Property Rights Are Crucial to Protecting Our Environment

Tule elk and cattle graze together at the D Ranch pasture in Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif., in 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
While they’ve long been recognized as a guarantor of individual liberty, it’s time we acknowledged the vital role they can also play in conservation.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE N ature is inherently valuable, and preserving it is inherently conservative. We need trees and wetlands to protect us from floods. We need water to drink. We need fertile soil to grow crops. Conservatives have long understood this, and have taken steps to treat our invaluable natural environment right.

From Nixon’s EPA to George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act, conservatives have a rich history of environmental stewardship. Despite these wins, of course, there is still a long way to go for those who wish to protect the environment. And an under-discussed solution to many of our most persistent environmental problems fits perfectly within conservatism: stronger property rights.

Property rights go deeper than just the physical ownership of property; they also refer to the understanding of all parties involved about how a good or resource can be used. The weaker the understanding of property rights is, the less ideal the outcomes will be.

For example, if a rancher and a public-land agency have a weak mutual understanding of what is and isn’t allowed on a given plot of leased public land, a tragedy-of-the-commons effect is bound to rear its head, furthering the degradation of the land in question. This is a reality across thousands of acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management, in our National Parks, and on many other publicly held lands. By better defining what is and isn’t allowed on such lands, we can reduce environmental degradation and its costs to taxpayers.

Making the regulatory scheme that governs federal lands more equitable would further the same aims. From the Nature Conservancy to Ted Turner, there’s a very large appetite for private conservation efforts in the United States. Private conservation happens mostly on private land. But there are plenty of private conservationists who want to pay land-management agencies like the BLM for the right to conserve public lands, much in the same way ranchers and other businessmen pay the BLM for the right to use those lands. And those conservationists are forced to compete with industrial concerns on a grossly uneven playing field: They aren’t allowed to bid for much of the public land that businesses can bid for, despite the ability and willingness to pay for it. Though some have broken through this by technically ranching on the land, many have failed. Our public land should be open to private conservation efforts as it is open to businesses.

Western water markets are also an example of poorly drawn, dated property-rights rules. Water in America’s West is different from water in its East. For one thing, there’s a lot less of it available. For another, many of the rules and regulations around it were developed as far back as westward expansion and are in dire need of updating. A prime example of this is the “use it or lose it” rule. Rather than incentivizing water conservation, “use it or lose it” incentivizes the opposite: It encourages ranchers and landowners to divert as much water from rivers and streams as they can, because they will lose the rights to however much water they don’t divert the following year. The result is that water is unevenly distributed, much of it is wasted, and the water-scarcity challenges faced by states such as California and Colorado are exacerbated. If “use it or lose it” was done away with, water conservation would be incentivized without disrupting anyone’s access to water. Water could be traded and sold through market systems and water rights would be much better defined.

Property rights are part of the foundation on which the nation was founded, and they’ve stood the test of time. But while they’ve long been recognized as a guarantor of individual liberty, it’s time we acknowledged the vital role they can also play in protecting the environment we all share. They are a quintessentially conservative means to a quintessentially conservative end.

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