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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, February 19, 2007

    Part 3: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Against the right to private property

    Part 3: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Against the right to private property
    by Jim Macdonald
    Read Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park
    Read Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
    After, Read Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights

    Many regard the Greek philosopher Aristotle as among the first to give a philosophical defense of individual property rights, when in Politics he argued against the idea that the highest degree of community unity comes from the highest degree of common rule. Aristotle's teacher Plato, in Republic, had mockingly -- through the mouth of Socrates -- said that in the just city that the holding of women and children in common was the best policy (though one should note that my interpretation that Plato was not serious is a controversial interpretation). Aristotle took to refuting his own more sober interpretation of Plato. Aristotle writes:

    For the word 'all' is ambiguous. If the meaning be that every individual says 'mine' and 'not mine' at the same time, then perhaps the result at which Socrates aims may be in some degree accomplished; each man will call the same person his own son and the same person his wife, and so of his property and of all that falls to his lot. This, however, is not the way in which people would speak who had their wives and children in common; they would say 'all' but not 'each.' In like manner their property would be described as belonging to them, not severally but collectively. There is an obvious fallacy in the term 'all': like some other words, 'both,' 'odd,' 'even,' it is ambiguous, and even in abstract argument becomes a source of logical puzzles. That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few. Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike. Further, upon this principle, every one will use the word 'mine' of one who is prospering or the reverse, however small a fraction he may himself be of the whole number; the same boy will be 'so and so's son,' the son of each of the thousand, or whatever be the number of the citizens; and even about this he will not be positive; for it is impossible to know who chanced to have a child, or whether, if one came into existence, it has survived. (Politics Book II, Chapter III, 1261-2, at

    Aristotle makes an argument that rests on two objections. The first is that the word "all" is ambiguous. Common rule is rule by "all", but does "all" mean that we would say that each of us has a responsibility for each thing under our rule, or does "all" mean all, where each thing under our rule belongs to all of us in common, not to me or you in particular, but to us all at the same time? Aristotle presumes that by saying that if people are holding their possessions in common, they mean that they belong to us all and not that each thing belongs to each of us at the same time. That being the case, this produces the second objection. Since everyone first chiefly thinks of themselves, people are less likely to take individual responsibility for what they take to be the responsibility of everyone alike. The buck will be passed to the "all", which is an abstract entity, and that will lead to neglect because no one will be responsible. If the forest belongs to us all, who will take care of it? It would more likely be taken care if it were my forest or your forest. From there, you can see why Aristotle suggests that the best political community does not necessarily rest on common ownership of property.

    In a part that promises to be a refutation of John Locke's arguments on property rights, why have I started off by giving a brief overview of Aristotle's support of property rights? In Part 1, we looked at the history of the founding of Yellowstone National Park and examined how the debate in Congress depended on certain socially held values about property, and we looked at how that assumption carries through to the issues of today. In Part 2, we examined the defense of property rights by John Locke, and we connected the thinking to the issues considered in Part 1. This part promises to be a refutation of Locke's view on property rights, and so why do I begin by considering an argument by Aristotle? It is interesting to consider Aristotle because we can be confused by the scope of the project I am undertaking. As I have said before, I am not arguing that common ownership of property is better or worse than private ownership of property, which was the kind of argument that Senators Cole and Trumbull were having and the kind of argument that Aristotle here thinks he is having with Plato, but rather that there is simply no right to property. Wherever you draw the line of "private", whether you consider "private" to apply simply to an individual, to a business, to a corporation, to a government agency, to the entire government, to all the people on the planet, or to all the beings on the planet, there is no right to property. I have attached the adjective "private" to "property" in my titles not to specify which type of property one might have a right to but rather to note the ambiguity of scope when one says that one owns "property." Who owns the property? Whether collective or individual, there is an assumption that the property is owned and furthermore that there is a right to it. Aristotle's disagreement with the perceived Plato's calling for holding all women and children in common and Senator Cole's disagreement with Senator Trumbull that Yellowstone National Park should be set aside in the public domain do not speak to the ambition of my own project, which is to claim that the right to property is a dogma. In Part 4, we will see that the word "private" has another significance in our discussion of what ethics in Yellowstone means in a world void of property rights.

