Wildlife crime: Understanding the human and social dimensions of a complex problem

This week in North Philly Notes, William Moreto, editor of Wildlife Crime, writes about how criminology as a field has much to offer in the understanding and prevention of wildlife crime.

In recent years, wildlife crime has generated considerable public attention. This can be partly attributed to growing concerns over environmental issues, including climate change, as well as increased attention on wildlife trafficking and its impact on the status of endangered iconic megafauna, like elephants and rhinoceros. The hard sciences, including biology, has tended to take the lead in the assessment and investigation of crimes that harm the environment, including the poaching and trading of wildlife products. This is not surprising given that the unsustainable overharvesting of wildlife can result in long lasting ecological and environmental impacts, as well as potentially devastating public health concerns resulting in the consumption of unregulated and unsanitary wildlife products.

Although wildlife crime has historically tended to fall within the purview of the hard sciences, the role of the social sciences, including geography, psychology, and economics, have increasingly been recognized in both academic and non-academic circles. Indeed, while wildlife crime is very much an environmental issue, it is also inherently a human and social problem as well. Recently Bennett and colleagues (2017) helped reinforce this reality when they published an article in a leading conservation journal, Biological Conservation, demonstrating the role that 18 distinct social science fields have within the conservation sciences. Noticeably missing from this list, however, were the fields of criminology (the study of criminal behavior), criminal justice (the study of how the criminal justice system responds and operates), and crime science (the study of crime). For ease, and I hope my fellow colleagues can forgive me, but I’ll refer to this group collectively here as “criminology.”

Wildlife Crime_smCriminology as a field has much to offer in the understanding and prevention of wildlife crime, while also contributing to broader conservation science topics. The volume, Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice, adds to the conservation science literature by underscoring how criminological theory and research can provide unique insight on a complex problem like wildlife crime. Questions related to the why specific activities and practices are outlawed, how such regulations are viewed by communities who are affected, why individuals begin, continue, or desist as offenders, how the criminal justice system responds to such actors, and what strategies can be developed in addition to the criminal justice system are all discussed in the volume. Additionally, scholars detail their experiences conducting research on active offenders involved in wildlife crime and further highlighting the very human aspects from those involved in such activities, as well as the researchers who perform such study.

Finally, the inclusion of practitioners in the volume who are or were involved in day-to-day conservation practice cements the need for more social science research that directly focuses on those tasked with the implementation and management of conservation policy and regulation. Essentially, by better understanding how conservation policy is implemented and the real-world challenges faced by individuals who work on the front-line is essential in understanding what strategies can be effective, what may be unsuccessful, and what may ultimately prove to be counter-productive or even harmful. In sum, Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice contributes to the growing literature on wildlife crime by illustrating the value of viewing the issue from a criminological perspective, promoting the need for increased academic-practitioner collaborations, and reinforcing the place of social science within the conservation sciences.

 

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Yes, trafficking is bad for sex workers. But “getting tough on traffickers” can make their lives worse.

This week in North Philly Notes, Carisa Showden and Samantha Majic, co-authors of Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S., write about the importance of listening to sex workers, and not just passing laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers.

Through newspaper stories, popular films, and Dateline exposés (to name just some sources), the term “sex trafficking” is now commonplace, bringing to mind images and stories of young girls trapped in vans and sold for sex in strange and dark places. These ideas about sex trafficking have informed public policy in the U.S. and internationally: local, regional, and national governments, as well as international governing bodies, have supported and passed laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers and other parties who fuel this crime. Yet despite these laws, those they are supposed to help are also often their most vocal critics.

This disconnect between the ideas about an issue and its related policy outcomes is not unique to sex trafficking, but recent legal changes make interrogating this gap particularly urgent. The 2018 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) (SESTA/FOSTA) provides a recent example of popular narratives trumping evidence. By making website publishers responsible for third parties who post ads for prostitution, SESTA/FOSTA effectively renders illegal the websites that sex workers use to sell services, screen clients, and warn other sex workers about dangerous clients. SESTA/FOSTA is based on the idea that persons in the sex industry are there against their will (trafficked), and that websites only enable their victimization.

