Reviewed by Debra S. Emmelman, Department of Sociology, Southern Connecticut State University. Email: emmelmand1 [at] southernct.edu.
Should the wealth of nature be viewed as its value for the production of commodities or for its intrinsic worth? Should we permit market forces to determine the use and (hopefully) preservation of nature or should we rely on government to regulate these activities? According to the authors of this book, while these competing visions tend to predominate in policy discussions today, none are wholly correct or useful. Instead, it is time to consider how the visions and policies of the Old West (i.e., the commodity view) might be successfully blended with those of the New West (i.e., the amenity view).
In Chapter 1, Thomas Michael Power provides an overview of public policy regarding the regulation of natural resources in the U.S. He finds there are a number of instances when market mechanisms for managing natural wealth are unsuitable. Included here is environmental damage that is dispersed and not tied to commercial activities (e.g., air pollution caused by day-to-day living) as well as certain eco-services not produced through human agency or clearly understood (e.g., the production of naturally clean water). Popular opposition to privatizing the wealth of nature is also very strong and presents an obstacle to market-oriented approaches. On the other hand, Power perceives that public ownership and management of natural landscapes also has its problems. If not managed on the basis of bureaucratic inertia and pork-barrel politics, for example, management and use on a fee basis tends to result in service skewed toward the interests of clients rather than the preservation of biodiversity. On the whole, Power asserts that what is important is not whether the institutional framework for managing natural resources is public or private but instead whether the locus of control and the scale of the organization are appropriate for specific problems. He also cautions us to keep in mind that
Of what specifically might institutional innovation consist? In general, what is being advocated here is greater consideration of a “property rights approach.” As Terry Anderson explains in Chapter 2, [*101]
. . . collective arrangements, meaning citizens acting together, need not involve government ownership or control. Similarly, private arrangements need not mean commercialization. Nor does the deployment of marketlike instruments imply an acceptance of market outcomes no matter what they might be. Only our social imaginations limit the innovative institutional arrangements we can craft. We need creative entrepreneurs not only in the commercial sector but also in the private non-profit and government sectors (p.29).
In any case, crucial to the concept of property rights is restricting access and thereby preventing the “tragedy of the commons,” a situation whereby unlimited access results in overuse because users are competing among themselves for limited resources. In order to maximize the wealth of nature (no matter one’s viewpoint), Anderson argues that it is important to establish a willing buyer-willing seller situation instead of resorting to political reallocation that is typically costly, arduous, rife with conflict, and likely to result in zero or even negative-sum outcomes. Overall then, the objective of the property rights approach appears to be acknowledging that all the players in a game have something at stake, and that ultimately cooperation and the negotiation of settlements will result in outcomes that benefit everyone to at least some extent. In the remainder of the second chapter, Anderson shows that with the increasing intervention of state and national governments in resource allocation matters, local residents increasingly lose out. He concludes that one way to encourage institutional reform that promotes cooperation is to devolve decision making to levels where local actors have a greater stake in the outcome.
Property rights are best thought of as the “rules of the game,” which determine who has the right to use, access, and derive value from valuable assets. As such, property rights might be as formal as the title to your house or car or as informal as your right to hike in a forest. They might be very carefully delineated . . . restricted . . . or they might be defined by social norms and customs.
In Part II, Daniel Kemmis and Holly Lippke Fretwell discuss some possible methods for devolution. Kemmis begins by first examining two factors that he believes have contributed to the current policy debacle of public land management: the dynamic relationship between land tenure systems and political economy, and changes in democratic theory and practice. Both of these factors appear essentially to have resulted in diverse, conflicting, and largely insoluble expectations regarding property rights. As a possible way out of the debacle, Kemmis proposes a type of “diversified portfolio” of solutions. One part of this portfolio involves the creation of a commission to review public land law in an effort to understand the problems facing public land agencies. The second element involves incremental changes to the operating system in order to address systemic problems where the opportunities present themselves. The final element involves deliberate experimentation with new approaches to managing public land, the most promising of which is titled Region Seven. Region Seven is actually a virtual region that consists of a collection of experimental projects on national forest lands across the country and which would permit innovative solutions to be tested and evaluated. Following Kemmis, Fretwell shows us in Chapter 4 how public parks benefit when its management is decentralized, when the influence and cost of state and national politics are reduced, and when the power of the consumer who has a vested interest in seeing the park flourish is increased.
