Should Government Own Wilderness?

The following article originally appeared in Grand Junction’s Free Press on June 9.

Should the government own, manage wilderness?

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Just how far do we want to push our free-market agenda? The short answer is all the way. A free market means that people’s rights to control their resources and associate with others voluntarily, so long as they don’t violate the rights of others, are consistently protected. It means that the initiation of force is outlawed. The alternative is coercion: taking people’s resources by force and and threatening them with jail for not doing what you want.

Here’s how the argument has developed so far. On April 28, we argued that government (including the town of Fruita) should not forcibly take money from people to subsidize recreation facilities.

On May 12 we replied to Keith J. Pritchard’s concern about externalities, in this case a benefit (such as keeping kids off the streets) not funded by the beneficiaries. We argued that, by Pritchard’s reasoning, government should seize control of the entire economy. “The system of individual rights provides justice as well as the best framework for solving economic problems,” we wrote.

But, Pritchard complained, we did not address one of his points. By our logic, Pritchard wrote, “we should auction off all public parks, BLM land, State Parks, and National Forest to the highest bidder!”

A lot of conservatives would reply to such a challenge by invoking pragmatism: “Of course we don’t want to auction off public lands, but we need a balanced approach that lets government subsidize only some things, not others, and take by force only some of our money, not all of it.” Regular readers know that’s not our answer.

Pritchard’s complaint is intended to cut off any principled approach. If we want wilderness areas, then what’s wrong with Fruita subsidizing a recreation facility? Surely we have to compromise and agree that government must control some industries, even if there’s no clear standard to decide what government should control and what should be left to the voluntarist free market.

We refuse to sanction the mixed economy, the current blend of some liberty and some socialist controls. We advocate liberty, all the time, without exception.

Politically, of course, it’s usually easier to stop the government takeover of something new (such as a recreation facility) than to restore a government-controlled entity to the free market. Even though there’s no reason whatever for the national government to run trains or deliver the mail, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) and the United States Post Office have resisted market reforms. Trains and mail remain largely socialized industries.

At least government-run businesses should be self-financing. For example, the gasoline tax is a fairly effective fee-for-use that funds government-owned roads. In Denver, though some lines of the RTD receive heavy subsidies, properly the lines should charge enough to cover costs. If people are not willing to pay enough to ride on a line to keep it operational, it should be closed down.

Many government-run wilderness areas require fees. If you head up the road to Vega Reservoir, you’ll find that you must purchase a state park’s pass. The showers there cost money. The campgrounds and facilities should charge enough to cover all costs, so as not to unfairly compete with the private facilities near the lake. If you go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll pay a fee at the gate.

We ask a simple question: why do you think government does a better job managing wilderness areas than individuals and organizations would do on a free market? The pine-beetle infestation is at least partly the result of inept forest management.

Do you think government would do a better job building cars, growing food, erecting houses, and sewing clothes? People tried that in the last century, and it didn’t work out so well. Then why do you think government is uniquely qualified to manage wilderness areas?

We do not, as Pritchard claims, think all wilderness areas should be sold to the highest bidder. In some cases, the land should be given or sold to its current users. For example, Powderhorn leases most of its land from the Forest Service, and the company has a vested interest in caring for the land.

It seems that organizations like the Sierra Club complain most loudly about federal wilderness management. Therefore, we suggest simply giving many federal lands to the Sierra Club or similar groups. We’re confident they would do a good job managing the land, and they’d be more open to charging fees for use and even drilling to pay for land management. The rest could be transfered to a privatized Forest Service or sold, with the proceeds used to pay down the national debt.

We enjoy wilderness areas as much as the next person. We also enjoy eating. That doesn’t mean we want the government to nationalize farms or forests. America is about liberty, and that is the principle to which we should return.

3 thoughts on “Should Government Own Wilderness?”

  1. Ari,

    You said, “We advocate liberty, all the time, without exception.” Does that include law and security as well?

  2. “Does that include law and security as well?”

    I’m not sure what Justin is asking. I advocate laws necessary to protect individual rights and the security that results. I oppose laws that violate individual rights as well as alleged security provided to some through the forced redistribution of wealth.

  3. I was insinuating that law and security can be provided privately – which is the only way to procure those goods/services while still adhering to the principles of liberty all the time without exception.

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