Sex workers resisted this characterization, arguing mightily, but unsuccessfully, against  SESTA/FOSTA, and the effects have been immediate. For example, out of fear of violating the law, many sex workers started “preemptively closing sex work-related Facebook groups, … talking about taking down bad date lists, etc.,” all of which were essential to their safety and security. In another example, Backpage immediately shut down its dating and related ad services. With Backpage gone, some sex workers have returned to the streets and law enforcement receives fewer tips from online activity, making the tracking of actual trafficking more difficult. As Notre Dame Law Professor Alex F. Levy writes, “Backpage sets a trap for traffickers: lured by the prospect of reaching a large, centralized repository of customers, traffickers end up revealing themselves to law enforcement and victim advocates. There’s nothing to suggest that Backpage causes them to be victimized, but plenty of reason to believe that, without it, they would be much harder to find.” And outside of the U.S., including places like New Zealand where sex work is legal, the disappearance of Backpage “has, without warning, taken livelihoods away, leaving workers without the resources to operate their businesses or, in some cases, survive.”

Youth Who Trade_smNeither the failure to listen to sex workers nor a new law making it harder to fight the very thing it targets is surprising to us, given what we found when researching our book Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S.: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability. For example, policies that target trafficking of young people take a law-and-order approach, focusing on criminal gangs, “bad men” (pimps), and very young girl victims. But as our research indicates, young people commonly enter the sex trades through a highly variable mix of “self-exploitation,” family exploitation, and peer-recruitment, most frequently to meet their basic needs for shelter and food. And youth who are poor and housing insecure because of racialized poverty and gender discrimination are particularly vulnerable. All people under the age of 18 who sell or trade sex for any reason are defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as trafficking victims, yet most of them are ignored by “get tough on crime” policies. As a result, while we must protect all youth from persons who may harm and exploit them, the majority of young people who trade sex need interventions like housing support that is safe for youth of all genders. And when they are trading sex to afford food or shelter, they need to do this in the least dangerous way possible—something online services facilitated.

The more vulnerable people are, the less likely they are to be listened to, and the more likely they are to be talked about. We saw this in SESTA/ FOSTA, where sex workers and their allies lobbied hard to prevent the bill’s passage. And we see this with youth-specific bills as well. Politicians talk a lot about vulnerable youth in the abstract, but they rarely talk or listen to them directly. Yet sex workers and young people have a lot to say about what works and doesn’t work for helping them survive and improve their lives. Hopefully researchers and policy makers will start to listen to them.

How state governments touch on nearly every aspect of public policy

This week in North Philly Notes, Michelle Atherton, co-editor of Pennsylvania Politics and Policywrites about what states do and how much power they have within modern politics and policy.

In the midst of the modern 24/7 news cycle, and the focus on the tweet of the moment from our president, it’s easy to forget that politics in our federal system runs much deeper than the national level. Americans in general are woefully unaware of what states do and how much power they have within modern politics and policy. Statewide and local elections have much lower voter turnout than presidential years, as if the composition of state legislatures and governors’ offices barely matters compared to who occupies the White House. Many would argue these governing bodies matter even more to the lives of the average citizen, as state governments touch nearly every aspect of public policy.

Pennsylvania Politics and Policy_smRepublicans in control in Washington, DC did not manage to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but it was originally up to the states to create their own healthcare exchanges, and whether to expand Medicaid. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017 lowered federal taxes for most individuals—and especially corporations—but it also capped the state and local tax (SALT) deduction at $10,000, greatly effecting the calculus of state and local governments’ approaches to maintaining revenues.

Pennsylvania, for example, is one of the states most highly dependent upon property taxes for the support of public schools, collected locally, as opposed to relying on state taxes. Will the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs revolt come November’s general election as higher income households lose thousands of dollars in tax deductions? Perhaps the results will strengthen the case among many voters for doing away with the property tax altogether as a source of funding for public schools in the Commonwealth.

