Yesterday, I wrote an essay entitled, Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming? where I argued that recent events in the news are a bad omen that privatization in Yellowstone might be coming. Fittingly, a capitalist think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), yesterday released a report (pdf of full report) where they argue that increasing privatization of national parks, forests, and other public lands (including ocean resources) is the best solution for environmentally protecting these lands.
When I first read the Executive Summary, it seemed that a critical source for the criticism of management in Yellowstone rested on Alston Chase's 1986 book Playing God in Yellowstone (read my review), which chronicles the history of National Park Service mismanagement of Yellowstone. To my surprise, NCPA never cites the book, but it's assuredly in the background.
It is difficult to argue against the NCPA report without going directly at its basic premise, that private property ownership is "the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity." Many of the value judgments about protection, multiple use of forests, independent "Wilderness Endowment Boards," are never actually established or argued for. We have a sense that they believe "overuse" is a problem, that there used to be too many elk, that there are too many wolves, and that no matter what the Park Service chose to do about a situation it was wrong. Yet, the values behind the judgments are left lacking. NCPA points to private conservation exemplars like Audubon and the Nature Conservancy as having gotten it right, but we don't exactly know why it is right.
Anyhow, nothing short of arguing against the original premise that private property ownership is the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity will do. That essay is complicated and will require us to go back to the philosophy of John Locke and to challenge the hallowed ground that served as the rationale for the genocidal manifest destiny of yesterday as well as the neoconservativism of today. Any further response to this essay as it stands is pissing in the wind because the differences are too fundamental.
Even so, I would warn readers against one tempting interpretive response. It is often assumed that there are only two choices here; public control or private control. The reality, however, is that there is no public control over public resources even now. There are simply different kinds of private interests, those complicit with the government monopoly on public lands who profit from the relationship and those who are not complicit. An actual commons approach to public lands does not exist. Many of the criticisms of the public/private venture in Yellowstone are not only tempting to accept, they are true. Nevertheless, just because you might show that the antecedent is false does not mean that the consequent is also false. That is, just because it may be false that National Park Service control in Yellowstone may have been flawed, it does not follow that it is also false that public ownership of Yellowstone is a bad thing. Having said that, I don't only believe that this paper not only suggests a false choice, but also I believe they haven't actually identified (apart from their belief in private property) or defended the environmental values that serve as the point of the critique.
However, don't take my word for it. Please read it for yourself and comment.
From my perspective, those who believe fervently in privatizing public lands represent very wealthy interests, and so they are potentially dangerous in a society already built on class in making their wishes come true. That makes it all the more important to make public and defensible challenges at the very heart of their arguments, the sanctum of private property. That is, we must make the case, and we must use the case to mobilize resistance both against them but the system they represent. But, why do I assume that a value system based on a class structure is flawed? That is exactly where the argument needs to go. It seems abstract, but we see in the news stories that it is the blind assumption of these abstract values that lead to all kinds of policy that many of us don't like. If we are to understand the policy, we must understand its reason.
Eh, Johnny [Locke], it all comes back home.