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Bush vs. the Sagebrush Solution:

Some environmentalists would rather pay ranchers to give up ranching than try and regulate or litigate them out of existence. As John Tierney explains in today's NYT, groups like the Grand Canyon Trust want to purchase and retire grazing permits owned by ranchers. It's a win-win approach to environmental protection, as environmetnalists get what they want (less grazing on federal lands) and ranchers get what they want (compensation for selling their rights). Alas, the Bush Administration is standing in the way.

If the Bush folks wonder why they have such a bad environmental reputation, policies like this are part of the reason why. Here is an environmental policy that is wholly consistent with the conservative principles of property rights and voluntary market exchange. Yet the administration still opposes it. I think the Bush Administration's environmental policies are often subject to unwarranted criticisms, but cases likes this make the administration hard to defend.

Note: Then-Interior solicitor WIlliam Myers III was partially responsible for this sorry policy. This is one of the reasons I criticized his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last year.

Ziggy Marley (mail):
Gotta love government. Two sides to a dispute, they settle the dispute amicably without gubmint, but gubmint steps in anyway and declares itself necessary.

Eugene Volokh for President!
7.26.2005 6:37pm
Justice Fuller:
Good post.
7.26.2005 7:03pm
Steve:
Am I wrong to view this as a Posnerian solution?
7.26.2005 7:09pm
james (mail):
Land left to fallow has less value than land properly in use. The environmental groups will make out. The only other beneficiary is the rancher who sells the grazing rights. All groups who benefit from subsidized ranching (in the form of grazing rights on federal land) lose out. The average citizen is left with unused open land in areas of the country very few people ever want to see.
7.26.2005 7:14pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Land left to fallow has less value than land properly in use.

If that were the case, then why wouldn't someone outbid the environmental groups for the permits?
7.26.2005 7:16pm
Anonymous:
Sorry, but there doesn't seem to be a problem with the administration's policy. This isn't about the ranchers' rights to dispose of their own land, it's about whether they can dispose of a government-issued permit to graze their cattle on government land. Government-imposed conditions on transfer of permits it issues are the rule, rather than the exception. There's no reason why the government should delegate to environmentalist organizations the government's power to determine the use of government land, even if the EOs are willing to pay.
7.26.2005 7:34pm
JohnAnnArbor:
Isn't this like the Nature Conservancy buying land at market values, then leaving it undeveloped? If not, why not?
7.26.2005 8:18pm
John Jenkins (mail):
I don't think that's right. Why can't someone purchase a grazing permit and then not graze. What if a rancher loses all of his cattle to a bank? If there is a clear policy of the government revoking permits that people are not using, that's one thing. If the government just does it to appease the interest of industrial farming and ranching, that's something different and likely a violation of due process (denying the environmetal organization its right to the permit without due process of law, or even taking personal property without due process).

Unless there are clear ex ante restrictions on transfer, this is just a naked exercise of power by the government and whomever came up with it ought to be ashamed.
7.26.2005 8:19pm
trotsky (mail):
Consider a similar situation dealing with water instead of land. In most dry Western states, otherwise ironclad water rights can be forfeited if the water is not put to beneficial use. Buying up a water right to let it lie fallow (so to speak) could easily lead to forfeiture under the theory that no beneficial use is being made of the water.

What's so different about grass growing on the public range? Use it or lose it.

In practice, though, the policy is bone-headed.
7.26.2005 9:58pm
jgshapiro (mail):
This isn't about the ranchers' rights to dispose of their own land, it's about whether they can dispose of a government-issued permit to graze their cattle on government land. . . There's no reason why the government should delegate to environmentalist organizations the government's power to determine the use of government land, even if the EOs are willing to pay.

Sure there is. The government has said that the value of the ranching is low (hence the low ranching fees for the permit). The environmentalists have essentially said the value of the land lying fallow is higher, by bidding more for the permit than the ranchers would make by ranching. This is the market putting the permitted land to highest use, *unless* . . . the permits are underpriced (which is what many have been arguing since this dispute started).

So this is really the environmentalists calling the government's bluff. If the government thinks the land is worth more as a result of more ranching than the market price for the permits, then they should raise the price of the permits accordingly. If not, the government should give up their central planning frame of reference and let the market settle this dispute.

However, leaving the price low and still refusing to let the permits be transferred for more money makes no sense to me at all.
7.26.2005 10:41pm
jgshapiro (mail):
Trotsky:

Buying up a water right to let it lie fallow (so to speak) could easily lead to forfeiture under the theory that no beneficial use is being made of the water.

