We are veterans of America's longest war: the War over the public lands of the West. For the past quarter century--in a conflict that dates back to the Civil War--we have written and spoken about livestock grazing on federal lands and fought over how those lands should be governed. We have, in the process, pitted ourselves and our affiliations--the Cato Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council--against one another. But the range policy fence that has divided us is toppling thanks to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Republican Revolution.
While we still disagree on many issues, our common ground starts with the federal lands of the West. They are expansive, making up half of the eleven western-most states. They are awe-inspiring, containing many of the country's most treasured landscapes. They are ecologically rich, stretching from alpine meadows to desert basins. They are culturally laden, vital to our history and our American identity. They are part of the myth that moved Thoreau to write "Eastward I go by force, but westward I go free."
Western public lands are important for many things, but thanks to the "wisdom" of federal policy, the use to which they are put favors the one thing Americans want least from them: subsidized cows. Almost 200 million acres of federal grass are devoted to producing less than 3.5 percent of the nation's beef. Take away those acres and the cost of a steak wouldn't increase by a penny. At best, fewer cows would lessen the current oversupply of cattle and slow the plunge in beef prices.
We are not arguing for a purge of livestock and stock growers from all federal ranges. Public-land ranchers are largely decent and caring people whose love of the land is real. What we object to are the laws and policies that have made cattle and sheep the political business of the West and that are the source of degradation of millions of acres of public lands. We think it is perverse that so-called range reforms--the grazing regulations set by Babbitt on August 21 and the Public Rangeland Management Act proposed by Sen. Pete Domenici--should erect fences around grazing to protect ranchers from economic and environmental responsibility. Babbitt's regulations attempt to shore up the ailing system of public-land grazing with more federal dollars and regulations. Rather than asking if livestock grazing is what the public wants, Mr. Babbitt assumes it is and then mandates that taxpayers continue to pay for it and that scientific managers engineer it to perfection.
Domenici's approach is more protective, more frightening, and far worse for the environment. Like Babbitt, he would keep the subsidies that sustain public-land ranching at current levels. He would also erect even higher fences to protect the cowboy monopoly on federal lands. His Act would make growing beef a matter of law, not choice. Ranchers who want to graze their lands conservatively--or not at all--would face loss of their federal permits. Non-ranchers who want to buy permits and use federal grass to grow wildlife or to heal wetlands would be cut out of Domenici's "use it or lose it" public-land West. Bankers with collateral interests in grazing permits would win, ranchers with large grazing permits would win, but taxpayers would lose. Other than paying the tab, taxpayers' say in public-land management would be ceremonial at best under Domenici's Act.
We believe there is another strategy that better fits the present needs of the nation and is real range reform. It answers the Republican call for fiscal soundness and less government, Babbitt's call for more public involvement and environmental protection, and the White House's call for incentives and markets in environmental policy.
First, Congress should put public-land grazing on a market footing. This means ranchers, not taxpayers, should pay for using federal grass. It means zeroing a range-budget deficit that is almost $500 million per year on BLM and Forest Service lands when the costs of planning, resource mitigation, and USDA range subsidies are added to the official $70 million grazing shortfall.
Raising grazing fees won't cut the red, though; costs must be trimmed. Ending the practice of kicking-back half of grazing fee revenues to prop up the current system of public-land grazing will have the same effect as doubling the fee. Further, $100 to $200 million can be sliced from the grazing deficit by ending USDA subsidies--like brush control, animal damage control, and emergency feed--and by making ranchers shoulder more of the costs of grazing on public lands. This should reduce overgrazing and increase taxpayer satisfaction with how federal lands are used.
Second, Congress should bust the cowboy trust on federal lands. All Americans should be free to acquire permits to federal grass and use the lands to enhance wildlife, stabilize soils, protect endangered species, improve riparian areas or, if they prefer, raise red meat. This can be done if Congress eliminates property requirements for permits, ends the "use it or lose it" rule for federal grass, and lifts restrictions on subleasing. If this happens, concerned environmentalists will have less cause to push for a political end to grazing on ecologically fragile public lands. For the first time, they will have market options, like buying all or a portion of a rancher's permit or simply subleasing federal forage. This would ease strife between ranchers and environmentalists and cut administrative costs, putting another dent in the grazing deficit.