    John Locke has attempted to convince us that there is a right to property. Property is that which belongs to us after we have mixed our labor with it. When the land just sits there, it belongs to no one (or everyone alike, which amounts to the same thing). When I till the land and grow a crop, the land and its crops belong to me so long as I am not wasting it. Locke argues that the property is ours through our labor because we as humans have been given reason to make the best advantage of our lives, that Earth has been given to humans for that purpose, and that there is no way to make use of the Earth without dividing it in such a way so that its fruits can be useful to particular individuals (see Part 2).

    Where Aristotle talked about the problems of ruling "all" individuals, Locke has told us that the "all" is of no use to individuals unless taken by individuals. That individual can be you or me, or it could be a government, but it has to be divided somehow. In that sense all "property" is "private property" in the sense that property is taken from the collective pool of humankind and applied to some particular individual (even if that individual happens to be a collective of other individuals). This seems reasonable in that there is no way that I can possibly eat a fruit unless it's me who eats the fruit. We cannot all possibly do so. This item or that item is of use to me or you, not all items for everyone all at once. A notion of property seems to arise from the simple fact that we are already individual and particular and therefore have individual and particular needs. We can be on a baseball team, but the individual baseball team needs individual outs to get to the next inning of play, not the same outs of all baseball teams in all possible baseball circumstances. Or, if you don't like or know baseball, we can be building a house. Some parts must serve individually as the roof, others as the base, etc. It is appropriate that some parts of the house belong in one place and not another. It would be absurd to say that all parts belong to the entire house in the same way all in common at the same time. Property, based on that understanding, is what identifies our own particular uniqueness.

    Let's look more closely at what property means. In the broadest sense, a property is something that belongs to something else. It is "of" that thing. Putting aside John Locke's particular definition of property as that which belongs to us as a result of our labor, in the broadest sense a property is simply that which is of something else. I have two eyes; these are properties of my being. I am human. I live in a home with other people. I live in the United States of America, and I visit Yellowstone National Park. I have two sisters and two brothers. I am shorter than the tallest skyscraper. These are all in some sense properties of me because they can be said "of" me and can be said truly. I could not possibly exist as a being if there was nothing that could be said "of" me. In a broad sense, my property is infinitely broad. You would never run out of things that could be said of me, that make me who I am in any number of particular contexts. In the narrow sense of John Locke's definition, property is not simply that which can truly be said of us, but that which is ours after applying our own labor to it. Yet, what's true of the broad sense should also be true of the narrow. If I planted a field, what is wrong with saying that the planted field is mine? Surely, it could truly be said of me that the field was planted by me, that without me there would be no such field. It is properly speaking mine.

    We are about to find ourselves in one of the riddles of ethics, however. While it may be true that almost anything might be said of me, that is, be a property of me, and it might be just as true that a field I plant through my labor might also in the narrow definition of property be said to be mine, it does not therefore follow that it should be mine and that therefore I have a right to it. It is one thing to say that without individual properties there could not be individuals, it is quite something else to say that there is an ironclad right to that reality. By what right do I exist; do I have a right to say that something is exclusively mine, and that this should not be otherwise?

    Let's look at it another way. If a community of bees sets up a hive in a tree and produces honey, is the hive and the honey it produces the property of the bees? Based even on the narrow definition of property that Locke gives, that honey would be the property of the bees that they produced through their labor. Yet, John Locke would be the last person to tell us that the bees have an ironclad right to the honey. They would lack that right because Earth has not been given to them for the purpose of making the best advantage of their lives. It was not all bees and humans who have been created equal through the capacity of reason but rather all humans who have been created equal. The right to property for Locke does not simply rest on a definition of property that depends on the use of labor; rather, it also depends on who most deserves the fruits of that labor. The class of humans, those with reason, are considered the most deserving in themselves, over the class of bees or any other being who may also use their labor.

