I write a lot on The Dying Fish blog about minimizing government’s role in conservation, rather than thinking of the EPA and state agencies as the only bulwarks against environmental ruin. I also write a good bit about the danger of coming to think of public lands (state game lands, state parks, national forests, etc.) as the places for fish and wildlife, existing in contrast to developed and peopled places.
Fish and wildlife really don’t realize we’ve drawn lines on our maps delineating parks and private properties. They are opportunists and just want to live anywhere the habitat is suitable. Wild creatures surprise me time and again here in the Pittsburgh area by popping up when least expected alongside roads and parking lots and culverts. Fox, for example, have been plentiful in Pittsburgh lately. And here’s something you may find even more surprising and/or controversial: I’m convinced that our back yards and hedgerows often make better habitats for wild creatures than the depths of the dark forests. It’s why we have more deer in at least the eastern U.S. today than we did when Henry Hudson arrived.
The best way to view nature is through a wide-angle lens. Animals are going everywhere they can to optimize feeding, reproduction and shelter from predation. If we think in terms of our delimited public lands as being the places to focus on for conservation and restoration, than we’re missing much of the picture concerning the life cycles of wild things.
At the same time, we live in the United States, a nation founded on principles of individual liberty and the important ancilliary, private property rights. Private property rights are indispensible to a free society. And, as the notion of private property historically began with the claim of owning property in oneself (a strange concept if you haven’t had to think about it before) all the good things bequeathed by the great tradition of classical liberalism flow from this central tenet. Owning property in oneself asserts the claim that “this is not publicly owned” in respect to oneself and this claim was naturally extended to the things under one’s legal ownership, including real estate.
So, what’s the point, in terms of conservation? Yes, our properties should be free from the undue yoke of intrusive government compliance which robs landowners of liberty. But the case is made in a thousand ways by environmental advocacy groups through their mouth pieces in the media and schools that people need to be restrained from destroying their own property. But what’s more likely: for landowners to destroy that which they own or for them to be destructive of publicly owned places, places owned in common, places where they bear little cost for destruction? This is the classic Tragedy of the Commons scenario. Essentially, landowners are naturally economically incentivized to care for that which is their own, to prevent costs which will fall on their own shoulders.
Landowners, largely, don’t need great encouragement to be conservation minded – the economic incentives imparted by private ownership and an impartial Rule of Law already constrain landowners toward care for what is their own. Indeed, we see this on the macro scale in the resurgent eastern forests, which are largely privately owned. No over-arching government entity commanded “re-wilding” of the east but it has happened in Appalachia, the Adirondacks, the rugged mountains of New England and beyond.
The minimally-productive farms of the northeast were supplanted by the rich fruited plain of the midwest in the late 19th century. New England farm acreage shriveled and the forest returned. Fossil fuels, a highly efficient source of energy, came to be economically extractible, wood no longer needed to be cut in enormous quantities and forests returned. Whales made out better too when whale oil became passe. We need enormously less paper than we otherwise would thanks to the advent of computers and forests return.
Economic incentives are a stronger directive force than any governmental mandates in the environmental realm, mandates which may often be ignored or eluded or may, through legal machinations, be enforced for some but not for those with the legal muscle to fight penalties. I’ve been thinking about positive economic incentives in the environment for quite a while and I came to think about ways in which landowners could find themselves economically better off through good conservation or simply be paid for non-development. How could landowners receive money for leaving patches of woods and stream banks just the way they are? How could this happen apart from some form of government re-distribution for good conservation practices?
All of this was important thinking that took place over the last several years, the years leading up to the founding of WikiparX, a business that allows landowners to simply sell outdoor recreationists permits to visit their properties to fish, hunt, climb, camp – whatever. Think the conservation incentives through for yourself.
Maybe my next installment will be a little WikiparX update, which I haven’t done in quite a while. I’m optimistic about our impending e-commerce launch, late spring to early summer, 2019.