Before Thomas Jefferson penned in The Declaration of Independence, writing that we are endowed with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it was philosopher John Locke who believed “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
Indeed, private property rights are critical to a nation’s economic growth and prosperity. Whether or not a country has established private property rules is a key indicator in The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. But property rights also play an extremely important role in environmental protection and improvement.
When property rights cease to exist, people do not have the proper incentives to devote their own resources to protect and improve their land. In this instance, what’s referred to as the tragedy of the commons occurs. Think about your office refrigerator versus your fridge at home. Chances are one is much cleaner while the other is cluttered and has more rotting food. No one has any incentive to clean the fridge or they expect someone else to do it for him.
Furthermore, people are much more inclined to litter in a park than their own backyards. While this has environmental consequences of its own, the damage can occur on much larger levels. Overfishing, overgrazing, forest degradation are examples of overusing the earth’s resources when property rights are not clearly defined. (Tangentially, privatizing the ocean could be a possible solution to prevent pirate attacks.)
Moreover, no one is preventing environmental groups from purchasing land to protect it. In fact,
private property rights make it possible for environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited to protect habitat by purchasing land and establishing wildlife preserves.”
Having the federal government own the property is just as bad as no one owning it, if not worse. Take National Heritage Areas, for example. The process for forming a National Heritage Area (NHA) begins when an individual or group identifies a perceived historically significant property. “Historically significant property” is defined by the NPS as “a place designated by the U.S. Congress where natural, cultural, historic and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally-distinctive landscape … [to] tell nationally important stories about our nation,” so just about any parcel of land or long-standing structure could be touted as an intricate part of someone’s history and become eligible for federal subsidies.
National Park Service (NPS) advocates and staff have long complained about the lack of resources that Congress provides in comparison to its extensive responsibilities. Both the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service estimate that the cost of NPS’s maintenance backlog exceeds several billion dollars and is rising despite increased annual appropriations. Park attendance has been in decline in recent years, and camping in the parks has decreased, perhaps in part because of the functional obsolescence of campground facilities. Some of this decrease in recreational usage can be attributed to silly provisions such as bans on snowmobiles and ATVs, which significantly reduce tourism and hurt local economies.
Improving and protecting the environment is undoubtedly a good thing, but the best means to an end is establish and protect property rights and give the land back to the people.