makers can help expand the private sector’s role in environmental protection by liberalizing current regulations, limiting spending on new regulations, encouraging creative privatization, and moving away from a command-and-control approach to environmental policy.

Since the early 20th century, no resource for which private property rights had not yet been established (wildlife and the electromagnetic spectrum, for example) nor any resource then under federal control has passed into private hands. The result is that today much of the West remains under federal control. For too long, this state of affairs has been accepted by most Americans without question. It is long past time we questioned it.

We can see the real-world consequences in the history of the federal forests. For decades, environmental activists fought the adoption of sound forest management policies, frequently insisting that no timber – even dead or diseased trees – be harvested. As a result, those lands are plagued by insect infestation, disease, and catastrophic wildfires. Federal land managers have ignored the risks that private forest owners have always understood, doing terrible damage to habitat and wildlife in the process.

Some officials in western states are now requesting that Congress move to devolve federal lands within their states back to state control (a request made and honored long ago by eastern state officials). Studies have shown states would better achieve the conservation goals now sought for these lands. Utah legislators are among those making this request; I believe lawmakers at the federal level should support that effort. Appropriators should also zero out funding for acquisition of any new federal lands.

Private ownership enables creative stewardship of wildlife and habitat, including efforts like the Hawk Mountain Bird Sanctuary in Berks County, Pennsylvania; the M & T Staten Ranch, in Walnut Grove, California; and associations of reef builders in Alabama and Florida. These private efforts show that – when private property rights exist – protecting the environment need not be left to government agencies alone. The sometimes difficult trade-offs of allowing multiple use of such lands (for example, conservation and resource development) are often better made by private groups like the Audubon Society, which has managed wildlife refuges on which energy development was permitted.

Private ownership can also help develop new technologies. In the natural resource area, increased demand for subsurface minerals encouraged developers to negotiate with property owners to reach mutually beneficial terms for accessing these minerals. The need for better knowledge of where these resources lay beneath the ground led to the development of the science of seismology and in turn to more creative exploration and extraction techniques, hydraulic fracking being one. Private property rights and private ownership can, thus, be credited with resolving America’s energy resource depletion fears.

Centralized political control has hindered such creative experimentation on federal lands. Steps to allow transfer on an experimental basis of environmental resources into private hands would encourage a wider array of ideas on how best to advance on an integrated basis both environmental and economic goals. Congress might use its appropriation authority to encourage federal agencies to explore private management options.

Best of all, the Department of the Interior should implement a policy under which private parties could “adopt” and manage certain environmental resources. The federal government should transfer assets requiring specialized expertise and resources to private groups having the requisite passion and interest (for example, caves might be transferred to spelunking clubs, for example). It is time to give our natural lands and wildlife the opportunity to enjoy the creative conservation arrangements private stewards are eager to provide.