This issue and many others are explored in the first publication of Pennsylvania Politics and Policy: A Commonwealth Reader. Further topics include:

  • What would it mean for Pennsylvania to adopt direct democracy such as the citizen-initiated referendum and recall like other states? Would politicians be more responsive and less prone to corruption?
  • Why doesn’t the state of Pennsylvania place a severance tax on natural gas production? Every other state does. Alaskans each receive a dividend from fossil fuel extraction, yet Pennsylvania’s legislature refuses to move the issue forward even in the face of severe budget woes.
  • Why doesn’t the state fund education based on the number of students in schools? Every other state in the nation bases funding on real student counts. In Pennsylvania, the politics of party and leadership control in the legislature dictates funding.
  • Why does Pennsylvania not tax any form of retirement income, one of just a handful of states to do so? And, what does the rapid aging of the state mean for the bottom line of funding services both for the elderly and younger individuals and families?
  • Why did it take so long to be able to buy wine and beer at the local supermarket? Pennsylvania took a unique approach to policing vice.

Another election for the governor, the entire House, and half the Senate of Pennsylvania is just around the corner. Here’s hoping Pennsylvanians find their way to the polling place to vote in proportion to the gravity of the election’s policy implications.

 

A Passion Reignited

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill Double, author of Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation, writes about his passion for Hires Root Beer. 

Whether a frosty mug at a Stewarts’ drive-in or the brain-clearing rush of herbal effervescence from a freshly opened bottle of Hires at home, I grew up with a yen for root beer. Fortunately, this habit proved nonaddictive. As I moved on, the drink faded into a pleasant memory, occasionally relived but hardly a compulsion.

Neither did this early craving influence my decision to chronicle the life of Charles Elmer Hires, who turned a humble homemade root beer into an iconic national brand.  Hires was an intrepid entrepreneur and an authentic American success story. His life and times would have fascinated me as much had he instead concocted a new ginger ale, pet food or soap powder.

Charles E. Hires_smNonetheless, researching Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation reawakened my latent root beer thirst.  I ordered an eight-pack of modern-day Hires from Amazon (of all places) and began to sample other brands.  Root beer seemed to be less prevalent today and certainly less promoted in the popular media. Was the spicy, woodsy flavor enjoyed by millions during Charles Hires’ heyday fading from the public’s palate? My findings suggested otherwise.

I discovered a thriving root beer subculture, a legion of fiercely loyal aficionados who shared my taste and interest in the brew. An array of websites, Facebook pages and blogs are devoted to discussing, dissecting and exalting root beer. Some sites, it is true, are mounted by commercial bottlers eager to pitch their wares. But others are clearly labors of love maintained by dedicated root beer buffs. Among these: Root Beer Review (“Root beer reviews by root beer lovers.”); The Root-Beer Blog (“Root Beer is a goodness, government is not and freedom and liberty are worth having and so is a good Root Beer!”), the Stark Raving (Root Beer) Blog! and the Association of Root Beer Enthusiasts.

Eric’s Gourmet Root Beer Site, perhaps the most comprehensive, presents histories of the vintage brands, industry news, reviews of new craft root beers and reader comments.

After perusing the painstaking instructions offered root beer homebrewers on other websites, I decided to join their ranks.  I purchased a three-ounce bottle of Zatarain’s Root Beer Extract, a product quite similar to Hires’ original, and followed his 1880 instructions closely.  To my surprise, my first attempt yielded a dozen bottles of root beer that were both delicious and nicely carbonated.

I also found that the craft beer movement, instrumental in improving the quality of real beer in America, had spawned dozens of craft root beers. Brands include Virgil’s, Maine, Boylan, Fitz’s, Dominion, Saranac and Sprecher. The online Root Beer Store offers details on these brews and many others.  They are available at venues ranging from soda pop stores to Trader Joe’s and even some old-style taprooms.

This proliferation of craft brewers would not have displeased Charles Hires, provided they used natural ingredients and did not infringe on his trademark. However, another modern trend – alcoholic root beer – would surely have evoked his ire. One such brew, aptly dubbed Not Your Father’s Root Beer, boasts an alcohol content over 5 percent.  While all fermented root beers contain a trace of alcohol, temperance advocate Hires was forced to battle a WCTU boycott that falsely contended the level in his drink was alarmingly high.