Doesn't this beg the question of what is a beneficial use? The EO's undoubtedly think that leaving the environment unspoiled is beneficial, even if the Bush administration doesn't. This beneficial use is still using the land or the resource, even if it is not used in the sense of being spent.
7.26.2005 10:50pm
Byomtov (mail):
You seem to be unde the delusion that the Bush administration has principles.
7.26.2005 10:55pm
Drewsil (mail):
As a matter of law I think its pretty clear that the government can just sell more permits for grazing to replace the retired ones. As a matter of policy though its just idiotic. The only way to justify the government intervention is to admit that the government is actively involved in misallocating resources. Of course this is obvious to even the most casual observer, but usually there is at least some pretense on which they do this. Here that pretense boils down to we like people A better than people B.

Wait never mind I just recalled the Kelo decision, it seems that promoting group A over group B is now a valid government function.
7.27.2005 3:02am
Public_Defender:
Maybe we're missing an obvious solution. How much grazing must be done to keep a permit? If the answer is "only a little," let the Grand Canyon Trust take a cow to each parcel of land once a year for an hour. Then they can say, "See, we're using it for grazing just like you told us to."

It's good that a lot of libertarians are criticizing this Bush Administration policy, but this story also explains why we liberals think that many conservatives (as opposed to libertarians) are anti-environment, not just pro-property rights.

Conservatives strenghthen the perception that they are anti-environment by arguing that natural open spaces are "fallow" land.

Does every piece of land have to have a house, a cow, a mine or an oil rig?
7.27.2005 9:31am
Public_Defender:
After reading my last post, I realized the last sentence should have been:


Must the federal government ensure that every piece of land has a house, a cow, a mine or an oil rig?
7.27.2005 9:39am
james (mail):
Does the purchase of grazing rights represent a one time purchase or an annual purchase? Currently, grazing rights represent an annual good, in the form of cheaper beef prices, to the hamburger eating citizens. An annual purchase of grazing rights might provide a greater financial benefit to citizens. A one time purchase of grazing rights will not provide the same long term benefit. As it is public land, the best use is not determined by either the rancher or the EO but by the benefit to the general populous.
7.27.2005 11:45am
Public_Defender:
It's ironic that some of the same people who complain about the government taking their land without fair compensation (or even with fair compensation) want to take government land at subsidized prices (by excluding higher bidders who want to leave the land alone).

Part of the problem here is that many westerners believe that federal land in the west belongs to westerners. But they're wrong. A bus boy in New York City is as much an owner of western federal land as the person living next to the land.

Please note the use of the words "some" and "many." I realize I'm painting with a broad brush.
7.27.2005 12:19pm
Stan Bussey (mail):
I don't know what agency is involved, but most federal land management agencies have a legal obligation to maximize income from federal land. Additionally, a grazing permit only covers grazing. We, the people, ordinarily have a right to enter any of that land to hunt, exercise our dogs, look for pretty rocks, get firewood, camp, or practice the bagpipes. Depending on the agency and the land, special use permits may be required for some of these activities.
7.27.2005 2:13pm
DR:
The price of hamburgers is decided by supply and demand, right? I can see how this agreement might marginally decrease the supply, but I can't see how it is going to make any dents in the price of beef.
7.27.2005 3:00pm
Challenge:
The true libertarian solutution would be to SELL the land and get the government out of the management business. But, then, the "environmentalists" WANT the land under government control. They just want to be able to tell the government what to do with it, which is apparently nothing.

I think it's a fair principle for federal lands to be used productively in a sustainable way (and sometimes even in an unsustainable way). I guess I don't understand why grazing is seen as bad by environmentalist groups, nor do I see why some feel they are entitled to it. Do environmentalists really want a precedent where they highest bidder wins? They'd lose every time.
7.27.2005 3:16pm
Public_Defender:

"Do environmentalists really want a precedent where they highest bidder wins? They'd lose every time."

Not every time. That's what has the Bush administration in a bind. Their motto appears to be, "The Market is great, as long as it does what we want."
7.27.2005 4:20pm
DJK:
Public Defender is, I suspect, an easterner, or urbanite with little understanding of public lands in the west. While I think the Bush policy is wrong for reasons of economics and an anti-central planning mindset, I come from a ranching family in Arizona, and also understand the very real fear that many rural people feel when money from cities comes in to buy up grazing rights. It isn't just the cattle on the public land that go away; entire towns can disappear as ranching in the surrounding area is repalced with . . . well, nothing of material economic or social value for the local community.

Public Defender implies that the views and interests of a bus boy in New York have equal weight in this matter to a person who "lives next to" rangeland. Would he think that a rancher in Arizona should have as much say over central park as the bus boy? Yes I know that park is owned by the city of NY, but out west the land is owned by the feds (see this map to get a picture of how different things are across the country: www.blm.gov/natacq/pls04/minerals_l48_plss.pdf ).

