Is No Use Good Use?

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Last spring President Obama announced America’s Great Outdoors action plan, an initiative to plan for conservation and recreation in the 21st century. A dominant idea is that America’s conservation should come from America’s people and not be directed from Washington DC. Amen. One can only hope this will differ from the current public input track we’re on.

In this plan, as in the past, every citizen has a voice. You can chime in on how the public lands should be managed, regardless of where you live. After all, the public lands belong to all of us. And there are a lot of them. They cover more than 25 percent of the nation, and more than 50 percent of the west. So we should have a say, particularly neighbors most greatly impacted by land-use decisions.

My concern about this democratic process is that because so many citizens want their voice heard, and there is a great diversity of ideas, the costs of coming to agreement are overwhelming. Multiple stakeholders desire a multitude of often mutually-exclusive activities; to harvest or not to harvest, to maintain roads or let them return to nature, critical habitat or wheeled recreation. Participation through public meetings, letters, hearings, and litigation can get costly and time consuming. Often the decision is left to a default of no action--exactly what some desire. (It reminds me of congressional budgeting!)

Indeed, our public lands have become less and less accessible. The bulk of the 700 million acres managed by public land agencies was once largely accessible as multiple-use land. More and more, it is being set aside for wilderness, natural ecosystems, and biodiversity. I am not opposed to providing habitat or leaving some nature untrammeled. What is vexing is that the impetus to set these lands aside is more often influenced by interest groups than conservation value.

Private landowners or groups, such as the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society, realize alternative land values; to choose not to harvest may mean timber revenues lost but more habitat. The tradeoffs are understood by realizing the value of the actions taken and those not taken. Groups that strive to influence public land outcomes, however, benefit only from the fruition of their desired land use. They give up nothing when alternative land uses are foregone.

Thus arises a key question, how much is enough? If you do not pay or bear a burden for receiving more of something desired, there is no reason to stop requesting more.

Some land is better left “untrammeled by man.”  Other areas require hands-on management to treat existing problems. Some land is highly valued for recreation, resource extraction, or both. Other areas should be protected for critical habitat. The key to determining best use, however, is not a public meeting. It is realizing value of use while taking into consideration the value of the alternative land uses being lost.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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