Public lands have long been celebrated as national treasures owned and enjoyed equally, by all citizens.
Teddy Roosevelt, the “conservationist president,” championed this sentiment in a 1910 speech describing his vision for a new nationalism: “I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few,” he said. “People forget now that one hundred years ago there were public men of good character who advocated the nation selling its public lands in great quantities to the men who could cultivate it for their own uses.”
In recent months, this equal-ownership, equal-access argument has been a popular refrain among groups opposed to public land reforms, such as transferring federal lands to state management or shrinking national monuments designated by President Barack Obama. One campaign by outdoor retailer Patagonia, for instance, celebrated “the fundamental idea that our federal public lands belong to all Americans and represent a core part of our country’s heritage.”
But the truth is: although federal lands are owned and paid for by every U.S. citizen, our use and enjoyment of them is far from equal. Annual visitation to national parks is a paltry 5 to 6 percent of the total population. Visitation rates to other federal lands, such as those managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, are even lower, with most users coming from nearby communities.
Political management of these lands creates a situation in which the costs of ownership are shared by all, but the benefits are disproportionately enjoyed by a small fraction of the population. This is precisely the immorality Roosevelt sought to avoid, but today, rather than cultivators, railroads, or timber companies exploiting public lands, it’s the recreationists who are enjoying a monopoly.
During his eight years in office, President Obama created 26 new national monuments totaling 88.3 million acres, while adding another 465.2 million acres to existing monuments. By the stroke of his pen, without any input from Congress, those lands and waters are now off limits to almost everything but recreational use.
Markets offer a more effective, economical, and egalitarian alternative to the political management of federal lands. As the articles in this issue make clear, even without full-blown privatization, harnessing markets to manage public lands can align the costs with the benefits of “keeping public lands in public hands.”
Moreover, markets can improve the experience of those who use public lands the most. While some groups fear public-private partnerships and other market approaches might “turn citizens into customers,” making our public lands more customer-centric is precisely what’s needed. These innovations can align the incentives of public land managers and users, helping to address maintenance shortfalls, overcrowding, and other issues facing federal lands.
Later in that same 1910 speech, Roosevelt argued that “there are many people who will go with us in conserving the resources only if they are to be allowed to exploit them for their benefit. That is one of the fundamental reasons why the special interests should be driven out of politics.”
We couldn’t agree more. Defenders of the status quo should consider whether they are paying the full cost of their public land use, or whether they are free-riding on the U.S. taxpayer. There’s a strong economic argument for harnessing markets to manage public lands, but there’s a moral one as well.