Natural Resources

This (Wet)Land is My Land

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My kind of environmentalist: Douglas Tompkins, the American founder of North Face and Esprit clothing is "trying to save the planet by buying bits of it." He has already bought "a huge swath of southern Chile, and now he's hoping to save the northeast wetlands of neighboring Argentina":

"The land conservation budget was burning a hole in our pocket," Tompkins said.

He bought a 120,000-acre ranch in 1998 and has increased his Argentine holdings to nearly 600,000 acres since then. He now owns well over 1 million acres in Chile and Argentina, a combined area about the size of Rhode Island….

Tompkins' Conservation Land Trust recently released its first anteater into the wild and wants to reintroduce otters and even jaguars….

Tompkins insists he'll eventually return the land to both governments to be preserved as nature reserves or parks, but will hold onto it for now "as a very good example of what private conservation can do."

Naturally, everyone has complaints. American imperialism, water access, trespass on ancestral lands, etc. But Tompkins's project is a great retort to people who say that the market doesn't address environmental concerns. It's true that things get more complicated when it comes to pollution and global warming. But just letting people buy land on an open market is ideally suited to efficient conservation efforts, despite the conspicuous lack of support from conventional environmental organizations. Of course, an open market isn't always available. Despite previous courting of Tompkins by the Argentine government,

This month lawmakers in Corrientes province, where the wetlands are located, modified the local constitution to block foreigners from buying land considered a strategic resource. The law appeared to target any new attempts by Tompkins to increase his holdings.

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  1. Why do all things end up being the size of Rhode Island?

    Anyhow, great idea, until the next inevitable strongman does the coup thing and steals the property right back. Maybe Tompkins should get a head start and plant the bananas now.*

    *It’s a metaphor.

  2. hmmm…

    Maybe this guy can be instrumental in Urkobold’s? Operation Agave Freedom.

  3. “Tompkins insists he’ll eventually return the land to both governments to be preserved as nature reserves or parks, but will hold onto it for now “as a very good example of what private conservation can do.”

    And the tax money lost when the governments get the land, how will that be made up?
    It has got to come from somewhere and it won’t be cuts in government spending either.
    No hero is this guy. Just another fool who has mistaken good fortune for good brians.

  4. make that “good brains.” Not good brians.
    Sorry about that.

  5. AFAICT, this is not a free market solution, but rather a rich guy being altruistic.

  6. de stijl,

    Still a free market solution of a sort: Guy makes lots of money and is free to purchase land for whatever purpose he wants.

  7. AFAICT, this is not a free market solution, but rather a rich guy being altruistic.

    where did you come up with that line of BS? mr. tompkins voluntarily purchased property from a willing seller. they found a mutually-agreed on price and the transaction was completed. it doesn’t get much more free market with that…

  8. This is a free market solution in the sense that it keeps land from being a “commons” or government owned. But environmental preservation is not something that you would expect to see from a free market situation. Free markets maximize private wealth in the absence of externalities, etc. I am with de stijl that this is a rich man’s hobby purchase. KMW says that this private purchase is “ideally suited for efficient conservation efforts.” I dare her to find one economist who understands the term “efficiency” who agrees that this is an ideal conservation strategy to achieve efficiency.

  9. It is free market of course but it could also be a case where the market fails. Perhpas the residents of that area would benifit more by putting the lang to productive use. Of course, they cannot compete with the deep pockets of rich, altruistic Americans. Yes, of course the market says that if the rich Americans value the land as a private nature preserve more than the people who live there value it as productive land, the American gets it.

    We used to have a system where rich people owned huge areas of land that they held as nature or hunting preserves. Then the rich people even had a Royal Forester who was empowered to hang anyone who took so much as a stick of firewood from the preserve. The system was of course feudalism.

    In limited circumstances this kind of thing can be great. Taken too its extreme, we will end up with rich do gooder Westerners owning huge tracts of land at the expense of the local inhabitants. I can’t see that as a net positive.

  10. John, I think Yanqui would be expropriated long before it got to that point.

    BTW, back in my day, we called ’em “malarial swamps” rather than “wetlands.”

  11. I would disagree… the essence of the free market is “voluntary exchange.” The ultimate use of the goods or services is up to the individual’s definition of “efficiency.” If that were not the case, most of us who do not open a business in our home are not participating in the free market. My home could be put to far more “efficient” uses than “just being” my primary residence. I forego large amounts of income by not using my acreage in more profit-maximizing ways. I am not “maximizing my [material] wealth by only spending 10 hours a day there. But, I would argue I am in the thick of the free market by being a home owner, having found a mutually-agreed upon price with the seller in the absence of government coercion.

