Effects of Environmental Policy on Private Property Rights
National Hardwood Lumber Association
May 21, 1999
Becky Norton Dunlop
We all want a cleaner, safer, healthier environment. We cherish the beauty of the natural world and want to pass on to the next generation a world that is better than we found it. Although these sentiments are universal, there are strong disagreements over how to achieve them.
Unfortunately, in some environmental circles it is assumed that the best thing we can do for the environment is to set aside the maximum amount of land and lock it up from any human influence -preserving resources from people rather than for them. It is assumed that governments make good land use decisions and private landowners make bad land use decisions. But these assumptions are not based on sound, objective science and are not verified by human experience.
Many years ago biologist Garrett Hardin described a phenomenon that is still not recognized in environmental circles. Hardin observed that when land is owned communally, each user tends to maximize his benefit to the detriment of the resource, rather than working to increase the value of the resource, as is the case with private property. Hardin called this phenomenon "The Tragedy of the Commons," and his observations are correct whether referring to primitive, tribal societies or modern big government collectivism.
When I was Secretary of Natural Resources in Virginia we found that protecting property rights was one of the most important steps we could take to improve our conservation efforts. It is no accident, I think, that our wildlife and habitat management successes -and there are many- are the result of voluntary efforts, not governmental over-regulation of private property. Successful wildlife programs almost invariably occur where private incentives are allowed to work.
Our nation's experience in agriculture and forestry also demonstrate the superiority of private stewardship. In 1910, to feed and clothe a population of 92 million people, 325 million acres were harvested for crops. Today we feed 246 million Americans with 297 million acres and have more than tripled food exports at the same time.
What would have happened if we had an environmental regulatory bureaucracy in 1910 that tried to save the environment by blocking the development of agricultural chemicals, farm mechanization, and all the other scientific, technological and management changes that have occurred? What would the environment look like if we had frozen agricultural technology at the 1910 level?
To feed our present population, at least 925 million more acres would be needed for cropland.
925 million acres is over 11 times the acreage of the National Park system.
It is over four times the acreage of the National Forest system including Alaska.
It is over four times the total historic wetlands in the United States outside Alaska
Now I have a question for those who believe that human intervention and capitalist technology is destroying the earth: If 60% of the land outside of Alaska were cropland, where would the wildlife live? Where would the endangered species live? Where would the wilderness areas be? How much biodiversity would we have if the only lands not farmed were mountain peaks or desert?
Today's environmental ideology was formed 30 years ago and has resisted change more successfully than any other aspect of the 1960's political culture. It is based on the false assumption that government control is the only way to solve a problem -remember, at that time we had wage and price controls and 70% income tax. We were told by the Albert Gores of that era that capitalism had destroyed the balance of nature and as a result the earth was out of oil, out of food, out of trees and out of baby seals.
Paul Ehrlich, a prominent environmentalist, said that Americans had so depleted the earth's resources that by 1999, catastrophic famine would reduce the United States¹ population to about 22 million. In 1979 the federal Government issued a report called Global 2000. It predicted that oil today would cost 100 dollars a barrel. And in pre-Ronald Reagan America when wage and price controls were considered the solution to economic problems, similar big government programs were assumed to be the way to solve environmental problems. Now, after enduring these programs for a generation, let's see if they have worked as promised.
The Endangered Species Act is just one good example. As a conservation measure, the Endangered Species Act has noticeably failed in its mission. As was demonstrated in the study "Conservation Under the Endangered Species Act" which was conducted by the National Wilderness Institute and published in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International, not a single endangered species has recovered and been taken off the list as a result of enforcing this law since it was adopted 25 years ago.
There is a common sense reason why it has not worked. When a law forces an individual landowner to bare the cost of providing a governmentally defined benefit, such as providing habitat for an endangered species, it thereby also creates a disincentive that punishes those who provide conservation land while rewarding those whose land management practices prevent these features from developing.
Compare the results of the ESA's regulatory and punitive approach to the record of voluntary, incentive based conservation. Wood ducks and bluebirds came back from very depressed numbers because thousands of people built artificial nesting boxes on their private property.
Wood duck boxes built by duck hunters and placed in swamps are actually better than hollow trees at keeping out predators such as snakes and raccoons, and as a result of these boxes there are now over three million wood ducks in America -enough to support an annual harvest of over eight hundred thousand ducks.
When bluebird fanciers discovered about thirty years ago that their favorite bird was declining primarily because the English starling, an aggressive, introduced species, was taking too many of the bluebird's nesting cavities, they designed bird houses with openings too small for starlings. Over one hundred thousand bluebird houses have been built and bluebirds are on the rebound.