    Locke's views on a right to labor, then, first depend on proving that humans are the only beings with a right to property. It also depends, therefore, on proving the argument that those with reason have greater right to the Earth than those without. We shall consider those arguments in time, but let's continue to draw out more implications in Locke's view.

    Supposing that the question of human entitlement to the fruits of the Earth could be supported, Locke is also arguing that labor in particular, when mixed with the Earth, is more valuable, so long as there is no waste, than that which has not been touched by labor. Remember in the case of Yellowstone how the Congress needed to be convinced that there was no other value to Yellowstone besides sightseeing before they would assent to it becoming a national park. America the wasteland where Indians leave it alone was not as good as America the beautiful covered in fruited plains. However, why is labor considered so important that it becomes the defining characteristic of what one should call someone else's property? Locke goes to great pains to talk about the value of land that has been cultivated over land that has not because of the general use for the individual in particular and humanity at large. Land that has been mixed with labor can provide more food, clothing, and shelter than land that sits there. Without labor, then, one might argue that there is no life, since labor alone can provide for life. Yet, that is something of a truism. One cannot be unless one does. That is, there is no life without movement, no being without doing. Even the laziest person cannot stay alive without doing something. The question then is not whether labor has something to do with our being alive, but what sort of labor is most valuable. Is it labor which sustains our own material lives? Is it labor which sustains the lives of others?

    In short, Locke is not simply saying that labor in itself gives a human being a right to property but must be saying that a particular kind of labor gives humans a right to property. If the former were the case, he would not have said that the land in America used by the Indians was worth so little. So, though being human gave Indians a right to the fruits of their labor, their labor was still inadequate to claim rightful ownership over the entire continent. They were, in Locke's eyes, wasting the land. Yet, this begs the question of what "waste" is and what the "proper" use of land is. Property seen through these eyes is the determination of the "most proper" use of land that has actually been carried out by someone's labor. Think of squatter's rights. If you didn't bother to kick someone out of your land, they have more right to it than you because they are actually using it to some purpose. Yet, who is to say that the squatter's use of the land is therefore just? What is the metric of value? Is it simply that it is being used for more personal benefit than the person who previously laid an ownership claim to the property? If that were the case, then anyone who claimed to have a better idea with what to do with something might make a rightful claim to property. Locke gets around that by talking about commonwealths and political society where laws put a stop to such practices, though such would hold in the state of nature surely. So, either governments will choose the proper use of property, which has yet to be defined by anyone but the governments themselves, or those individuals (governments, collectives, private individuals) in the state of nature will simply fight it out and leave to God who was right and who was wrong. However, all this is to say that determining the value of one being's labor over another's is still essentially an arbitrary practice. Can we really know that a North America with smaller farming and hunting communities, with generally fewer urban centers, was using land more wastefully than the more highly populated Europeans with their more advanced technology? We can say one or the other, but all will depend on what is considered wasteful. And, so far, there is no argument that prevails that says that one way of using and doing and working is fundamentally better than another. Just because one might get more in a market only tells you something about the relative value that those who have power in a particular market place on something, not whether there was some natural ironclad right to the thing in question.

