In The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don’t Want You to Know About–Because They Helped Cause Them by Iain Murray, one of the author’s arguments is that government land management has been a massive failure. In many ways, he is quite correct. The massive wild fires in the mid-west are largely the result of a failure to thin and correctly manage forest lands. The native Americans burned the forests regularly. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, the author cites journal entries that describe how the settlers on the New England coast watched the Indians gleefully dancing to the light of the burning trees, and whooping when pine sap exploded in a shower of sparks. They also describe the Eastern forests as park-like, with so much space between the trees that one could drive a carriage between them. The Americas before Columbus were highly managed lands, not untouched wilderness as we have been lead to believe.
Murray also cites Communism’s horrendous record in regard to environmental concerns, with the Aral Sea being justifiably held up as the worst example of mismanagement in the history of the species.
Another failure of government management, written about by Dan Daggett, former Earth First activist, has been exclusion zones. These are areas that have been set aside to recover from over-grazing. Of course over-grazing damages the landscape, but under-grazing is just as bad if not worse as these pictures of the Drake Exclosure demonstrate. Both exclusion zones, and forest management practices that lead to millions of acres of burned lands are fair arguments against governments dictating how land should – or in this case, should not – be used.
Murray blames government mismanagement on the “tragedy of the commons” and claims both that collective ownership is the reason for such failures, and that private ownership is the very best answer to land management. In general, it is fair to say that if someone owns land, that they will be motivated to treat it with respect and care so that it – or its inherent value – can be passed to future generations.
But Murray’s argument falls apart in the case of tribal lands. Where native American tribes have retained control of lands, and sufficient cultural cohesiveness to organize, they have collectively managed their tribal reservations to the benefit of both themselves and the environment. It is reasonable to speculate that collective management has worked for some native tribes because of the cultural cohesiveness mentioned earlier. These are also much smaller groups, that can focus their concerns in a way that provides the greatest return on their investment of time. An investment that generally means food for tribal members, which is critical in communities that are some of the poorest in the nation.
Murray does not cop to corporate environmental disasters, since the point of his book is to address the failures of the Liberal environmental movement. But such corporate mismanagement is actually a good argument for the tragedy of the commons. Corporations do not have respect and care for land as part of their primary mission. Their mission is to make money in the most efficient way possible. This often means using up resources and moving on. The owners of corporation are the stock holders, and they do not live on whatever land is held by the corporation. This gives them no investment in keeping that land productive and healthy.
I think it is fair to say that when it comes to good land management, private ownership is a good bet, as is collective management by small groups, probably not larger than a few thousand people. Individuals and small, local groups have more intimate knowledge of land needs, and the ability to act in creative and productive ways.