Arguing against public land privatization and transfer

This week in North Philly Notes, Steven Davis, author of In Defense of Public Lands provides his arguments for why privatization, transfer, and deregulation of our public land are disastrously bad policies. 

This past spring break, I had the privilege to visit Chiricahua National Monument in the rugged southeast corner of Arizona. From Tucson, I drove several hours through a lonely, desolate landscape until I came to this extremely remote spot, far from any town. To my amazement, I found it crowded with visitors, an indication perhaps, of how much Americans (and many others) love public land. Chiricahua, named, in Apache, for its fantastical rock formations, is managed by the National Park Service, and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of additional acres of the Coronado National Forest. It is what’s known as a “sky island forest” rising high enough from its sun-baked surroundings to wring moisture out of the sky. Its forests of juniper, Ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir teem with wildlife. As such, this complex of public land is like some sort of fountain pouring out a continuous flow of precious and valuable things; aesthetic, historic, cultural, biological, and economic. And best of all, it belongs to all of us collectively.

DavisBlogPhoto

Unfortunately, our federal public lands now face unprecedented waves of proposed legislation to either privatize their ownership or else transfer large blocks to state control (to do with as states please). Even short of privatization, public lands now face an onslaught of resource extraction and lax regulation. The Trump Administration’s recent elimination of nearly 2 million acres of National Monument designations at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah is the largest such declassification of protected land in U.S. history.

In Defense of Public Lands_SMIn my book In Defense of Public Land, I lay out biological, economic, and political arguments for why privatization, transfer, and deregulation of our public land are disastrously bad policies. Reviewing a great deal of literature and data, I specifically find that: 

  • By nearly every measure of ecological health examined, including individual populations of imperiled species, degree of forest and habitat fragmentation, ecosystem stability and permanence, acreage of imperiled landscape communities, amount of suitable habitat for conservative species, and forest biodiversity, public land, as a whole, outperforms private land. 
  • Since there are no functioning markets for such things as ecological restoration activities, endangered species recovery, rare landscape communities, or forest biodiversity, they generally occur on public rather than private land as their costs are collectively absorbed as public goods. 
  • Public lands are far more valuable than traditionally assumed by torturously narrow free market valuation models. Models that more broadly measure economic multiplier effects or else incorporate a wider range of non-market values, find tremendous economic value in public lands. The ROI (Return of Investment) data for public land acquisition and operation shows 400-1100% returns, while Western counties with the most federal land outperform neighboring counties with less federal land in employment growth, personal and per capita income, and population growth. 
  • This ledger sheet becomes wildly imbalanced in favor of public land when one considers that they also provide trillions of dollars worth of mostly unpriced ecosystem services for such things as water filtration, water retention and flood control, pollination services, carbon sequestration, soil retention, etc. 
  • The total annual operational cost for managing this 640 million acre treasure trove of federal land is $11.1 billion, about a billion dollars less than one month of Iraq War operations at the height of the war and about half of the annual costs for just air conditioning at our military bases in Iraq. 
  • Like libraries and public schools, public lands are profoundly democratic; with full access for all. This is no small thing in a country that lacks the guaranteed right-of-way on private land that is common in European countries. Some of the greatest wonders on this continent are a common inheritance.  
  • Because it is determined in the political sphere, management of public land inevitably becomes a messy, conflictual, and deeply polarized affair. But it is also a largely democratic process that is wide-open to public participation, access by varied stakeholders, and the accountability afforded by administrative appeals and judicial challenge. None of this is available on private land.

Our public lands are an absolute treasure which some people, whether for ideological or mercenary reasons, want to wrest from the many and give to the few. We should not allow them to.

 

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