    Thus, lacking any meaningful scale on which to determine valuable labor from wasteful labor, using labor as the critical differentiator between what makes something someone's rightful property is simply artificial and therefore dogmatic. It has no grounding in reason because there is never any contradiction in asserting that someone else's use may be just as valuable. That people can and must appropriate things to themselves by use of their labor no one can deny, but that one has a right to anything that one has appropriated to themselves is easily denied. Just because one must do something does not therefore mean that one must therefore do this or that particular thing. This is a bit like turning Aristotle's point on its head. While there can be no "everything" that at the same time applies to "each thing", it does not tell you "what" thing in particular is the right thing that one can and should do in a particular situation. Given that it is not possible to understand the implications of any act as it relates to everything in the universe, it is not possible to determine the best or highest value of a particular act as it relates to all values since one cannot at the same time determine whether something else might have been better. In building a house, one may determine one may need a roof, and some materials will work better than others. However, when talking about natural law, we aren't talking simply about our actions in building a house, we are talking about our actions in terms of everything else that might have been done. Yes, act we must, do something we must, and these things in a broad sense will be properties of our acting, but to say that we have a right to anything we have done just because we have done so or can determine what was better or worse in terms of acting within something as broad as "natural law" is an impossibility. We act, but we do not know whether we act for the best, and so we cannot claim any property right to what we have done. All we can say is that we have done it.

    For much the same reason, we cannot hold the life of a human being as being worth more than the life of a bee or even those beings which are not alive. Any being's identity comes from a kind of activity. Even a rock that sits there moves, as any physicist will tell you. When we are holding up the value of human labor, then, we are holding up a particular kind of doing. Locke tells us faintly that it is because of our reason that we are given the Earth, presumably because reason is more valuable than anything else in terms of all things related to truth. This I cannot deny because we could not talk about true or false without reason, and if all things were equally valuable in terms of truth, then we could not even so much as speak with each other since all opposites could just as likely be true. Yet, the value of reason is not in question; what is in question is whether possessing the ability to grasp reason is a value so great that the doing of the person who has reason makes that person's actions more valuable than the being without it. Is a rock's sitting worth less than a rational human's polishing it into a diamond, or a bee's making honey? Yet, just because one has reason does not mean one can always know what one should do with it in a particular situation. As we have already seen, we cannot determine whether it is better to build shopping malls in America or to reintroduce wolves or to leave it to "nature" to run its course -- that is, we cannot determine the absolute value of our labor--our reason is of little use to us in determining whether this person or that person should live, or whether this person should be here and that bee elsewhere, or whether this rock should be polished into a diamond. We simply do not know the answers to these questions and an infinity of other contingent things, and so we cannot determine whether our own doing is worth more than the doing of a rock or the doing of a bee. At times, we will pick up rocks and throw them, but we cannot say whether we had a right to do this simply because we had the capacity to recognize reason. In fact, it's because our capacity to recognize reason that we understand that there is no reason to presume that we have any more reason to live than the rock has to stay still or extracted from a quarry. Maybe, the bee has no right to its honey, but we have no right to it either. We may taste the bee's honey, but any claim to a right to it on the basis of our humanity is arbitrary and therefore dogmatic. The ability to recognize the necessity of a value -- reason -- does not therefore imply the entitlement to the fruits of one's labor. And, even if the property of reason made humans more valuable by simple possession of that quality, it would not in the least tell a human what she or he should do in any given circumstance. It would be a vacuous value without application.

    Therefore, when John Locke argues that humans have a right to property, he is greatly mistaken. There is no justification for a right to property. Beings have properties by necessity; they must and will act by necessity and appropriate properties of themselves. In the broad sense, those properties are limitless in number. In the narrow sense of defining property on the basis of our own labor, those properties are also infinite. However, we cannot see from the fact of property, from the necessity of the world being divided and sub-divided for the use of beings, that there is any right to any particular property that any individual (single or group) may appropriate. There is no right because no one could possibly prove that another set of possibilities might not have been better; therefore, there is also no exclusive human right to property either. Perhaps, though it is hard on the ears, Yellowstone might be better as an amusement park run by the Disney Corporation. We cannot really say; there is no exclusive right to say that it is better as a sightseeing location operated by the National Park Service under authorization of the Congress of the United States of America. Perhaps, the Sheepeaters weren't making the best use of Yellowstone by hunting bighorn sheep, fashioning bighorn bows, or that other Indians were wrong (or right) to mine obsidian from the Obsidian Cliffs. How anyone can say absolutely or with any sense of probability is beyond me; it is beyond the realm of our reasoning capacity to consider the infinite possibilities and determine what is appropriate and therefore rightful. We may dearly want all kinds of things for Yellowstone, but we have no right to it, either as a public or as corporations or as individuals. Even if Aristotle is right in saying that without some individual ownership that there would be no ownership at all, we still cannot even say that that state of affairs might not be the best state of affairs.