Third, Congress should authorize the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to engage in an array of range reform experiments that might better protect public lands. Let's explore alternative commercial uses of federal grass--uses that might be gentler to the land and better suited to a sustainable western rural economy than cows. Let's consider putting a percentage of public-land user fees aside for biological diversity trust funds--monies to protect species and habitats. And let's look at non-fee incentives to bring about better stewardship of federal lands and whether there are more effective ways of involving interested citizens in decision-making and management.
Our range reform package is not a panacea. It does, though, reflect the value of open discourse--a discourse that Domenici's protectionism precludes and that Babbitt's regulations steer away from the basic issues of public-land grazing. Our package will not only tear down the fences that divide organizations like ours, but also those that divide East from West and the new West from the old.
End of op-ed
Karl is also working with John Horning, of Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, NM, to promote range reform. Forest Guardians has developed the following statement of principles:
By artificially restricting who can participate in the market place for federal grazing permits, the current system penalizes people who want to engage in a market transaction and, in so doing, serves neither thn ranching nor environmental Communities. Only by severing the tie between base property and grazing permits, thereby making grazing permits fully transferable to interested parties, can Congress level the playing field.
Market transactions, unlike the Babbitt regulations or the protectionist legislation pushed by Senator Pete Domenici, will help resolve grazing conflicts in ways that protect and serve the interests of the American public and the ranching community.
The Range Betterment Fund, which is where half of the grazing fee receipts are directed, should be abolished and grazing fee receipts should be returned to the general treasury. This simple reform should be a first step in moving grazing toward fiscal soundness. Other subsidized federal grazing programs--which amount to another $100-$200 million annually--such as emergency feed and animal damage control--should also be targets to help Congress cut down costs to taxpayers. By trimming a wide variety of taxpayer subsidized programs we can ensure taxpayer satisfaction with how federal lands are being used.
End of statement of principles
If you are interested in signing your organization on to this statement please contact either Karl Hess (Khess4@aol.com) at (505) 522-1172, or John Horning at (505) 988-9126.
The Economy of Nature, by William Ashworth. Houghton Mifflin, 1995, 340 pp., $22.95.
Eco-Sanity, by Joseph L. Bast, Peter J. Hill, and Richard C. Rue. Madison Books, 1994, $22.95.
Taking the Environment Seriously, edited by Roger E. Meiners and Bruce Yandle. Rowman & Littlefield, 1993, no price listed.
The True State of the Planet, edited by Ronald Bailey. Free Press, 1995, $15.00.
Environmental Gore, edited by John Baden. Pacific Research Institute, 1994, $21.95.
Noah's Choice, by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, $24.00.
After decades of working with a Congress dominated by liberal Democrats, environmental lobbyists don't have a clue about how to deal with a Congress dominated by conservative Republicans. Fortunately, a growing number of books on the environment question the methods many environmental groups traditionally use to achieve their goals. Some of these books are written or edited by associates of various conservative think tanks. Others come from mainstream environmentalists who have begun to question past environmental policies.
The audience for Subsidies Anonymous includes both environmentalists and libertarians. So in examining these books, I ask two questions. First, which books would I recommend to libertarians who seek more information on the environment? Second, which books would I recommend to environmentalists who are looking for alternatives to command and control? My answers are based on a desire to defuse the polarization that now splits environmentalists from conservatives.
Gordon Durnil is a conservative who sees no conflict between his political views and his environmental goals. As the former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, Durnil's friendship with Dan Quale led to his appointment by George Bush to the International Joint Commission. This commission deals with border disputes--primarily environmental--between the U.S. and Canada.
Durnil's membership on the commission opened his eyes to some of the environmental problems along the border, primarily in the Great Lakes. Despite a treaty agreement that the two nations would not allow pollution of the lakes, Durnil found that many industries continue to dump toxic chemicals into the lakes.
Durnil believes that we should simply ban the release of any "persistent toxic substances" into the environment. His list of such substances includes PCBs, DDT, lead, mercury, chlorine, and dioxins. Durnil argues that this is consistent with his conservative values because a ban isn't the same as regulation.
Durnil identifies himself as a conservative who believes in free markets and opposes government regulation. Unfortunately, he didn't apply much of what he knows about free markets to this problem. A property rights advocate would say that the problem in the Great Lakes is that the lakes are a commons, and that the solution is to make the lakes the property of some entity that will demand payment from anyone who pollutes them. This apparently never occured to Durnil
Durnil's book, which will be published by Indiana University Press this fall, is a good example of how environmental values can be compatible with conservative ones. But because Durnil has not thought through the implications of, or property rights alternatives to, his proposals, it is not a book I recommend to anyone seeking new ideas.