    And, “maximizing wealth” is a fairly subjective term. I would argue the “pop culture” perspective on the free market looks only at profits, which eliminates the intangible benefits of voluntary exchange and property ownership. I don’t open a business at home because there are intangibles that make not doing so much more “efficient.” I could make an obscene amount of money by selling my acreage to developers but I don’t because the mountain views are worth far more to me than looking in someone else’s window.

    And, after checking, most of the economics textbooks on my shelf emphasize the preeminence of “voluntary exchange” over all else when it comes to the free market.

  12. K.T.

    In an absolute sense the rich person who buys a large track of land to keep it from being turned into a copper mine is “maximizing wealth” because he is values the land more than the copper mining company does. He is basically maximizing his wealth and his pleasure. The people of local town, if given a choice very well may value the copper mine and the jobs that go with it more than the do the natural value of the land. Those people are screwed under this scenerio. Somehow, I don’t think telling them that “wealth has been maximized” because Ted Turner or some rich western leftist is getting so much pleasure from the land remaining pure is really going to feed to bulldog with them.

  13. John,
    Do you apply your same “people screwed” theory to individuals who purchase land of less extensive size but still more than they “need”?

    I am head of a two person household. We “need” a 1200sqft house to store all our junk. I want to build this house on 20 acres of land, an area that you could squeeze 100 such houses on to, and leave the majority of it undeveloped. I like trees and don’t want to see my neighbors. At what point does my purchase stop being “free market” and start “screwing people”, 2 acres, 20 acres, 200 acres, 200,000 acres?

    And what of the use of the land in question? It seems to me that your objection is not that 120,000 acres just changed hands, but that it went from being a privately owned farm to a privately owned “wilderness” and that it was purchased by a “rich western leftist”.

  14. Kwix,

    As I said above, in small doses, there is nothing wrong with this kind of thing. The problem is that you could easily see it spinning out of control. You could have a situtation where large areas of entire countries are held in trust by rich western do gooders at the expense of the locals.

    To answer your question, when does your purchase start scrweing people, when it gets to the point that large numbers of people are deprived of making a productive living by your ownership. Let me ask you this, what if the clowns that run google got together with Bill Gates and bought a large section of some poor African country and evicted all of the residents and turned into a private hunting preserve, would you think that would be in anyway fair or just to the people who lived in that country? I don’t.

  15. Taken too its extreme, we will end up with rich do gooder Westerners owning huge tracts of land at the expense of the local inhabitants.

    It doesn’t have to be taken to its extreme. Even at its most basic level, the explicit reason he’s buying it is so that the locals can’t get their hands on it.

  16. “But just letting people buy land on an open market is ideally suited to efficient conservation efforts, despite the conspicuous lack of support from conventional environmental organizations.”

    Um, what? Conventional environmental organizations buy tons of land.

  17. At what point does my purchase stop being “free market” and start “screwing people”, 2 acres, 20 acres, 200 acres, 200,000 acres?

    At that point where you stop purchasing the land because you want to use it, and start purchasing it because you don’t want anybody else to get any.

    This has been another edition of easy answers to needlessly complex questions.

  18. It’s only the free market if you use the land the way neil wants you to.

  19. There seems to be some kind of weird and scary left/right convergence among the naysayers here: private property and wilderness, both bad.
    So are you naysayers arguing that it would be better for the government to simply expropriate the land for a wilderness preserve than for some rich guy to buy it? Or that there should be no preserves at all?

    I, for one, give the bulk of my charitable contributions to the Nature Conservancy. Despite some missteps, their policy is to buy land only from willing sellers. I don’t like the fact that they then turn over most of that preserved land to governments, but at least the land wasn’t bought with tax dollars or condemned and expropriated.
    I like undeveloped parkland, but of course don’t want to force my views on others. But buying land in the free market, even land in Rhode Island-sized chunks, isn’t force.

  20. Let me ask you this, what if the clowns that run google got together with Bill Gates and bought a large section of some poor African country and evicted all of the residents and turned into a private hunting preserve, would you think that would be in anyway fair or just to the people who lived in that country?

    John,
    You are propping up strawmen again. Mr. Tompkins did not “evict” anybody. He purchased privately held land from people willing to sell it, most of which was either untouched wilderness or farmed tracts.

    If Bill Gates & Co. want to purchase large tracts of land in Africa or Iowa from willing sellers and convert them from farmland into hunting preserves he is welcome to do so.

