Free Markets

Environmentalists Would Buy the Land They Want To Protect, if The Government Allowed It

"By excluding environmental groups, we get a distorted picture about the value of our natural resources,” says Shawn Regan of the Property and Environment Research Center.


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On balance, government regulation of public land in the Western United States doesn't protect the environment from industry. It protects industry from having to compete in the free market.

"Why can't environmentalists acquire the land that they want to preserve? Often, because it's illegal," explains Shawn Regan, vice president of research at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which is a leading advocacy group in the free market environmentalist movement. He says preservation groups are often willing to compete with industry on a level playing field.

"Increasingly, environmental groups are frustrated with the regulatory approach to environmentalism….They are looking for ways to use markets, to use property rights, to use voluntary exchange, to essentially get what they want, which is preserving natural amenities, conserving wildlife and open space."

"In the case of public lands, we see groups trying to acquire ranchers' grazing permits. We see groups trying to buy federal energy leases to keep the resources in the ground. We even see groups trying to bid for timber leases, but to keep the trees standing rather than harvesting them," Regan explains. But in many cases, rules governing how land must be used limit what environmentalist groups can do.

"Too often, natural resource management is biased toward resource extraction because rules that were created in the 19th century essentially require rights holders to harvest, extract, or graze the resource rather than to conserve it," says Regan. "By excluding environmental groups," Regan says, "we get a distorted picture about the value of our natural resources."

Regan says that in a free market, the highest bidders should win—even if their intention is to leave the land untouched.

"The point is not that resource extraction is bad," explains Regan. "It's not that extracting energy is fundamentally wrong or harvesting timber is fundamentally wrong. We all live in a house that's likely made of wood….But rather, it's that environmental values are real and they are legitimate. We need to find ways to allow for those values to be expressed through markets, and through voluntary exchange."

Produced by Meredith Bragg.