Meanwhile, “Big Soda” continues to woo root beer fanciers with traditional offerings – Barqs, Dads, Mug, Hanks and Frosty. Dr. Pepper Snapple alone produces four root beer brands – A&W, IBC, Stewarts and Hires. Regrettably, Hires ranks lowest in the company’s promotional pecking order.

In conclusion, I am pleased to report that the drink Charles Hires perfected and so successfully promoted over a century ago is at no risk of becoming a relic. While failing to attain the popularity of Coke or Pepsi, its unique flavor still delights and inspires a discerning minority. Indeed, root beer’s longevity reminds me of jazz music, another of my long-time passions. Neither root beer nor jazz has quite managed to achieve mainstream respectability in the modern era. Yet both tenaciously continue to endure, evolve and reward those receptive to their charms.

When Brazil Hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, provides his account of being in Rio de Janeiro during the 2014 FIFA World Cup match between Argentina and Germany.

In June and July 2014, Brazil hosted the twentieth edition of the FIFA World Cup. The championship match was played in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 when Germany defeated Argentina 1 to 0 in double overtime.

These recollections were written in Rio de Janeiro immediately following the German victory.

My wife Regina and I watched the game on TV, thought it a good one with both teams giving their all though showing signs of exhaustion by the second overtime period which was to be expected. The play by play announcers and expert commentators agreed that the game rose to the level of a World Cup championship game. Of course, we were cheering for Argentina, or los hermanos (the Argentine brothers) as they are called here. But it appeared a majority of Brazilians perversely preferred Germany. One local sports writer called this a variation of the Stockholm syndrome. That is, following the unprecedented 7 to 1 massacre of the Brazilian team by the pitiless Germans in the semi-finals, the Brazilians went over to the side of their executioners. They cheered for the German, not the Argentine team. I even heard this from a neighborhood street kid or menino da rua. He told me he was glad Germany won, and asked what I thought. I said to the contrary, I wanted Argentina to win. His response: “Mas eles [the Argentines] são muito bagunceiros!” Bagunceiro is a word used frequently meaning messy, or having a penchant for disorder, that can also mean ready to fight, quarrel. Dona Maria, my 99 year old mother-in-law, uses it when talking about someone who allows things to be out of place, as for example, a shirt, or pair of socks when you want the item. Even worse according to Dona Maria: Bagunceiros are not bothered by the disorder or mess. They need to be called out. Seems our street kid was calling out the Argentines on his street.

GAME DAY. I went to a Zona Sul supermarket Sunday morning to ask if it would reopen after the championship game. This supermarket and most commerce except for bars and restaurants closed during games played in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, and of course during all matches involving the Brazilian team no matter where they were played. The answer I got: “No, we’re not closing at all. Brazil lost. Nobody’s interested in today’s game. We’ll stay open.” Of course, it’s not true that Brazilians had no interest in the championship game Argentina vs. Germany. They had been watching all the games, and held definite opinions about the qualities of different national teams. They certainly watched this one. But that Argentina, not Brazil, was playing in the final game, with a chance to win it all in Rio de Janeiro’s almost mythical Maracanã stadium (though the original stadium had been more or less demolished and rebuilt for the World Cup) seemed to have struck a tribal nerve. It was hard to accept. Argentina had been the great soccer rival for so many years. And rivals not only in soccer, but in South American politics, economics, even cultural production, though leaders in both countries have striven to damp down rivalry since the creation of Mercosul, a common market bloc of South American countries including Brazil and Argentina created in 1991. There were a few fights after the game in Copacabana which police had to break up. The fights apparently were caused by Brazilians who couldn’t resist taunting Argentines after the their team lost the game, perhaps in retaliation for the way Argentines were coloring seven fingers on their hands for the seven German goals. Some Brazilians made a point of celebrating with Germans in the presence of Argentines.

