Private control of property and resources is an essential component of a free society. Government-run lands make no more sense than a government-run economy, which fails even when limited only to certain designated areas. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent rejection of a plan to allow increased logging in Oregon is just the latest episode in a long history of public land disputes for which there is no resolution.
Disagreements over how lands and resources should be used are questions that the market resolves through prices, which reflect the relative value of various alternative uses for the lands. Transfer property to government control, however, and those mechanisms of conflict resolution disappear. The question becomes a purely political one resolved by bureaucrats whose decision making process is at the least (to be charitable) imprecise.
The Oregon case demonstrates the point. When the BLM rejected a plan to increase logging, they rejected their own plan. The Western Oregon Plan Revision (WOPR—pronounced “whopper”) was written in 2008 and would have allowed logging on 2.2 million more acres in Oregon. The plan was pulled by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar in 2009 before being kicked back and forth in the courts. Industry representatives sued and had the plan reinstated in March, and conservationist groups immediately sued to stop it, which led to the BLM arguing against their own proposal.
Battles like these are the inevitable result of the politicization of land and resources. The final decision will always be (predictably and by necessity) arbitrary. Many years and millions of dollars will be wasted. Until resources are removed from government control, the “right” use for them will never be discovered, and the environment, economy, and society lose. Sometimes the “right” use is conservation such as when CNN founder Ted Turner buys up 2 million acres out west. Sometimes the right use is natural resource production for homes, cars, and other everyday necessities.
Either way, the government doesn’t know which is right, and their involvement only inhibits the natural market resolution. Environmentalists believe the market will leave the Earth dirty and damaged, but unlike government, private individuals have an incentive to protect their land. The U.S. has just as many forests today as a hundred years ago, not because of less logging, but because land owners have incentives to replant trees and rebuild the value of their land.
Forest fires, oil spills, overfishing, clear-cut forests, and abandoned windmills are the legacy of public lands and seas, but the lost benefits from trapped natural resources are as bad as the damages. Sixty-two percent of onshore oil on federally controlled lands is completely off-limits to drilling. Mining, logging, and other natural resource use is outright prohibited on 272 million acres. Many more resources are caught up by regulations and aren’t worth developing.
The government should be limited to protecting the property of its citizens and leave the management of America’s resources to them. After the Louisiana Purchase, the federal government transferred over a billion acres to private individuals. The same needs to happen today, and just like then, Americans will find ways to use the land productively and responsibly to make their country and society better.