Opinion

Let’s Truly Make It Public: People and the Environment Deserve Better

The entrance sign to Zion National Park in Utah. (istock)

There are arguably few things more American than the public lands that make up our national park system and protect a spectacular array of wild animals. These vast wilderness preserves were entrusted to us more than a century ago for the common enjoyment of the spectacular scenery and recreational opportunities they provide. Considering how popular the protection of these lands is, it is a shocking fact that states have sold some 70 percent of public land granted to them historically.

How do markets, legislation, and power imbalances influence the frequency of the sale of public lands? There are clear trends in the prioritization of the short-term economic interests of corporations and governments over the well-being of the public and the environment. With inappropriate and insufficient legislation to protect our natural resources, current and future generations of Americans are being robbed of the rich natural capital and essential ecosystem services the natural world provides.

While some natural resources are nonrival — all people can enjoy them without eliminating someone else’s access — other provisions of nature are rival and excludable, with a finite amount subject to the wills of the market. These include land, timber, water, and minerals.

Stocks of natural capital can be classified as resources that lack public control but possess public benefits. These resources are often extremely valuable but finite in nature and are both rival and excludable when extracted by firms. Markets have been relatively effective at the allocation of these types of resources but fail to properly account for intangible public goods such as carbon sequestration or flood regulation.

In mainstream economics and current business practices, pollution is regarded simply as an inevitable externality of production. Thus, the externalities, or costs, of private operations often spill over into the public sector, which is left to shoulder the burden of environmental destruction and remediation.

For example, because of decades of largely unregulated extractive private operations in Montana, taxpayers are stuck with billions of dollars in cleanup costs incurred by defunct mining companies. Irresponsible and environmentally negligent business practices were enormously profitable for a handful of corporate executives but, for the general public, the buried fortune was rather unfortunate. Situations of this kind are shockingly common — and often result from the sale or lease of public land to corporations for economic activity that leaves pristine environments in ruin and accrue massive costs in the long run.

The sale of public lands to private entities begs the question of whether or not the net profit actually outweighs the insurmountable costs incurred from mining and development.

The answer to this question depends on the value of land in terms of the goods and services that are assessed. Again, in mainstream theory, there are no mechanisms to account for long-term degradation of ecosystem services and it is near impossible to put a price on public goods such as access to clean air.

Therefore, an old-growth forest will not be valued based on its waste absorption capacity, ability to provide clean air, or role as a sanctuary for a wealth of biodiverse organisms. Instead, it may be valued using the market price for timber, and sold for pennies on the dollar of the true value that ecosystem holds. At our current scale of resource extraction and consumption, the ability of ecosystems to naturally regenerate is threatened, and ones with little conventional monetary value are ignored and eradicated.

A modernization of property ownership is in order in the form of a system that can properly account for the value of natural resources and entrust them to the public of today and of future generations. One such system is a Common Asset Trust (CAT), which employs the concept of common assets to fundamentally assert the ownership rights of natural capital to all people, and implements a trust, which is an adaptable legal mechanism designed to manage assets and protect them for their beneficiaries.

Working together, a CAT is a collection of agreements, institutions, and funds that aim to sustainably manage natural capital assets, so that we do not wear them to depletion. The controls of the CAT are enforced through the cooperative efforts of society and by the government, which ultimately ensures the agreements of a property rights regime are maintained.

There are a few existing trusts, which are highly effective and can act as a framework for more comprehensive efforts in the future. One example here in the United States is the Alaska Permanent Fund, a managed trust for all Alaska residents, including those of the future, that exists separately from the state treasury. It receives 25 percent of oil revenue, which is then invested, and half of those returns are used to develop schools and highways and other public goods. The other half is distributed equally to residents of Alaska, where in 2021, residents are receiving a dividend of $1,114 — their reimbursement from oil companies operating on the state’s land.

In order to ensure the protection and sustainable use of our natural resources so future generations of Americans can enjoy the same benefits we do today, notions such as CATs must be popularized and formalized. The belief that common resources should be owned in part by the general public is fundamentally shared by many Americans, although no current legislation affirms this.

We have a unique opportunity to put an end to the flawed system that exists today and install a new canon that truly values people, and pledges to create a future where generations to come can enjoy the fruits of the natural world. If you care about this issue and want to be a voice for change, please consider calling or emailing your elected officials.

Nico Perugini, a 2019 graduate of Barrington (R.I.) High School, is a junior at the University of Vermont.

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  1. Hi Nico – nice article. How do you see this playing out in RI? I agree that we need to start looking at the natural treasures of our state as belonging to ‘all of us.’

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