THE FAN FEST ON COPACABANA BEACH. The media estimate on Saturday was that 100,000 Argentines would be in Rio for the Sunday game. Copacabana was crowded with these visitors. They drove through the streets blowing horns, waving and shouting. Copacabana was the destination for Argentine soccer fans and anyone else who didn’t have a ticket for the game at Maracanã stadium. They could now watch it on a big screen mounted in the Fan Fest “stadium,” an enclosed area on the Copacabana beach stretching the length of a couple of blocks with the giant screen at one end. From what I could see, the space seemed large enough to accommodate as many fans as Maracanã itself, which is 78,000. Admission was free. The game started at 4, but large crowds were already arriving on the underground metro 3 or 4 hours earlier. I know because I went to the Cardeal Arcoverde station to take the metro shortly after noon. To get into the station, I had to pass through a cordon of police checking all bags and backpacks—both for people like myself entering the station, and for anyone leaving and presumably on their way to the beach Fan Fest. The train platforms at this station are deep underground and reached by three sets of escalators and stairs. Getting to them requires a long descent below ground level and the mountains that tower up in the city, which are among its famous identifying features. I arrived at the platform just as a train arrived. An enormous crowd mostly of Argentines exited singing, shouting, and chanting. It was Olé, Olé, Olé, Va! Va! Va! and much more that I couldn’t hear above the roar, comparable to the noise in a packed stadium. The Argentines seemed overwhelmingly greater in number than the Germans, though planes full of Germans had arrived Friday, Saturday and even Sunday morning. The atmosphere struck me as altogether friendly. I even saw Argentines and German posing together for group pictures and photographing each other. Some donned the others national flag. Flags are part of World Cup costumes, often draped over the shoulders rather like capes. Enterprising Brazilians were on street corners hawking Argentine and German jerseys and flags.

Layout 1PUBLIC SECURITY. There were reportedly 26,000 uniformed security workers on duty in Rio de Janeiro on championship game day. These included the heavily armed soldiers of the National Security Force, Rio state police, the Rio de Janeiro Guarda Municipal, the Metro police, and finally unarmed employees of private security companies. The ugliest confrontation was near the Maracanã stadium where manifestantes (protestors) were protesting the World Cup. Nationwide anti-World Cup protests in principal cities began months before the first game and continued into the last game, but they were small by the standards of the June 2013 mass protests in Brazilian cities that numbered millions. This protest counted only 300, but the anti-World Cup protests continually rattled authorities and almost always took place in an atmosphere of police intimidation and violence. Sunday’s championship game was no exception as the Rio state police including a cavalry unit moved against the protesters and journalists covering the protest. Police broke or destroyed some of their equipment. At least 10 people were injured with some taken to hospital. In one example of police overreaction, an entire middle class neighborhood was sealed off for a few hours when residents were not allowed to return to their homes.

AT THE END OF THE DAY. I took a final walk around my neighborhood in Copacabana around 9pm. The many Argentines I saw now made a subdued group. A large number were waiting on Avenida Princesa Isabel for buses and the return trip to Argentina. Like other Latin Americans who came for the games, many were duro or hard up. They couldn’t afford the hotels which in any event were fully booked. They camped wherever they could, many on the Copacabana beach, in tents, in vans or cars in parking areas made available to them. They surely spent less in Brazil than the estimated $2,500 average for visitors to the World Cup. Still they were valued visitors, and Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, said his campaign for the coming 2016 Rio Olympics will aim first at attracting South Americans. The hotels have already made an agreement among themselves to hold down rates for the Olympics, though they likely will still be higher than anything poor Argentines, Chileans or other South Americans might be able to pay. And not only Latin Americans from South America. Thirty thousand Mexicans were reported having come for the games.

FINAL THOUGHTS. On Saturday afternoon a demoralized, lifeless Brazilian team played Holland in the third place consolation match and lost badly 3 to 0. Walking past my local newsstand, the jornaleiro (newsstand owner) gave a thumbs down gesture, and said: “Brasil já era. Temos que reformar tudo. Primeiro, saude e educação. Tambem tira os mendigos da rua, MAS PARA RECUPERAR. Depois futebol.” Translation: “Brazil is finished. We have to reform everything. First, health and education. Also, remove the homeless beggars from the streets, BUT IN ORDER TO REHABILITATE THEM. After this, soccer.” The phrase to remove homeless beggars and rehabilitate them stated so emphatically was perhaps in memory of poor, homeless Brazilians swept off the streets, and in the worst cases, disappeared by death squads largely comprised of police or former police officers. Significantly, soccer came last in the list of reforms.