Suppose a coalition of rich patriots from fly-over-land thinks the Mall in DC is defiled by softball games. They buy all the leases to the softball diamonds from the softball league managers (who use the money to move their games to Reston, VA), and they require that the softball diamonds sit unused for anything but walking across. Should we care that developed softball facilities are lying fallow? Should the good people of DC have no more say in the matter than a housewife in Utah?
7.27.2005 4:33pm
agesilaus:
Well to be really obscure, there were 14 Presidents during the Articles of Confederation period. I assume quite a few were still alive during Washingtons term of office.
7.27.2005 5:01pm
Public_Defender:
DJK reflects the problem I see in many westerners' attitude toward federal land. Unfortunately, many westerner's have gambled their economic livelihood by making their businesses dependent on access to other people's property. They assume they will be able to rent land to graze their cattle (or rent/buy grazing rights). But it's not their land.

Conservatives complain when liberals use non-market methods to restrict developers from converting farm land into residential developments. How is that different than using non-economic methods to restrict environmental groups from converting grazing lands into wilderness preserves?

The Mall is an inapt example. Even many of the most ardent conservatives/libertarians argue it's unique (that's why some WWII veterans insisted on building a monument there). But, if we're going to auction the space to the highest bidder, I think it would be fine for someone to buy the softball fields and not play softball there.

I can see giving a stronger voice to residents who live near federal land. But from what I hear, the westerners want unfettered control (for example, the push to let locals unilaterally decide about logging roads in federal forests). I remember hearing Alaska politicians complaining that the federal government had the audacity to exert control over federal land in that state.

The complaints of many westerners remind me of someone in my area who had an empty lot next to his house. It was just grass. He mowed it, took care of it, and enjoyed it as an extension of his yard. Then he got upset when someone bought it and wanted to put a house there. But it wasn't his land.

If someone is willing to pay the government more to do nothing with government land than to graze on it, then fine. If we are putting land rights on the market, we should extract the highest price. If we don't, we're just giving subsidies to the ranchers.
7.27.2005 5:10pm
james (mail):
There are all sorts of hypocrisies in politics. Ranchers are against welfare until it comes to grazing rights. Environmentalists are for green energy until someone tries to build a wind farm or hydroelectric plant. If we try to resolve the inconsistencies first, nothing will get done.

It is hard to imagine how a single one time purchase is going to provide the government with greater revenue compared with continual use of the land. The government gets paid on the back end by every individual employed in the use of the land. How is non use of land going to result in a better return? It is not like it contributes to the GDP.
7.27.2005 6:01pm
Public_Defender:

It is hard to imagine how a single one time purchase is going to provide the government with greater revenue compared with continual use of the land. The government gets paid on the back end by every individual employed in the use of the land. How is non use of land going to result in a better return? It is not like it contributes to the GDP.

If the market determines the purchase price, the government will get the same value whether it rents or sells grazing rights, or rents or sells the land.

The GDP argument is speculative. Some people like green space, and apparently, they're willing to pay their own money for that space. Since this is private money, someone had to produce something to generate the money (adding more to the GDP in the process).

If the environmentalists are willing to pay more than the ranchers, that means the environmentalists had to have generated more economic value than the ranchers think grazing will generate.
7.27.2005 6:32pm
DJK:
Public Defender, I really am not sure what attitude you think I exhibit that is a problem. You concede that local residents might deserve a 'stronger voice,' but seem to ignore the fact that I stated that I disagreed with the Bush policy (and while I didn't say so explicitly, I think we ought to move to a much more market based system that includes both outright sales of federal land, and non-use by the highest bidder).

So I largely agree with your position, but find your haughtyness annoying. Yes, some people have extreme views of their rights over federal land (like the Alaska example I think you refer to), but in general there is a real problem with the way federal lands are administered. The example you cite of control over logging raods is a good example. I think you have been misled about what that means. Often, forest roads are the only way to get to private land and have been used since the time the private land was homesteaded. Yes, local owners sometimes 'expect' that they can 'control' the road to the extent that they think the government can't shut them out from their private property. If all the landowners were private this would simply be a matter of establishing an implied easement, easement of necessity or prescriptive easement. Since the owner of the land across which the road runs is the government, the locals can't establish such easements (which have been recognized in the common law since hundreds of years).

The fact that you think it unreasonable for locals to control a road that is the only way in or out of their community shows either that you a very callous, or more likely, that you still don't grasp the breadth of federal control over vast regions.

On an economic note, I don't think we can say one way or another whether selling a grazing lease to the highest bidder who will not graze the land will maximize revenue to the government. The primary problem is that grazing on federal land allows spinoff economic use of neighboring land and the creation of a local economy.

