Wolves, Mosques, and Other Environmental Problems

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Most environmental issues involve resource conflicts. One person wants to use a river to carry away her waste products, while another one wants to swim and fish in the same stream. Often these uses conflict and collide. A modern example of how “enviropreneurs,” or environmental entrepreneurs, come to see these conflicts involves wolf restoration to Yellowstone National Park. Since wolves were exterminated from the park by rangers in 1922, some people have worked like crazy to get them back against all odds. Ranchers of cattle and sheep despise the wolf for what it does to their herds. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Defenders of the Wildlife created a viable solution to the wolf predation problem, and the wolf now roams that part of the American West again. Defenders, and the hard work of Hank Fisher, created the wolf compensation fund to pay ranchers when there was a demonstrated kill of calves or lambs. In the early 1990s wolves were released back in the park, and they now thrive there. The plan isn’t perfect, but it has worked now for almost 20 years.

Hank now works with the National Wildlife Federation trying to solve similar resource use conflicts over grazing rights in the Montana, Wyoming, Idaho area. Ranchers with valid steer grazing permits issued by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have the legal right to put their cattle on certain public parcels of land for foraging, but grizzly bears and wolves like to use these same lands. Again, a resource conflict. The people who like wild wolves more than domestic cattle are frustrated, but Hank and his group have come to the situation with a bargaining solution. They buy the grazing permits from the ranchers, and with the aid of the Feds, they retire the permits. The rancher voluntarily gives up his rights, and the wildlife admirer gets what she desires: wildlife roaming and grazing free of domestic cattle. Win, win.

Now comes to us the thorny situation of a group of Muslims desiring to build a mosque on land that some others would like to use differently. Specifically, they would prefer that a mosque not be stationed so close to the site of the Trade Towers which were destroyed nearly 10 years ago by terrorists. To many on both sides of this resource use conflict, there are moral imperatives and all manner of ethical concerns, the right to worship and the right to “life, liberty...” to name two.

Yet, the land is owned by the Muslims, and there seems to be no question as to their proper title to the property. What would Hank Fisher do? I don’t know; I haven’t asked him, but I can suggest to those who want the mosque situated somewhere else, try to negotiate a deal or contract to either buy the land, or buy some other suitable land where the mosque might be alternatively located. Just like the friends of the wolf who want to use the land for their desires, why don’t those who oppose the mosque near Ground Zero, offer to buy the mosque site, or purchase some land elsewhere suitable to the Muslims wishing to worship in that part of Manhattan. Isn’t this better than a national political fight?

Those who fear the desecration of Ground Zero can use the newly acquired land in a way more to their liking, and the Muslims who wish to worship in Lower Manhattan can get their mosque without the rancor and resource conflict that has reached presidential proportions. Free markets, contracts, and property are often better tools than screaming, fisticuffs, and endless zoning commission meetings for solving resource conflicts among competing users.

UPDATE: Reason's Ron Bailey provides more background on the wolf controversy.

Bobby McCormick's earliest memories as a child are being raised in a property rights oriented household by an outdoorsy, farming, lumber/logging family; he remembers always thinking about "who owns what." McCormick views the environment as an asset and environmental failures as the result of ambiguous environmental ownership. To redress these...
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