As fellow contributor Robinson BeShears concluded in her excellent piece last week, the Bundy Ranch standoff shows us what happens when an individual dares to defy the federal government. But I think the incident is, more importantly, a case for free-market, decentralized solutions to environmental and wildlife conservation issues.
Cliven Bundy’s obstinacy can be viewed as a response to command-and-control, bureaucratic efforts to stymie and reverse technological and commercial impacts on wildlife (the Sagebrush Rebellion was a similar response to federal control). More specifically, a response to the lack of more robust private-property rights, voluntary contracts, and economic incentives.
The relevant element of the story is the Endangered Species Act violation (involving the desert tortoise). According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Bureau of Land Management failed to monitor and report threats posed by illegal cattle-grazing (Bundy is cited as the most egregious violator, who also owes the bureau an excess of $1 million in grazing-rights fees, penalties, and interest).
Species endangerment and natural resource depletion is a classic Tragedy of the Commons problem. Unfettered, public access and use (by ranchers and non-ranchers) fosters over-exploitation and depletion of land and wildlife habitats—including the decline of the desert tortoise. But, as you can see, and as in the Tragedy of the Commons problem, the problem here is public land.
More extensive privatization of lands and habitats would likely limit access and use of those lands and mitigate these problems—precisely because the owner (e.g. companies, small organizations, or individuals) would charge for the privilege to hunt exotic game, fish, plant or harvest on his or her land. This is just one example of private management that can effectively facilitate responsible stewardship of land and natural resources.
As Richard L. Stroup argues, private ventures would be more effective, since markets require that “rights to each important resource must be clearly defined, easily defended against invasion, and divestible (transferable) by owners on terms agreeable to buyer and seller.”
In a private venture, an individual or private organization would be entrusted, by the ranchers, with the responsibility of creating and preserving a sanctuary for desert tortoise in Nevada’s Gold Butte area. Individuals and private organizations would have the latitude to work out a mutually beneficial, contractual arrangement with Clive Bundy, and other ranchers that would allow continued grazing (regardless of ancestral, homesteading claims).
The ranchers should be able to initiate and determine the terms of the contract. Likewise for the individuals or private organizations that are concerned with the preservation of endangered species. Such contracts should be entered into voluntarily. I acknowledge that this is an optimal arrangement, not the reality.
Even within non-optimal state-of-affairs, wildlife conservation and private property rights are not mutually exclusive. And it is not the case that all current forms of regulation greatly diminish or discount private property rights or neglect the needs of owners. For example, Conservation Easement programs seem to illustrate one cost-effective way in which particular demands—as articulated by individual, private landowners—can be reconciled with wildlife conservation efforts. Although, the programs rely on tax-advantages and neither strengthen private property rights nor more fully employ economic incentives they seem less likely to put landowners at loggerheads with state or federal agencies.
The symbolism of Clive Bundy’s confrontation with the feds is certainly the most compelling facet of the event. But we should look at the factors that culminated into the standoff: diminishing private property rights and voluntary contracts in the name of ill-conceived, but well-intentioned, command-control solutions to environmental and wildlife endangerment.
I agree with Reed Watson that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that private property rights and economic freedom are antithetical to environmental quality (or wildlife preservation). The Bundy Ranch standoff is a consequence of this notion, translated into action.