    One reason it is so very tempting to put my harsh conclusion to the side and follow John Locke is because Locke gives a kind of roadmap for ethics that seems easy given the practical reality. Given the way that governments actually govern and the way that individuals actually do appropriate land and things for themselves, it is far easier to manage behavior if we can say that what actually is the case is the way things should be. It is a lot easier to tell someone to pave the road if roads are already being paved. In an America where I type on a computer that makes use of electricity that comes from an electric plant from coal that has been removed from a mountaintop, where my clothes and bedding comes from overseas, where I move freely through political boundaries that have long been established, where I live with innumerable privileges, it can be tempting to say that this is how the world should be and that that is right. However, for others on the other side of the privilege equation, who live at the cost of what's "right for me and my people," that truth is not necessarily so clear. On the homeless benches, among those dying of AIDS, among those in many parts of the Global South, of the Lakota in Pine Ridge, of the livestock caught between a war between environmentalists and ranchers and wolves (who don't even realize they are fighting), the assumptions that this is right seem to ring much more hollow. Locke's version of events has been tempting for those who lived in a society much like Locke's looking to justify the colonization of America, but it has always looked otherwise to those who did not enjoy the fruits of that conquest. If one puts the fruits to the side and considers the justification for those fruits, it falls far short of being rational.

    So, though it might be tempting in this world built on property rights to hold up that right for the sake of convenience, we cannot justifiably do so without forsaking the one value that we must acknowledge when it comes to truth, that being reason. There is no right to property, whether exclusively private or held in commons by some collective; that right is dogma. We are now forced to confront what sort of actions we should take in a world where determining the value of the outcomes of such a world is impossible. Many have held up rights as being necessary for a system of ethics. If we cannot determine who and what are more valuable and therefore have rights, property or otherwise, then it is assumed that there is no such thing as a just action. And, if there is no such thing as a just action, then there is no reason not only for Yellowstone National Park but also for anything we do or have ever done. What is ethics in a world without rights? That is the question, of course, of the final part of this series of essays.

    Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights


    Please also see relevant essays related to this piece:
    Upcoming project: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
    Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park?
    Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
    Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights

    The Founding of Yellowstone National Park into Law and into Fact
    Yellowstone and class
    The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
    Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
    Privatize Yellowstone? One capitalist think tank says yes

    all from The Magic of Yellowstone

    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    Part 2: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property

    Part 2: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
    by Jim Macdonald
    Read Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park
    After, Read Part 3: Against the right to private property
    Read Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights

    John Locke wrote The Second Treatise of Civil Government in 1690, a book that has been celebrated for its influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States, especially on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. As a result of Locke's defense of the right to private property, he has been celebrated by libertarians who hold life, liberty, and property above everything else. At the same time, he has been held up by National Parks advocates (for instance, see this one) as supporting the rationale for a commons approach to protecting life, liberty, and property.

    In Part 1 of this essay, I looked at the 1872 congressional debate concerning the founding act creating Yellowstone National Park. What that debate turned on was the appropriate proprietary value of Yellowstone and who should best control that value for the public good. Current debates about user fees, snowmobiles, bison, wolves, elk, bioprospecting, maintenance, and law enforcement all turn on issues of overlapping and competing proprietary values belonging to various federal, state, and local agencies as well as individuals. Like the debate that shaped whether Congress should enact Yellowstone National Park, the debates of today are still generally shaped by defining the most important proprietary value and determining best who should have the right to protect and enhance that value. To that extent, I have suggested that all sides of these debates are to one extent or another still essentially Lockean. Liberal, conservative, libertarian, or pragmatist, all the power brokers alike are followers of John Locke's 1690 work, whether they have even so much as heard of Locke.