POSTSCRIPT, JUNE, 2018. Brazil’s international soccer fortunes have risen dramatically since the historic 7 to 1 defeat. It was a matter of selecting the new coach Tite in June 2016. The national team won the 2016 Olympic gold medal in the Rio de Janeiro games defeating Germany 5 to 4 in a penalty shootout. There followed 8 consecutive victories over South American rivals as Brazil became the first nation to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. On the eve of the 2018 competition in Russia, Brazil occupies its usual place as one of the nations favored to win the Cup.

A Q&A with author and political pundit Michael Smerconish

This week in North Philly Notes, Michael Smerconish talks about how he came to politics, his opinions, and his new book,  Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

How did you develop your role as a political commentator?
I was interested in Republican politics and benefitted from some unique experiences at an early age. I was an assistant GOP committeeman, elected alternate delegate to a national convention and state legislative candidate all before age 25. By the time I was 29, I was appointed to a sub-cabinet level position in the George H.W. Bush Administration. Those experiences put me on the radar of some Philadelphia local network television affiliates who then began to call upon me for election commentary.

How did your background in politics shape your opinions, and how did it influence your approach to writing about local and popular culture?
I’ve always enjoyed writing about both political and cultural topics. As I look at the breath of my work as a columnist, it is pretty evenly divided between the two. I’ve written about a variety of 9/11 related issues, war, political candidates, and the economy. I’ve also written about yard sales, holiday decorations, and family pets.

You are always looking for a “good story” to turn into a column. In this age of “click bait” journalism, what makes a “good story,” or motivates you to think critically and provide thoughtful analysis?
A good story to me has nothing to do with the Red State/Blue State divide. What I most enjoy are telling those stories that are Seinfeldian, a slice of life that may (or may not) highlight areas of different opinion but not along the partisan divide. The kind of issues we enjoy talking about and maybe laughing about without being at each other’s throats.

Clowns to the Left of Me_smCan you describe the criteria you used to whittle down the more than 1000 articles you published to the 100 in the book?
Like Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I knew it when I saw it.” By my count, I published 1,047 columns for the Daily News and Inquirer between 2001 and 2016, and although I was making some swaps until the final submission, for the most part I had an easy time picking what I wanted to re-visit. Some things I got right and wanted to crow about, some things I got wrong but wanted to own, and others just plain stood the test of time and were insightful.

What observations do you have about the Afterwords you wrote for each entry? In some cases, you apologize for things you wrote, and in others, you show how your thinking on a topic has evolved.
I think most of us evolve over time with regard to our thinking. What separates me from many is that my opinions are all chiseled in granite, er, newsprint. And so you can easily discern how I viewed literally more than 1,000 issues. As I re-read everything I have published, there were certainly areas where my views have changed and I wanted to explain why. But there were plenty of times when I looked at what I’ve written and concluded that the times have changed, not me.

You write about everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby. You write about paying more money for a Cat Stevens concert than you care to admit. Who impressed you the most—or the least?
While I have been immensely fortunate to interact with many household names, those aren’t often the encounters that created the most meaningful columns. Yes, I interviewed Barack Obama and wrote about him, and Bill Cosby, and had a funny encounter with Led Zeppelin and Pete Rose—but the columns I’m most proud of are those I wrote about an old college professor, a woman who worked for our family in a domestic capacity, and a guy I went to junior high school with who today is a tomato farmer. Real people with compelling stories.

Do you have a favorite column that you published?
I once wrote a Daily News column—with my thumbs on a Blackberry—while standing in a 2-hour viewing line as it snaked through South Philadelphia. I think the headline was “Requiem for an Era.” I’m very proud of that column.

You are donating your author proceeds for the book to the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. Can you explain why this charity is so important to you?
CCTC exists to serve children who are victims of trauma. If you hear a heartbreaking story about something that has happened to children, chances are, CCTC is involved. My wife is on the board and I wanted to highlight their good work.

About the author:
Michael A. Smerconish
is a SiriusXM radio host, CNN television host, and Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper columnist. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he is of counsel to the law firm of Kline & Specter. He resides in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and his wife have raised four children.

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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