At the opposite extreme from Durnil is William Ashworth, a prominent member of the Sierra Club who has worked for several decades to preserve Oregon's environment. But in the late 1980s, he began to question the means traditionally advocated by environmentalists to protect the environment. His book could have been titled "the making of an environmental conservative."
Ashworth's main concern didn't stem from a belief in property rights but from a worry that traditional environmental tactics weren't working. This led him to completely rethink environmental myths and beliefs. His new view emphasizes the connections between ecology and economics. He supports market tools because markets, like ecosystems, are self regulating. But he couches his belief in markets in the traditional language used by environmentalists.
I wouldn't necessarily recommend Ashworth's book to libertarians. But it is one of the best books I have seen for environmentalists who are wondering what to do now that the Republicans control Congress. If you are an environmentalist trying to make sense of the new politics, by all means read this book.
In between these extremes are a number of recent books that take a hard look at environmental issues. Four that I have listed here were written or edited by various conservative think-tanks. While all present information of interest to libertarians, some of their essays are couched in an "us-versus-them" language that is highly polarizing.
For example, Eco-Sanity, by Joseph Bast, Peter J. Hill, and Richard Rue, spends most of its pages refuting popular beliefs about the environment--beliefs about cancer, toxic chemicals, acid rain, deforestation. Many of the points they make are valid. But their implication that environmental issues are some kind of hoax perpetrated by power-hungry environmental groups is not likely to persuade any environmentalists.
Bast, et al, conclude that "the biggest barrier to environmental protection. . . is the environmental movement itself." There are some days in which I would agree. But it isn't very tactful to say so. How many libertarians would I win over if I said, "the biggest barrier to freedom is libertarians"?
Bast and company clearly care about the environment. But the message that any environmentalist reading their book will get is that they think the environment is safe and we don't need to do anything more to protect it. While I might recommend this book to libertarians who want to protect the environment, I wouldn't recommend it to environmentalists.
Two books that are much better are Taking the Environment Seriously and The True State of the Planet. The books complement one another; although they share some writers, they deal with different topics and take different approaches to the problem.
Both books treat environmental problems as legitimate issues. While they sometimes argue that the problems aren't as serious as environmentalists think, they spend more time showing how markets and property rights could be used to solve those problems. This is much more effective than implying that everything environmentalists say is wrong.
Taking the Environment Seriously seems to have been written for the textbook market. It is more technical and more economically oriented than The True State. I'd recommend both to libertarians, but would suggest The True State to many of my environmental friends before Taking Seriously.
Environmental Gore is in a category by itself because its essays were specifically written in response to Al Gore's book, Earth in the Balance. Some of the book's essays are excellent, and I would especially recommend those by James Huffman, Robert Hahn, Gus diZerega, Barrett Walker, and Lynn Scarlett to my environmental friends.
However, I am still enough of an environmentalist to be turned off by the late Dixy Lee Ray, the former governor of Washington and unabashed proponent of nuclear power. Her essay chastises Gore for worrying about a connection between nuclear-generated electricy and nuclear arms. Does this mean we shouldn't worry when we hear that North Korea, Iran, or Iraq are building nuclear power plants? Aside from the danger of nuclear weapons, it is hard for libertarians to defend a power source that requires huge federal subsidies.
Overall, Environmental Gore's good points outweigh its bad points. But in general libertarians are better off persuading environmentalists that markets and property rights are the best way to protect the environment than they are portraying environmentalists as kooks.
My final book, Noah's Choice, deals exclusively with the Endangered Species Act, one of the hottest environmental issues of 1995. Most books by environmentalists on the subject concentrate exclusively on the biology and completely ignore the economic aspects of the law. Most books by conservatives focus on the economics and poo-poo the biology.
Mann and Plummer are neither credentialed environmentalists nor credentialed conservatives. They bring a balanced approach to the issues that infuriates both sides. For example, they present the best analysis I have seen of the science behind the law, concluding that extinctions are a problem but not as serious a problem as usually portrayed. Their conclusion proposes changes in the law that recognize property rights but still would obligate landowners to not deliberately kill any listed species.
Whether or not you agree with their proposed solutions, Noah's Choice is worthwhile reading for anyone who owns land or is concerned about biodiversity and rare species. I'd recommend it without hesitation to both libertarians and environmentalists.
