ACID RAIN, TOXIC WASTE, UNTREATED SEWAGE—these are some of the environmental problems that make the headlines of our nation's papers and newscasts. Unfortunately, little publicity has been given to the worst environmental problem of all—the federal government.
Controlling over one third of the total land area in the United States, our federal government is blatantly mismanaging some of the most environmentally sensitive areas of our country, whether they be untouched virgin forests or wide, rolling grasslands. John Baden and Richard Stroup, two highly respected economists at Montana State University, have documented this improper use of federal land in two recent books, Natural Resources (Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research) and Bureaucracy Versus Environment (University Press). Their findings are cause for alarm.
FORESTLANDS: Baden and Stroup note that the U.S. Forest Service often allows loggers to cut at below market prices on public forests. This encourages logging in the ecologically fragile Rocky Mountain areas instead of in the more productive Southern forests that are privately owned. To add insult to injury, loggers on public lands are often not required to replant after cutting, a practice almost always done when private timberlands are logged. As Natural Resources concludes, "Americans are literally subsidizing reduced environmental quality through the U.S. Forest Service."
GRAZING LAND: According to economist Sabine Kremp in an essay in Bureaucracy versus Environment, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) currently manages the 171 million acres under its control through the extremely controversial program of specialized grazing systems. Specialized grazing systems fence a given area of grazing land into three or four large pastures, and then allow one field to be grazed heavily while the other fields rest.
Kremp documents the many problems of specialized grazing systems. The large amount of fencing destroys much of the aesthetic and recreational value of the land. Furthermore. these systems do not work well in areas such as slopes—prone to wind erosion, the heavy grazing is likely to rob the land of topsoil, thus rendering it useless unless expensive reclamation efforts are undertaken. These factors along with the costs of the fencing and manpower required make specialized grazing systems a questionable practice.
PINYON-JUNIPER WOODLANDS: Both the Forest Service and the BLM are "reclaiming" vast tracts of land by using huge tractors to clear pinyon and juniper trees. The cleared land is then replanted with grasses to be used as livestock forage. Baden and Stroup document in Natural Resources that the costs of such operations far outweigh any possible benefits accrued from increasing livestock forage. And once again the aesthetic quality of the land is greatly reduced. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the surprise and disdain of people enjoying the seclusion of pinyon-juniper woodlands when they see the land being "reclaimed" by BLM tractors.
Why is our government such a poor resource manager? It's certainty not because government bureaucrats are evil people who take great pleasure in degrading vast tracts of land. However even competent professionals are going to make policy mistakes when there are few checks and balances upon their actions—a feature inherent in all bureaucratic systems. Moreover, bureaucrats desire greater budgets, bigger staffs, and more authority. A glance at the policies mentioned above will indicate that their implementation and enforcement requires more money, staff, and authority than the possible alternatives.
The problem of federal land mismanagement is therefore not going to be solved by replacing "bad" bureaucrats with "good" bureaucrats. Institutional incentives inherent in all bureaucracies will eventually lead to ecological mismanagement. Another solution is the one recommended by Baden and Stroup: the privatization of federal land. Although this alternative may sound extreme, the large amount of supporting evidence behind dramatization warrants its consideration.
Unlike government bureaucrats. private property owners have real and direct incentives to develop resources effectively while protecting the environmental quality of the land. For example, timber companies will have little incentive to log Rocky Mountain forests, because it is more profitable (without Forest Service subsidies) to cut from the more productive Southern forests. And, of course, private timber companies always have an incentive to replant in order to protect the future value of their investments. Furthermore, private land owners, unlike government, will only take actions when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs; in order to avoid losses the checks and balances of the market would ensure that private owners would not implement practices such as specialized grazing systems.
Another benefit of privatization is that environmental organizations could purchase much of the federal land to use as recreational facilities and wildlife preserves. For instance, Baden and Stroup note that the Audubon Society now operates a 26,800 acre wildlife preserve near Intercoastal City, Louisiana. Through careful management, the sanctuary is able to integrate natural gas platforms and livestock in a professional, competent manner to raise revenue for other purchases. Under private ownership of lands, such sanctuaries would be commonplace. Intends the millions of dollars spent every year by environmental organizations on lobbying efforts could be rechartered into the more productive and worthwhile activity of providing well-managed preserves. Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be donated to these organizations by Americans concerned with environmental quality.
However, most Americans are now unaware of the environmental degradation of federally owned lands and the private property solution that exists. Until federal mismanagement of our environment is recognized as America's number one environmental threat, the Federal government will continue to ravage some of our nation's most beautiful lands.
John Majewski is a student intern at the Institute for Humane Studies, Menlo Park, California and a student at the University of Texas, Austin.
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