Our National Treasures – Was Secretary Watt Correct?

By Brent Fewell

Interesting article in American Spectator this week by Robert Smith titled, An Environmentalist Deception, wherein Smith takes issue with fellow conservatives at the R Street Institute for celebrating the anniversary of Reagan’s establishment of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.  Here’s what prompted Smith’s retort:

R Street Associate Fellow Ryan Cooper pointed to research from the Headwaters Economics showing that since theSt Helens monument’s establishment, the surrounding region has seen population grow by 30 percent, real personal income has grown by 62 percent, total jobs have grown by 42 percent and real per-capita income grew by 24 percent. Headwaters’ data suggests that in many cases, employers have explicitly chosen the area for its beauty, a major drawing point for highly skilled employees.

“As the United States has shifted from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy, it’s only natural that service jobs will spring up in communities with high-grade attractions,” Cooper said.

The success conservation efforts have had in attracting firms and workers and creating opportunities for tourism and other services is one reason they have enjoyed support, not only from the left, but also from the political right. Nearly 10 percent of the current National Wilderness Preservation System was established during the Reagan administration, including El Pais in New Mexico, Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho and Poverty Point in Louisiana.

Smith responds,

[T]he R Street Institute, which claims to advocate free market policies, issued a statement celebrating the anniversary of the establishment of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in 1982. This is, at best, misguided. The federal government’s ever-growing control over and continuous acquisition of land across America is the antithesis of the institution of private property and undermines conscientious private stewardship of land, waters, and other natural resources.

Every day, we see the results of a century of mismanagement of government-owned forests. Failure to harvest timber allows the forests to become overgrown and filled with overstressed, diseased, beetle-ridden, dying, and dead trees—leading to millions of acres scorched by catastrophic wildfires every summer, year after year. Far more instructive is what Weyerhaeuser did on its forest land adjacent to what is now the National Monument. The volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, instantly destroyed 150,000 acres of forest—trees were flattened by the shock wave or killed by the intense heat. Of the forest affected, Weyerhaeuser owned about 68,000 acres, the U.S. Forest Service 64,000, Washington State 12,000, and other private forest owners 6,000.

Weyerhaeuser immediately acted to salvage the wood from the dead trees and to replant the damaged areas. Over a period of two years, it restored the desert-like post-eruption wasteland into a healthy, vigorous, thriving and sustainable forest. Before the wood could be damaged by insects, disease, and rot, Weyerhaeuser salvaged 850 million board-feet of lumber—enough for 85,000 three-bedroom homes.

The company also helped establish the Charles W. Bingham Forest Learning Center within the volcanic blast zone, with an emphasis on school trips for students and teachers to learn about sustainable forestry practices and the achievements of private stewardship. R Street proudly points to the 230,000 annual visitors to the taxpayer-funded National Monument each year, but it doesn’t mention the estimated 200,000 who visit the Forest Learning Center operated by Weyerhaeuser.

Smith also takes issue with R Street’s characterization of Reagan’s legacy and policies on federal land set-asides.

Further, R Street misrepresents Ronald Reagan’s vision, beliefs, and record. Shortly after taking office in 1981, President Reagan and his secretary of the interior, James Watt, announced an immediate and dramatic shift in federal land policy. They argued that the government already owned enough and should begin to place a major emphasis on caring for it, especially the national parks. In March 1981, Reagan announced a moratorium on additional land acquisition by the federal government.

As folks may recall, in the early 1980s, Secretary Watt was nearly tarred and feathered for his call for auctioning off nearly 5 percent of federal landholdings – mostly in the West – to help offset the national debt by $1.3B.  After an insurrection by Western Governors, environmental groups and largely the American public, Reagan and Watt backed down on their plan, ultimately conceding the idea was a mistake.

While in agreement with the R Street gang and joining in their celebration, I’m neither celebrating nor defending the federal government, whose past and ongoing mismanagement of our federal lands are too innumerable to count.  Needless to say, the federal government has been an absentee caretaker of the public’s national lands, but particularly those held in trust by the U.S. National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, documented here in a 2007 Forbes Article by Terry Anderson of PERC.  The fiscal and environmental irresponsibility, resulting from years of benign neglect, is beyond dispute and indefensible.  And I’m in agreement with those, like Smith and Anderson, who argue that private landowners have a greater financial interest and incentive to maintain and manage their lands.  Although thebarrels abuses on private lands are equally, if not, more egregious – the Superfund cleanup program is a reminder of private transgressions.

Back in 2004, I was graciously invited out to PERC, and its beautiful Montana campus, to spend a couple of days discussing an array of environmental topics.  One morning, the discussion around the table focused on this very topic, public v. private land ownership.  Overwhelmingly, the sentiment favored private over public.  And in a moment of clarification, I asked whether those who held this view would extend their argument to national treasures, such as Yellowstone National Park.  The response was a resounding yes.  In defending this position, the explanation was that with a unique attraction like Yellowstone, a private landowner would have an economic incentive to open up his land to the public for a fee.  I had no problem with this explanation and was in general agreement.  But I followed up with a question to the effect, “What if the landowner decided to keep Yellowstone for himself and not open it up to the public, what then?  Wouldn’t the public be deprived of this opportunity to view and experience such amazing natural wonder and beauty?”  There was an awkward momentary silence, but the courage of a few, in their consistent conviction, to respond, “Yes.”

For me, that was the point where my views on this issue were reaffirmed.  I’m thankful for a federal government with the foresight to set aside treasures such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.  And I’m also thankful for all national leaders and Presidents, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, with the acumen and courage to set aside wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, national forests, and national monuments.   No doubt the federal government is guilty as charged for its mismanagement of these treasures.  And private landowners, like Weyerhaeuser, would likely do a better job at managing these lands for timber harvest and recreational activities.  But there is much more to our national lands.

And despite the accounts of mismanagement, some federal lands have thrived from cooperative public private partnerships.  For many years, the amenities and services in national parks, such as Yellowstone, for example  – hotel services, convenience stations, medical services, recreational and nature tours, bookstores, etc. – have been successfully contracted out to private concessionaire companies to operate and manage.  Yet the ownership and ultimate responsibility for the parks themselves remain with the federal government.  There are many such examples where government and private interests have worked together cooperatively to improve the multipurpose management of our public lands, thereby increasing the overall value, opportunities and enjoyment of these lands.

America loves its national treasures.  And we cherish the opportunity to access nature’s wonders and beauty, irrespective of legal title.  There is value in private ownership, but there is also value in the public entrustment of federal lands. The wise management and ownership of these lands is a good and healthy debate.  But as one who values the enormous significance and contributions of private conservation and ownership, I must respectfully dissent from my conservative and libertarian colleagues, such as Smith and Anderson, who argue private ownership is the magic bullet to improve the management of our federal lands.  Aside from the legal transfer of ownership, there are many other things we can do to improve the situation.  For starters, let’s evaluate whether these century-old policies should be changed, let’s hold our government officials to greater accountability and, lastly, let’s look for more opportunities where the benefits of cooperative conservation and public private partnerships can be leveraged to maximize more sustainable management of our national lands.

UPDATEEli Lehrer responds to Robert Smith over at the American Spectator.  Quoting Reagan’s CEQ Report in 1988,

The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.