For example, the Eugene O'Neill House near San Francisco was lived in by O'Neill for just seven years. Several decades later, a local parks and recreation district acquired it and subsequently discovered that it didn't have the budget to maintain it. So it convinced a friend in Congress to have the Park Service take it over. Today it costs taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars per year to operate, yet it receives just 3,000 visitors--mainly because there is no public access to the house.
The so-called Charles Pinckney House is another example. Located on land once owned by Pinckney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the house was purchased by the Park Service for several million dollars. Park Service archeologists then found that the house was built long after Pinckney had died. It costs a third of a million dollars per year to operate and gets very few visitors.
Perhaps two dozen parks like this exist--mostly sites imposed on the Park Service by pork barrelling members of Congress. Many of the sites were designated over Park Service objections. Since total agency budgets have not kept up with the increase in the number of sites, the new sites are a drain on the other, more deserving, parks.
This view has been confirmed by a GAO study published in late August. Following is the abstract of the study, which is titled "National Parks: Difficult Choices Need to Be Made About the Future of the Parks" (GAO/RCED-95-238).
Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the current condition of 12 national park units, focusing on: (1) whether any deterioration in visitor services or park resources is occurring at the 12 units; (2) what factors contribute to the degradation of visitor services and parks' natural and cultural resources; and (3) the National Park Service's efforts in dealing with these problems.
GAO found that: (1) there is cause for concern about the condition of national parks for both visitor services and resource management; (2) the overall level of visitor services is deteriorating at most parks; (3) services are being cut back and the condition of many trails, campgrounds, and other facilities are declining; (4) effective resource management is difficult because most park managers lack sufficient data to determine the overall condition of their parks' natural and cultural resources; (5) parks have difficulty meeting additional operating requirements and accomodating increased visitation; and (6) the Park Service is considering increasing the amount of financial resources going to parks, limiting or reducing the number of units in the park system, and reducing the level of visitor services to improve its financial management and performance measurement systems.
End of abstract
The problem with reducing the number of units in the park system, as the Park Service would like, is the same as closing military bases: While the Pentagon would like to close obsolete and surplus bases, pork barrel politics stands in the way.
The base closures commission allowed Congress to close bases without taking the blame, since the commission could decide which bases to close without Congressional approval. Congress retained a veto, but did not use it.
In the 103rd Congress, Bruce Vento, the democrat who chaired the House National Parks Subcommittee, proposed a similar parks review commission. The commission would identify parks that are not truly of national significance and return those parks to state or local park agencies. The major parks (including all of the officially designated parks) were excluded from review.
Vento's bill passed both houses of Congress with broad bipartisan support, but Congress did not get around to reconciling minor differences in the House and Senate versions before adjourning. It was immediately reintroduced in the 104th Congress by Representative Hansen, the new chair of the National Parks Subcommittee, and the Subcommittee approved it with support from Vento, George Miller, and other Democrats.
Suddenly, however, the bill has become targeted by environmentalists as a part of the "Republican revolution" aimed at turning federal lands over to the states or privatizing them. With strong environmental lobbying, the bill was killed in a floor vote. The subcommittee has since added it to the budget bill in the hope that it can pass with little debate.
Here is a classic example of environmentalists shooting themselves in the foot. The national parks are in serious trouble, both financially and ecologically. Here is an opportunity to rectify part of that trouble. Yet environmentalists decided to use some of their limited political muscle to kill the bill simply because it was introduced by a Republican. They should have saved their strength for the Dominici range bill, which looks poised to pass at least one if not both houses of Congress.
You can download any GAO report from a Government Printing Office mirror site.
The most disturbing argument made at the conference was that we really don't need to change anything because the federal agencies in charge of the national forests and other public land are doing such a good job. This would not be surprising coming, as it did, from agency officials such as a regional forester. But the same argument was also made by several leading environmentalists.
The conference, "Challenging Federal Ownership and Management," was sponsored by the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Institute. It featured, among others, some of the nation's leading environmental attorneys and philosophers, most of whom made a very disappointing case for public ownership.
Joseph Sax, a legal scholar who currently works as counsel to the Secretary of the Interior, argued that we need public lands to provide biodiversity and habitat for endangered species. But this ignores the fact that over half of all endangered species are not found on federal land. Moreover, public land managers haven't proven themselves to be any more sensitive to the needs of endangered species (except when a legal gun is held to their heads) than private owners.
