essays

Feb 1, 1979

Free Market Conservation

“There’s a [market] demand…for the kind of wilderness conservation the government would like us to believe is only possible through public ownership of land.”

Free market conservation

The land mass we now call Alaska was once a part of Russia. And if one were whimsical, one might say that this fact explains an otherwise curious similarity between the political economy of the two places. In the Soviet Union, about 95% of the land is publicly owned. In Alaska, about 99.75% of the land is publicly owned. In the Soviet Union, about 95% of the food in the country is produced on the 5% of the land which is privately owned. Government owned land is either unproductive or grossly inefficient. In Alaska, all the food produced in the state is produced on the .25% of the land which is privately owned. The government owned land is unproductive.

Now of course, in the Soviet Union, most of the land is publicly owned because the communist ideology of that nation’s rulers demands that all land and all wealth be publicly owned; while in the state of Alaska, most of the land is publicly owned because this nation’s rulers have decided—with a good deal of support from so-called environmentalist groups—that it is a duty of government not only to protect its citizens from each other and from themselves, but also to protect Mother Nature from its citizens.

And in the past few months, the federal government has been fulfilling this “duty” with a vengeance. In November, Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus “withdrew from development” (seized) 54-million acres of Alaska land. And three weeks later, in early December, President Carter designated (commandeered) another 56-million acres as a “national monument” By the dawn of the new year, the federal government had confiscated 170,000 square miles of land in Alaska—an area larger than the entire state of California.

And the feds aren’t through yet. Early in January, Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland asked Congress to designate another 15-million acres (most, but not all, of it in Alaska) as federally protected wilderness areas.

All this federal landholding is not without consequences, of course: the designation of an area as a federally protected wilderness area, or as a national park or monument for that matter, means closing it off to timbering, hard-rock mining, oil and gas exploration, even cattle grazing. And when this happens in a state like Alaska, in which only one million acres of land are now in private hands (while another 335 million are in federal hands and the other 39 million acres belong to the state, the Eskimos and the Indians), it means natural resources remain undeveloped, and economic growth is stymied.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized recently that the Carter administration bureaucrats responsible for the massive land seizures of the past few months are practicing a kind of domestic imperialism. “It is fashionable,” the paper wrote,

to attribute the lack of economic development in the Third World to decisions made from afar about its natural resources. The colonial administrators departed, the story goes, only to be replaced by neocolonialists in London, Bonn, Paris and Washington, who locked up Third World resources in uses that kept the emerging nation-states poor. This explanation of Third World poverty still inspires a great deal of outrage against the U.S. among university people and provides excuses for socialist failures in the Third World.

We are puzzled why this doctrine is so narrowly applied. It seems to us that it is at least as good an explanation for the growing lack of development in Alaska and the western states.

And this colonialism has consequences far beyond the confines of the western states being colonially administered. “The result,” says the Wall Street Journal, is the protection of “eastern labor unions, industrial plants and resources from competition. The environmental movement provides a convenient mask for any eastern legislators who want westerners for customers, not competitors.”

Another result of the colonial administration of Alaskan lands from Washington is the exacerbation of the energy crisis. “The Independent Petroleum Association says that as a result of law or administrative procedures about 500 million federal acres, roughly one-fourth of the U.S., are off limits to oil and gas development,” reports the Journal. “At a time when we are growing increasingly dependent on unstable foreign sources of energy, the most rapidly growing aspect of the American economy is the land and resources that are being removed from development.”

But what about the thousands of people who sincerely desire to preserve the natural beauty of the environment? Who believe that human beings benefit from access to such preserved lands? Let them take their case to the free market. They won’t be disappointed. According to a recent issue of Time magazine, two California businessmen have been making financial killings by buying thousands of acres of wilderness and operating them as private wilderness parks. So far they’ve developed the 5100 acre R-Ranch in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, the 7000 acre Pines Recreational Park, also in Northern California, and the Stallion Springs Horse Ranch in Southern California. No one is allowed to build anything, dig anything or drive anything on this land; only campers, hikers and nature lovers are welcome, and only if they pay. The use of the private wilderness parks is limited to those who buy shares in the ownership; that saves them from the despoilment most state parks suffer, and it gives those who use them an incentive to keep them clean and unspoiled: if they litter, they’ll be littering their own property.

Perhaps the most important fact in the Time magazine report on these new privately owned wilderness parks is the news that the men who are developing them are making a lot of money doing it: that there’s a demand, on the market, for the kind of wilderness conservation the government would like us to believe is only possible through public ownership of land. It isn’t always or necessarily true that the drive to make money produces despoilers of nature.

Libertarians have been arguing for centuries that it is unnecessary for government to protect its citizens from themselves, because most people are much better judges of how they can best live their own lives than even the noblest and best of government bureaucracies. They’ve also argued that the main result of using government to protect people from each other is that the people you most need to be protected from will tend over time to become part of the government. Government, in other words, is useless at protecting people from themselves, and dubious at protecting them from each other. It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s not really necessary for government to protect Mother Nature either.