    As these essays move forward, I will take a stand against John Locke's thought, putting myself far outside the mainstream of the American political debate, but perhaps standing with the large numbers of people who are disillusioned with all the politics that goes on in their names. In this part of the essay, however, let us simply look much more closely at Locke's thought and how it does in fact apply to the discussion about issues related to Yellowstone National Park both as they were and as they are now.

    John Locke came from a school of philosophers that have been called the British empiricists. Most famously, this school includes thinkers like George Berkeley and David Hume but also scientists like Isaac Newton as well. Empiricists take it that the basis of knowledge comes from experience. In Locke's case, he taught that people are born with a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and that they don't know anything until it has been imprinted on their minds by experience. Whether that philosophy has any merit is for a very different set of essays, but for the purposes of this essay, it is important to understand that Locke's political philosophy arises from the standpoint of empiricism. That is, though Locke talks about what the world was like in a "state of nature" of which he could have no experience, it nevertheless, he would argue, derives from the experience that is evident in his day and from his senses.

    In The Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke sets out to explain the nature of political power and the rationale for its better forms. He defines political power:

    POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good (Chap. I, Sec. 3.

    Political society and therefore political power arises when people, unable to defend their property and enforce justice by themselves, come together and form a commonwealth, giving up some of their rights to the majority of society in order to protect the property, that is the life, liberty, and estate of everyone alike. Locke explains:

    Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. And thus all private judgment of every particular member being excluded, the community comes to be umpire, by settled standing rules, indifferent, and the same to all parties; and by men having authority from the community, for the execution of those rules, decides all the differences that may happen between any members of that society concerning any matter of right; and punishes those offences which any member hath committed against the society, with such penalties as the law has established: whereby it is easy to discern, who are, and who are not, in political society together. Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner; which is, as I have before shewed it, the perfect state of nature (Chap. VII, Sec. 87.

    Locke is telling us that we do have certain natural rights, including the right to property, which for Locke includes and is not distinct from one's life and liberty, but we are not able by ourselves to defend that right without joining with others for our common aid and defense. Those who have accepted Locke's teachings on this therefore can be expected to span the continuum between advocating the minimal amount of government to protect one's property to those who believe that the stronger the government the stronger the common defense. As I have noted in terms of Yellowstone, that is in fact the debate. The National Center for Policy Analysis has advocated selling off public lands and moving toward less and less direct government control of places like Yellowstone. Others have advocated greater government control of resources. Note the current debate this week on President Bush's budget on the national parks, which has at once called for more funding of the national parks and for more private funding of the parks. Those who like the plan, like the National Parks Conservation Association, have celebrated the proposed increase in the government's operations budget. Those opposed to the plan, like Scott Silver at Wild Wilderness, have noted the private funding. Yet, the debate is on the Lockean continuum. There is some assumption in all of this that Yellowstone and other national parks are someone's property and should be managed as such. Perhaps, there is a fear that if someone doesn't claim the property, that someone more pernicious will, but that aside, there is an assumption that there is property, that that property cannot be protected by one person alone, and that some degree of common or governmental control is necessary to protect the common interest of everyone. That is what Senator Trumbull was urging on Senator Cole (see Part 1) as to why the government was in the best position to protect the interest of sightseeing.

    A great deal of debate both yesterday and today depends, then, on the view of government, its role relative to individuals and the land, and the proper balance between the two. So much depends on the doctrine that one of the central purposes of government is the protection of property, of which Locke claims people to some extent have a right. As an able thinker, Locke did not leave this most important stone unturned. The entirety of Chapter V of The Second Treatise is devoted to the question of property and the defense of a right to property, not simply from within the confines of political society but as a natural right belonging to all people, not just from the standpoint of divine revelation, but from the standpoint of natural reason itself.