During the past 30 years, wild turkeys have been restored to their original range and beyond at the impetus of turkey hunters and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Today, wild turkeys are found in every state except Alaska. The turkey population is at an all time peak and growing. And the hunters who organized the restoration effort are now able to harvest five hundred thousand birds annually.
Why are these private efforts so much more successful than the Endangered Species Act? Consider the difference between incentives and regulation. Suppose the Endangered Species Act had been adopted early in this century wood ducks, bluebirds and wild turkeys would have been added to the federal list and regulated under this law.
How would you possibly get a landowner to give permission to put a nesting box on his property?
How many landowners could afford to let the Wild Turkey Federation release birds on their land if the presence of an endangered species meant they could no longer use their land?
Through the implementation of laws, which take private property without compensation to the landowner, we have created a climate, which pits rare plants and animals against property owners. As a result, they both lose!
Why, when both the diagnosis of the problems and the remedies proposed by our opponents have proven to be demonstrably wrong, have we not won the debate over environmental policy?
One reason we have not done better in environmental debates may be that too often our single goal has been only to survive the battle while the other side chose its targets to achieve a strategic advance. While our side sought to limit losses, they fought to take ground. Too often the debate was not about which direction to take, but about how fast to go in their direction. The debate should have been about whether the environment benefits more by freeing up human enterprise and unleashing creativity or from stifling and regulating human activities.
Rather than simply bashing the greens, we need to promote a positive and distinct environmental vision of our own. As Secretary of Natural Resources, I guided my office by a set of principles. And, The National Wilderness Institute, a thoughtful conservation group has suggested a set of positive environmental principles called the American Conservation Ethic. These principles represent a new approach to achieving a cleaner, healthier, and safer environment and a better quality of life. In bold, positive language they call for a new, more effective conservation and environmental policy based on the bedrock principles that made America great. They reject the mistaken notion that support for government regulation or ownership is the measure of environmental commitment and instead call for an approach using the creative forces of free markets and personal responsibilities. The American Conservation Ethic consists of eight principles that comprise a practical and effective approach to conservation. Let me share them with you.
The first principle of NWI's American Conservation Ethic is that people are the most important resource. The foremost measure of the quality of our environment is human health and well-being. A policy cannot be good for the environment if it is bad for people. Human intellect and knowledge are the only means by which the environment can be willfully improved.
The second is that renewable natural resources are generally resilient and dynamic and respond positively to wise management. Human life depends upon the use and conservation of renewable natural resources: trees, plants, soil, air, water, fish and wildlife. Because they are resilient and dynamic, we can wisely use renewable resources now while ensuring they are conserved for future generations.
The third principle is that the most promising new opportunities for environmental improvements lie in protecting and extending private property and in unleashing the creative powers of the free market. Ownership inspires stewardship. Private property stewards have the incentive to enhance their resources and the incentive to protect them. The most effective thing we can do to improve the environment is to decouple conservation policies from regulation or government ownership. 200 years ago Arthur Young wrote, "Give a man the secure possession of bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine year lease of a garden, and he will convert it to a desert. The magic of property turns sand into gold."
The fourth is that our efforts to reduce, control and remediate pollution should achieve real environmental benefits. We must rationally weigh risks to human health and safety and rationally assess and measure other environmental impacts. Science provides a means of considering the costs and benefits of actions designed to reduce, control and remediate pollution so that we can improve our environment without wasting scarce resources.
Principle number five is the learning curve is green. We must encourage the accumulation of knowledge and technology for as we learn more we are able to conserve by substituting information for other resources. We get more miles per gallon, more board-feet per acre of timber, a higher agricultural yield per cultivated acre and more production per unit of energy.
The sixth principle is that management of natural resources should be conducted on a site and situation specific basis. A site and situation specific approach takes advantage of the fact that those closest to a resource are best able to manage it, and avoids the institutional power and ideological concerns which dominate politicized central planning.
The next, number seven, is that science should be employed as a tool to guide public policy. Societal decisions should employ science, but ultimately are the product of ethics, beliefs, consensus and many other unscientific processes. Science cannot be substituted for public policy, but public policy on scientific subjects should reflect scientific knowledge.
The eighth principle is that environmental policies that emanate from liberty are the most successful. Our chosen environment is liberty and liberty is the central organizing principle of America. There is a direct and positive relationship between free market societies and the healthiness, cleanliness and safety of the environment. Free people work to improve the environment and liberty is the energy behind environmental progress.
The American Conservation Ethic gives us a great opportunity to direct the environmental debate to the real question of how we should care for the environment rather than the false debate of whether we should do so.
It is time for us to reclaim our rightful position as leaders of environmental stewardship. The task falls to resource users such as yourselves and your companies to champion our approach because it is this approach that is best for the environment and best for the people. We must support educational organizations that do the same. As Margaret Thatcher said, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"
Thank you very much.