Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Cliven Bundy School of Land Management

When Cliven Bundy and his ragtag posse of supporters staged that showdown with the Federal government last April, most Americans just didn’t get it. I’m talking here about all those folks out there in Boston or Akron or Tallahassee or Petaluma or wherever who regularly put quarters in parking meters or pay bridge tolls or send tuition checks off to the state university, apparently in the belief that when they get something of value they should expect to pay for it.

This point appears to have been lost on all the Sage Brush Rebels, County Movement Enthusiasts, Shovel Brigadiers, Tea Partiers, and Federal Land Seizers who grabbed their guns and rushed off to Nevada to defend Bundy, who for years had grazed his cattle on Federal land and refused to pay for it. In other words, although he dreamed up some cockamamie legal theory about how the land didn’t really belong to the Federal government, Bundy was a deadbeat pure and simple. But that just didn’t seem to bother the folks who rallied around him, ready to shoot it out with the Federales. It was only when Bundy turned out to be a racist as well as a deadbeat that they started to back away.

Now at first blush it might seem a little strange that Bundy’s pals were willing to overlook the fact that he was stiffing the Federal government. After all, these are the people who never tire of telling us what a bang up job they would do managing public lands, but now in the next breath are saying they’re willing to ignore the receivables. How does that work?

On the other hand, of course, these are also the people who have been trying for years to get their hands on public lands and resources with the fewest restrictions and at the lowest prices possible. And if that’s their aim, they’ve gotta love Bundy, who’s the poster child for exploiting Federal land at rock bottom prices. In his case, zero.

So there’s the dilemma: how do people (including a slew of state legislators) who want to take over Federal land get to claim, on the one hand, that they can do a much better job managing it than the Federal government does, and then on the other hand seem ready to rent, sell or lease it at fire sale prices?

The answer, of course, revolves around money and jobs. The takeover artists claim that they want public land management to be “economically productive,” by which they mean that public lands should produce a flow of cash revenue and be exploited in a way that provides jobs and stimulates local economies.

Now nobody’s going to argue that more revenue and more jobs are a bad thing, but using public lands to generate them does not necessarily constitute sound land management. Economically productive management puts land to its highest and best use – the one that creates the greatest net benefits – and that’s not always, or even usually, the use that creates the most jobs or generates the highest cash flow.

That may seem to defy common sense when it comes to what government should do with its resources – surely job creation is a worthy public goal – but think about it another way.  Public land managers could no doubt put an awful lot of people to work if they made access to land and the resources on it really cheap. But whether or not all that work made the land productive would depend on the economic value of what the workers were producing. And if people are only willing to work on the land if they can get access for next to nothing, it’s a safe bet that their use of the land is not going to produce much. It might be tempting to think that at least use of the land has produced a lot of jobs, but as I’ve pointed out before, jobs are not what’s produced, but the cost of production, and efficient management means keeping those costs as low as possible.

When it comes to the demand that they generate revenue, public land managers face another dilemma, because public lands can produce public services for which there is no market but that are nevertheless economically valuable. Think watershed protection or conservation of wildlife habitat: these services have economic value – in fact, a lot of economic value - precisely because they confer material benefits on the public,  just like private services like medical care or a Paul McCartney concert. The only difference is that nobody has to pay in order to get them. Nevertheless, the false notion that commercial values are economic (because they have a dollar sign attached to them) and environmental values are uneconomic (because there is no dollar sign) is remarkably durable.

Opponents of taking over Federal lands – Jon Tester, for example – worry out loud about how takeover would ultimately result in the public lands being “sold to the highest bidder.” I’m with the opponents, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that in the name of job creation and revenue generation, access to public land would be sold at rock bottom prices, and the land would end up wasting away in high cost, low valued uses.

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