    To Chapter V, then, let's turn.

    Locke sets out the following premises:
    • [Man has been given] reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience (Chap. V, Sec. 26. ).
    • The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being (Chap. V, Sec. 26. ).
    • [Nobody] has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, [over the fruits of the earth] (Chap. V, Sec. 26. ).
    • There must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. [For example, the] fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life (Chap. V, Sec. 26. ).
    The short of the beginning of Locke's defense of a right to private property is that even if one assumes that the world belongs in common to every man (and for the sake of charity to Locke, let's assume he also meant every woman as well), the fruits of the world can be of no use to any particular human unless it can be divided among individuals. If I am hungry and need to eat an apple, it won't do me much good unless I can take that apple for myself. And, by definition, anything that belongs to me is my property.

    Locke, then, reaches his first tentative conclusion on property rights, namely that "Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself" (Chap. V, Sec. 27. ). However, that doesn't tell us the reach of one's property rights or how one can lay claim to property. Locke develops the argument further, though we should pause to note that much of the foundation for Locke's line of thinking has already been laid out. He has made blanket statements about the relative hierarchical position of humanity in respect to the rest of the Earth and how that position justifies human consumption. His argument, which rests on those premises, also suggests that the basis of political society rests foremost on the goods of individual needs first. The values of society as a whole and the Earth at large rest firmly on the rights that the individual human derives from the right to self preservation. Since self preservation depends on taking ownership in part of some of the fruits of the Earth, protection of that is also necessary. That is, it is impossible to separate the right to property for Locke from the right to self preservation (or one's own life).

    According to Locke, one's property is determined by that part of the earth which has been mixed with one's labor: "Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property" (Chap. V, Sec. 27. ). This part of the earth becomes one's property the very moment one does anything to it; however, by this, Locke does not mean to say that one's right to property is therefore without any limits. Locke defines the limits of property:

    As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property (Chap. V, Sec. 32. ).

    However, at the point in which someone can no longer make use of the product of his labor, that is, the point where it goes to waste, then the person cedes any right to the property.

    Before the appropriation of land, he who gathered as much of the wild fruit, killed, caught, or tamed, as many of the beasts, as he could; he that so imployed his pains about any of the spontaneous products of nature, as any way to alter them from the state which nature put them in, by placing any of his labour on them, did thereby acquire a propriety in them: but if they perished, in his possession, without their due use; if the fruits rotted, or the venison putrified, before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbour's share, for he had no right, farther than his use called for any of them, and they might serve to afford him conveniencies of life (Chap. V, Sec. 37. ).

    Notice here that Locke believes that the right to property extends beyond self preservation to include that which any human can make use of to the advantage of his life, but the right ceases at the moment one claims right to property that one cannot possibly use. While money and social compacts have created the conditions where certain individuals may own far more than they themselves can use, in the state of nature, Locke urges that one person's taking of a particular piece of property would leave more than enough for everyone else. In fact, a person who cultivates land makes it much more valuable, according to Locke, than someone who just leaves it alone. Limited by the law against waste and profiting from the improvements one's labor makes on the earth, evidenced by the enjoyment and use that the owner derives from it, Locke regularly cites the Indians and the American continent as the prime example illustrating his philosophy:

    An acre of land, that bears here twenty bushels of wheat, and another in America, which, with the same husbandry, would do the like, are, without doubt, of the same natural intrinsic value: but yet the benefit mankind receives from the one in a year, is worth 5l. and from the other possibly not worth a penny, if all the profit an Indian received from it were to be valued, and sold here; at least, I may truly say, not one thousandth. It is labour then which puts the greatest part of value upon land, without which it would scarcely be worth any thing: it is to that we owe the greatest part of all its useful products; for all that the straw, bran, bread, of that acre of wheat, is more worth than the product of an acre of as good land, which lies waste, is all the effect of labour: for it is not barely the plough-man's pains, the reaper's and thresher's toil, and the baker's sweat, is to be counted into the bread we eat; the labour of those who broke the oxen, who digged and wrought the iron and stones, who felled and framed the timber employed about the plough, mill, oven, or any other utensils, which are a vast number, requisite to this corn, from its being feed to be sown to its being made bread, must all be charged on the account of labour, and received as an effect of that: nature and the earth furnished only the almost worthless materials, as in themselves (Chap. V, Sec. 43. ).

