Hard Times in the Land of Plenty?


America's Renewable Resources: Historical Trends and Current Challenges, edited by Kenneth Frederick and Roger Sedjo, Washington: Resources for the Future, 296 pages, $34.95/$19.95 paper

American forests are rapidly shrinking before the onslaught of clear-cutting corporations; irreplaceable topsoil is eroding away at alarming rates due to heedless exploitation; the remnants of America's once-abundant wildlife are on the verge of extinction; ranchers are overgrazing the West's fragile rangelands, turning them into an American version of the Sahel; our cities will soon die of thirst as we run out of fresh water. All true statements, right? Wrong!

In fact, America's renewable-resources situation has improved dramatically since World War II. But because of all the misinformation peddled by leading environmental organizations and the mainstream press, most Americans believe that they live in the midst of accelerating environmental decline.

Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank, has published a valuable corrective to the conventional wisdom of doom that pervades our national discussion of natural resource and environmental issues. The book, America's Renewable Resources: Historical Trends and Current Challenges, also points out how the provision of secure private property rights significantly contributes to improved resource protection and management.

The best news is about our forests. "By most criteria, U.S. forests are in excellent condition," argues Roger Sedjo, head of RFF's Forest Economics and Policy Program.

Since 1920 U.S. forests have expanded from 600 million acres to 728 million acres. Why did this happen? Prices.

Millions of acres of farmland abandoned because of advances in agricultural productivity and the elimination of pastures used to feed draft animals have returned to forests. Higher real prices of timber also led to the development of new methods for harvesting and preserving wood. By 1950, improvements in wildfire control made plantation forestry economically attractive. Now forest area in New England, the South, and the Great Lake states is substantially greater than it was in the mid-19th century.

Forest regrowth took place while the U.S. population doubled and GNP increased sixfold, undercutting the conventional view that increased population and economic growth must lead inexorably to the destruction of a natural resource base.

Claims by such alarmists as the Worldwatch Institute's Lester Brown that the United States is losing its precious topsoil also turn out to be exaggerated. The assertion that for every ton of wheat harvested three tons of topsoil are lost aired last year on the public television series Land of the Eagle. It's not true.

The "topsoil crisis" has deep historical roots. In 1928, a U.S. Department of Agriculture bureaucrat, Hugh Hammond Bennett, published an apocalyptic tract declaring that tens of millions of acres of cropland were "devastated" and "totally destroyed" by erosion. Eventually, as chief of the new Soil Conservation Service, Bennett claimed almost half of the United States' 415 million acres of cropland were severely eroded.

"It may be accepted that over the past fifty years the threat of erosion to permanent losses of soil productivity was never as great as many people claimed," concludes RFF soil expert Pierre Crosson. He points out that U.S. crop productivity would be much lower if soil erosion rates were as bad as claimed. In addition, since plant roots are the main source of organic material in soils, modern high-yield crops, with their greater quantity of roots, may actually restore productivity.

And what does it mean to say that eroded soil is "lost"? The National Research Council says the practice of using erosion estimates as measures of "soil loss" is wrong. Soil is moved or displaced—it isn't lost. Soil that leaves one farm is far more likely to end up on another farm than to flow to the ocean.

Crosson contends that "present rates of erosion throughout most of the next century would pose no serious threat to the productivity of the nation's soils." He estimates that even with no improvements in agricultural technology crop yields would drop by a minuscule 2 percent over the next century. Some crisis, huh?

And who hasn't heard that due to suburbanization we are losing prime cropland? This farm-conversion crisis started in 1977 with a badly done federal government survey that claimed the United States was losing nearly 3 million acres per year to development. Later studies showed perhaps 30 million acres of the country's 570 million acres of farmland would be converted by the year 2030.

"Twenty-five years hence game in North America in the wild state will have ceased to exist," predicted a leading naturalist in 1904. The turnaround in the fortunes of wildlife resulted from the elimination of government bounties on many species, the renewal of the forests, and the effective legal protection of animal species in the wildlife commons.

The numbers of wild geese, trumpeter swans, wild turkeys, egrets, and white herons are growing. Pronghorn antelope have increased from a low of 13,000 to more than 1 million; white-tail deer are up from 350,000 to more than 20 million, making them more numerous than ever before; the elk herd has grown from 41,000 to more than 1 million; wild bison have multiplied from 800 to 6,000; northern fur seals have increased from 215,000 to 1.5 million; sea otters have returned to their historic ranges; and beavers are now more numerous than ever before.

Rangeland expert Marion Clawson says that "on the whole western rangeland is in better condition today than at any time during the twentieth century." Agricultural economist Delworth Gardner notes that "the environmental community has strongly condemned overgrazing, although it has never produced convincing proof that overgrazing is creating deteriorating range conditions." Experts expect forage production on rangeland to increase 47 percent by the year 2040.

Supplies of fresh water aren't a problem, but water misallocation is a problem, especially in the West. Irrigated farms consume more than 90 percent of the water in the West and, on average, the federal government subsidizes 80 percent of the construction costs of irrigation projects. Regarding groundwater, RFF Renewable Resource Director Kenneth Frederick writes, "Economic factors will reduce and then eliminate groundwater mining long before the water in an aquifer is exhausted." Farmers respond to incentives like anyone else. Once it costs too much to pump water from a declining aquifer, the land is no longer irrigated.

U.S. surface-water quality deteriorated until the 1960s, when pollution-control measures began to improve the situation. Today, 72 percent to 95 percent of America's lakes, rivers, and estuaries are fishable and swimmable.

To correct misallocation, Frederick recommends marketing secure and transferable property rights to water. He also argues that marketable discharge permits would encourage the development of new, cost-effective pollution-control technologies.

Filled with high-quality information and thoughtful analysis, this book is a good antidote to orthodox environmental doomsaying.

Ronald Bailey, currently at the Cato Institute, is writing a book on apocalyptic environmentalism for St. Martin's Press.