Scott Lehmann, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut and author of the 1995 book, Privatizing the Public Lands, took a more head-on approach. He argued that privatizers had failed to prove that private land management is necessarily better than public land management. In doing so, he focused exclusively on the arguments for private land and ignored the arguments against public land.
No one argues that private ownership and markets are perfect. Instead, the argument is that political decisionmaking is far more imperfect that markets. Lehmann ignored the debate over the quality of political decisions.
Since Lehmann focused on the evils of private land, someone asked him if he thought that the government should own all the land. He said no. So he was asked if he thought that the current allocation of private and public land, which is largely a historical accident, made any sense. He said he thought it was "pretty good."
In response to the argument that federal land management has been poor, Lehmann also wrote in his book that, in his opinion, "federal land management has been pretty good." This view was echoed by Charles Wilkinson, a leading environmental law scholar and author of several books on forest, water, and environmental law.
Other than a few too many dams and maybe one or two extra clearcuts, argues Wilkinson, the federal agencies have done a great job managing our natural resources. Here I beg to strongly disagree. The federal government built far more dams than would be built by the private sector. It did far more irrigation and federal policy turned far more prairie into monocultural crop land. Federal agencies clearcut many forests that private owners wouldn't look at and greatly contributed to the overgrazing of both public and private land in the West.
It is true that federal agencies didn't clearcut all of the old-growth Douglas-fir--but they certainly wanted to, at least until very recently. It is also true that the federal government saved many parks and wilderness areas--but today any more areas are more likely to saved through markets rather than politics.
Only the federal agencies could manage public lands, Wilkinson continues, because public lands form such an important part of our culture. "Our history and our uniqueness as a nation are tied to the spectacular public land estate," said Wilkinson. "With rapid urbanization, population growth, and development, the values served by public lands have never been more important to our culture."
Our history and uniqueness as a nation are also tied to slavery, the Civil War, and racial discrimination. Yet I don't think anyone would dare argue that we should maintain discrimination because of its cultural value.
On a superficial level, it seems that environmentalists prefer the devil they know to the one they don't. On a slightly deeper level, as UC Berkeley Forestry Professor Sally Fairfax noted, enviros prefer federal management because they think--in spite of all experience to the contrary--that they can control the federal government. "Having spent two thirds of the 20th century pointing out the flaws of federal management, " said Fairfax, "the enviros embrace of the feds is proof beyond necessity of the bankruptcy of our ideas on the subject of public resources."
On an even deeper level, environmentalists do have legitimate fears about the outcome if markets are allowed to play a larger role in public land management. Some seem willing to experiment to find out of those fears are valid. But many seem hysterical about the possibility that "economists" will take over the public lands (something that economists have little desire to do).
At the very deepest level is something that I don't even pretend to understand: A belief that public lands produce a "collective value" for Americans that is above and beyond all of the private values they receive as individuals. This belief was expressed by Sax, Lehmann, and Wilkinson.
This is not a "public goods" argument or an argument over externalities. It is an almost spiritual argument that we all receive benefits just because the lands are public.
For millenia, the world has been rocked by a debate between those who believe that individuals exist for the benefit of society and those who believe that society exists for the benefit of individuals. The former would suborn individual rights and freedom for the greater social good, while the latter would restrict individuals only from harming other individuals. In America, the individual is supposed to have triumphed over society.
I don't believe that any collective value exists, and even if it did I would not approve if it conflicts with my individual values. But those who believe in and approve of it must still face the problem that the political system offers no way of effectively expressing this value.
Instead, just as much as markets, the political system expresses the values of individuals. The difference between the political system and markets is that many more people are involved in markets. The political system involves, at the most, only those who vote. On a day-to-day basis, it involves only those who have a strong interest in participating--either because they work for the government or because they expect to get something from the government. By comparison, markets involve nearly everyone.
Public land management is seriously flawed and requires serious reforms. Those reforms don't need to include transferring land to states or private owners, which is neither necessary nor sufficient to improve the land. But the reforms do need to include a heavy dose of markets and the elimination of Congressional appropriations, which are the root cause of nearly all public land (and many private land) problems.
Those who think that federal land management has been pretty good or that the political system can express some collective value are deluding themselves. Environmentalists who really want to fix the public lands don't have to support privatization to do so. But they do have to be willing to give up central control and support instead a market system that expresses a broad range of values and values a broad range of resources. Otherwise, as Fairfax says, their arguments will be widely seen as bankrupt.