Yes, in theory the beneficiaries of those uses could chip in to pay for part of the grazing lease, but transaction costs being what they are this isn't likely. It's possible that the transaction cost of organizing a nationwide network of environmentalists is lower than the transaction cost of organizing local actors with diverse economic interests. This would allow the environmentalists to be able to offer the highest bid even though the value of their use of the land will result in lower overall economic benefit and government revenue.
7.27.2005 8:07pm
jgshapiro (mail):
DJK reflects the problem I see in many westerners' attitude toward federal land. Unfortunately, many westerner's have gambled their economic livelihood by making their businesses dependent on access to other people's property. They assume they will be able to rent land to graze their cattle (or rent/buy grazing rights). But it's not their land.

I just looked at the link to the map DJK links to, and the percentage of federal land in the west vs. elsewhere is astounding. Apparently, most land in the west is under federal control to some degree. There is very little white space (non-federally-controlled land) in UT, AZ, WY, ID, NV and OR. At least one-third to one-half of CA, WA, CO and MT is under federal control. And this map does not even show Alaska, where the problem has got to be just as bad (i.e., too much land owned by the feds), if not worse. In contrast, there is very little federal land anywhere east of the longitude roughly corresponding with the MT-WY-CO-NM state lines.

So it's no surprise that a non-westerner has limited sympathy for local rights to federal land: after all, non-westerners are not really affected by federal regulation of this land that much (and to the extent they are, the regulations are in their favor). Conversely, non-westerners are not similarly burdened by land restrictions near them.

Given the amount of land controlled by the feds in the west, how could westerners do anything *but* make their businesses depend on access to federal land?

I wonder what federal policy would be if federally-controlled land was evenly distributed across the nation -- including in places dominated by urbanites and Democrats?
7.27.2005 8:32pm
Francis:
As to why the fed govt doesn't dispose of more of its lands, ranching interests, not environmental interests, have resisted that for years, for the reasons set forth above.

Ranching is a difficult, low margin business. If ranchers had to buy the land, they'd have to come up with the capital to do so, or borrow it, and pay property taxes once they own it. They'd also have to compete with urban interests. Ranchers would much rather have a lease system, especially since they have been very effective at getting regulatory capture of BLM.
7.27.2005 11:20pm
Public_Defender:
I realize that huge chuncks of the west are federal. But it's still federal, not private, land.

The comment about ranching being a low-margin business may prove the opposite of what's intended. If it's not economically valuable without a governent subsidy, then maybe it's time for the ranchers to move on to other occupations.

I agree that the feds should work to make sure people have access to their private land. But it's one thing to permit locals to build a road to their home. It's another to give them unfettered control over logging, mining, ranching and drilling on federal land.
7.28.2005 7:08am
Public_Defender:
We all may be blowing a little smoke here, because none of us seem to understand the statute in question. Are the environmentalists buying long-term leases or permanent grazing rights? Or are they picking up short-term rights, then convincing the BLM to forbid all future grazing? I took a quick look at some of the source material, but I could not find an answer in the time I have available.

The first scenerio puts the enviros squarely in the playing-by-the-market's-rules category. But under the second scenerio, the enviros are just lobbying like any other group.
7.28.2005 8:54am
Shawn:
Something more to consider while making economic analisys of this situation:

By way of example, my family owned a sailboat in a central california coastal town. We routinely sailed our boat to the Channel Islands. Specifically, we sailed to the largest island, Santa Cruz. This island had, at the time of my youth, two owners. One was governmental and it was but a small tip of land. The other was private. The private side used to ranch sheep. While sailing around the island, it was clearly obvious where the two pieces of land met even though the wire fence between them was too small to see. The sparse vegetation and the patterns of erosion on the ranching side made the contrast stark. Simply put, grazing animals can damage the ecology, especially in drier areas like the Western US.

Prior discussion in this thread has not accounted for the negative impacts of grazing on land. Cattle create erosion which in areas like Nevada, Utah, and Arizona can wash away meager top soils, clog seasonal streams, etc. In the Grand Canyon area of the country, ranching in areas that cannot be seen from the canyon may still impact the visible beauty or ecology of the area.

There are costs to grazing that are not paid by ranchers.
7.28.2005 10:54am
james (mail):
Sheep eat much closer to the roots of the grass compared with cattle. While cattle could be rotated onto a piece of land annually, sheep have a much greater potential of killing the grass. Incidentally, this is the source of the violence from cattle ranchers towards sheep herders during the settling of the west. Grazing will defiantly affect the nature of the land, thus the desire of environmental organizations to limit grazing. A sheep farm is not an accurate example of the environmental impact of cattle grazing.
7.28.2005 11:46am