  21. This was, of course, the basis for Henry George’s single tax on land theory that he plugged in Progress and Poverty 125 years ago. He wanted to eliminate all other taxes and only tax land, in part because it would make it expensive for recreational rich types to hoard and not use. The high taxes would force it to be used for its highest economic use in order to cover the taxes. All taxes were to be assessed on the land value only, not on any capital improvements that people added. Interesting, but not my cup of tea.

  22. Taken too its extreme, we will end up with rich do gooder Westerners owning huge tracts of land at the expense of the local inhabitants.

    Since when is purchasing land from a willing seller doing anything “at the expense of local inhabitants.”

    And will you still be complaining when the land transfers to the state? Because here in the US, complaining about the enormous tracts of land owned by the feds out west is seen as very fringey libertarian militia kind of stuff.

  23. At that point where you stop purchasing the land because you want to use it, and start purchasing it because you don’t want anybody else to get any.

    This has been another edition of easy answers to needlessly complex questions.

    Did you miss the part of my question where I stated:

    I want to build this house on 20 acres of land, an area that you could squeeze 100 such houses on to, and leave the majority of it undeveloped. I like trees and don’t want to see my neighbors.

    Are you arguing that because I will not be “using” the land I should not be allowed to own it?

  24. This is absolutely fascinating to watch.

  25. I’ll bet that there are places in this world where farmers wish they had sufficiently secure title that they could sell their land to a rich do-gooder. Some of them would probably love to quit subsistence farming, get a check from a rich do-gooder, and move to a city to try for a better life in a more advanced economy.

    A lot of Chinese farmers are pissed that it’s illegal for them to leave their villages. Others are pissed that their land is being taken and given to developers. Both would probably love to sell to a rich do-gooder and use the money to build a better life elsewhere.

  26. *passes joe another bier.
    agreed
    ** watches. waits. ponders

  27. Wait, what if they buy so much land that an entire country winds up moving somewhere else?

    Then we can make this an immigration thread.

    In which case I agree with MikeP.

  28. I’ll bet that there are places in this world where farmers wish they had sufficiently secure title that they could sell their land to a rich do-gooder.

    Bingo. Chile and Argentina ain’t exactly topping the list. Mr. Tompkins nature preserves will stay natural right up until someone wants to develop them. At which point, they’ll be nationalized. Still I applaud his efforts.

  29. Warren is exactly right about the nationalization part. I think the countries like Argintina or Chile or the US for that matter are perfectly within their rights to tell rich people who want to buy large tracks of land to leave dormant, fuck you sell it to someone who will put it to use. The common law recognizes the need to put land into the hands of those who will put it to productive use through the rule against perpetuities. The rule against perpetuities was not just about sticking it to the rich. It was about preventing rich people from owning land and taking it out of production for generations for their own vanity at the expense of the rest of society. The problem with a non-prophet like the nature conservancy is that it never dies so the land stays stuck in unproductive use forever.

    The day is not far off, if it hasn’t gotten here already, where people pay higher prices for commodities and have a lower standard of living because rich foundations and do gooder individuals have taken so much land and natural resources out of production. Rich leftists buying land and driving up the price of commodities at everyone else’s expense in the name of vanity purchases, may be the market “working” in the strictest sense, but it is not the market working most efficiently or for the common good.

  30. yeah, I hate the way unused land just sits there, not doing anything to benefit the economy, just producing oxygen and filtering water to refill the aquifer. for free!

  31. I’m guessing the Nature Conservancy managed to only buy surface rights for large tracts of land purchased in the Western U.S., and not the mineral rights as well.

  32. Expect IHS students to be shown this example for the next 30 years.

  33. It’s about time someone decided to quit lobbying the government to illegaly sieze land and force environmental restrictions on how people use their land and do something themselves. This to me is a breath of fresh air. (No pun intended) Maybe the ‘Goreites’ should learn some lessons. Someone could start a Non-for profit to buy land for environmental preservation instead of whining to the government to forcefully take my money through taxes at gunpoint.

  34. Are you arguing that because I will not be “using” the land I should not be allowed to own it?

    It’s a bit late now, I guess, but no, what I said was, your purchase starts being a method of screwing people at the point where you start buying the land not because you want to use it (note I didn’t say develop on it) but because you simply want to prevent other people from buying it.

    I also said nothing about whether you should be prohibited from buying land to screw people.

  35. Also, I question why everybody assumed I meant he was screwing the people who were selling to him. Obviously this isn’t the case, since they entered into their transactions voluntarily and it’s not reasonable to assume they were tricked into making a short-sighted decision.

    No, the people who it screws are the other potential land customers in the area who have had prices driven up, probably out of their range, not by normal market demand but by one single rich person who has decided to make it his altruistic mission to sacrifice his wealth in order bring land prices out of the reach of the people who live where the land is.

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