Part III of the book explores the property rights approach through specific examples. In Chapter 5, Anderson and Huggins examine the struggle over water rights in the Klamath Basin. They argue that the best approach to resolving this [*102] dispute is through the negotiation of property rights among all the interested local parties. In this manner, while no one will get everything they want, everyone will get something instead of wasting their time and resources fighting one another. Similarly, Leal considers in Chapter 6 how best to control the problem of over-fishing. Instead of state or federal stipulations of quotas, he makes the case that local multi-party involvement in negotiations of allocations (which may take such various forms as Individual Transferable Quotas, Private Harvesting Agreements, Territorial Fishing Rights, and Angling Management Organization) appears to work best because all fishers then perceive their vested interest in keeping the fish population healthy and at the same time are able to maintain the viability of their individual businesses.
Meiners and Morriss argue in Chapter 7 that the mining laws of the Old West were ideal in many ways because they encouraged individuals to expend substantial private resources in order to claim federal land and develop or safeguard it for future purposes. They maintain that the law did not go far enough, however, because it did not allow non-miners the same type of property rights. According to these authors, “Only when competing land uses have equal access to private title to land in the West will the incentive exist for entrepreneurs to design solutions that allow the peaceful coexistence of mining and tourism” (p.161).
Finally, in Chapter 8, Parker argues that the current system of tax incentives to acquire ownership or conservation easements through land trusts is flawed for two major reasons. First, it promotes corruption and abuse by property owners who seek tax breaks simply to increase profits. Second, rather than encouraging land trusts to uphold high standards of conservation it merely encourages them to compete among themselves for the acquisition of the most acreage. Parker also distinguishes a problem with perpetuity clauses because they mean that the assets cannot be easily extinguished and converted into cash to be reinvested in perhaps more beneficial conservation elsewhere. Although he proposes that reform of the tax code would help solve the problems, he believes that a matching grant program would work better by providing incentives for land trusts to uphold high standards as well as enabling local citizenry to participate in and actually see their tax dollars at work.
Various problems in measuring the wealth of nature are examined in Part IV. Hanssen begins the discussion by providing an overview and critique of the “wealth of nature” literature that largely contends unspoiled nature is a source of economic value in its own right. The problem, he states, is that these proponents do not adequately assess the comparative costs and benefits of preserving nature as opposed to extracting natural resources. Fitzgerald and Freeman follow up by assessing various methods of determining the economic value of nature and, although asserting that such calculations would be especially important and beneficial in today’s world, conclude that it is currently difficult if not impossible to do so. Johnson then presents evidence that states whose economies are based mostly on extractive industries do not actually perform any more poorly than others. Instead, the apparently slow economic growth of the former states is best explained by low population density [*103] that results in fewer jobs. The major point he wants to make here is that shifting from an extraction economy to one based on natural amenities will not necessarily or always result in greater wealth. Some localities, for example, are unlikely to attract viable alternatives. Finally, in Chapter 12, Haddock argues that government does not possess a monopoly when it comes to providing public goods. On the contrary, many private individuals contribute them either directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, he also carefully states that neither the property rights nor governmental approaches are perfectly suited to provide public goods and that sometimes it is necessary to draw upon government authority.
All in all, I believe the authors have presented a very convincing argument not only that there is a need for innovation in institutional frameworks for managing natural resources but also that a property rights approach may at times be the most feasible response. It is important to keep in mind that this affirmation is coming from someone who is generally quite skeptical of marketplace solutions to anything but maximizing profit. On the other hand, it is indubitable that our government has also failed to solve many of our problems. Thus, I applaud the wisdom of the authors’ contributions for the reasons described below.
First and foremost, these policy architects are careful not to condone an all-or-nothing approach to natural resource management. They view neither the government nor the marketplace as altogether equipped to solve environmental problems. In fact, they caution us to be open-minded in any case. Neither do they advocate a “one-size-fits-all” method for dealing with every situation. Instead, they acknowledge that every situation is unique and encourage us to be both creative and flexible, while at the same time not eschewing governmental authority and accountability when necessary. In essence, we should do “whatever works best” to preserve our environment.
Other than this, the authors provide us with numerous examples of how devolution and the property rights approach have been successfully employed in the past and afford us with suggestions for how certain methods might be successfully employed in the future. I was especially impressed with Daniel Kemmis’ proposal for a diversified portfolio of land management techniques, a portfolio that involves carefully monitored and responsible investigation, experimentation, and implementation of change. It is extremely difficult to scorn such a proposal when it poses a possible threat to so very little and yet holds the promise of increasing substantially the bounty of that which we already possess. Nonetheless, other contributors offer tantalizing alternatives as well.
There is a great deal more I could say about this book, but I instead encourage everyone who is concerned about environmental problems and policy to review it themselves. It is definitely an interesting, thought provoking, and worthwhile read. I would also recommend it for both undergraduate and graduate courses focusing on these matters.
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Debra S. Emmelman.