    Fittingly, perhaps, American presidents from Washington and Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt either called for, justified, or spoke of the inevitability of the genocide of native peoples from the American continent, a population that by the end of the 19th century had been reduced by more than 90% of its population prior to Euroamerican settlement (see for instance, the pdf of my presentation on this topic). When they called for, justified, or spoke of the inevitability of the genocide, these leaders used Locke's reasoning. It is also why it was very important for the proponents of Yellowstone National Park's creation, like Senator Walter Trumbull, to note that this land simply had no agricultural, timber, or mining value. To raise the sightseeing value of Yellowstone was to smack against Locke's rebuke of the waste of land unless one could prove that there was no other value whatsoever to protect. It would be far better to protect that value, then, than none at all. Likewise, today when people talk about fairness issues related to access to Yellowstone, there is a great concern that the value of Yellowstone is being wasted. If the right of property extends only so far as it is providing use to the individual who owns it, any charge of waste is extremely severe, if Locke is correct in his reasoning. It violates much more than a law of the United States; it violates a law of natural reason itself.

    So, it comes as no suprise that Locke uttered the famous lines:

    Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions (Chap. V, Sec. 43. ).

    Less noticed in that famous quote is the talk about money, foreshadowing the capitalism that would serve to magnify and enforce the moral justification for the domination of the North American continent. While Locke's philosophy is often ambivalent about the reality of money as a means of consolidating property, there can be little doubt about its use in the story of American history. Where that enlargement was justified, in the minds of those who overran the American continents from the Indians whom they determined were wasteful, they used money and capital to their advantage, an advantage believed just based on Locke's teachings about property and waste.

    Thus, Locke has argued in Chapter V that people require property, defined as that which through one's labor one can make use of, in order to sustain themselves for the best advantage of their lives. They may do so to the extent that they are not wasting the fruits of their labor. What's more, where waste is occurring, one has the right by natural law to punish others for their waste. America was one such land that, to Locke's eyes, for the most part was being wasted. It was also a land where people who did not agree with their home governments in Europe had the right to withdraw from and settle (see Chapter VIII for Locke's view that no one, especially future generations, belongs to a government except by their consent and are free to seek out any unused spaces for themselves). It was in essence a theoretical justification for what was in fact happening in the English colonies.

    Now, what is interesting is that today while many acknowledge the genocide of Native Americans or at the very least admit that what happened to them was tragic and should not have happened, very few people have rebuked the philosophy on which the policy of genocide rested. In fact, when it comes to talking about public policy and how the government or individuals should manage their affairs, the right to property is affirmed as well as the right of the government to punish neglect over property. While admittedly this ethic has been mixed in the United States with that of capitalism, which is not entirely implied by Locke's philosophy, it remains at the center of the ideological disputes that have arisen between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.

    According to a Lockean view of the world, the United States formed as a compact of people for their benefit and common defense (see the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution). They give up their exclusive right to property, defense, and enforcement of it for the common good. The U.S. Government, then, is now the individual in the "state of nature" in respect to other governments. It owns the land and its resources on behalf of the American people, who gave it ownership for their own good. By right, it took the land from the Indians it deemed wasteful and legislated the highest use of the land. It restricted the ways that private individuals might use the land of Yellowstone National Park in order to protect its highest use, sightseeing. It allowed some private individuals to profit in order to best maximize this and other values deemed important, including protection of some of the wildlife and the curiosities. It is the Constitution, that derives from the natural rights ceded to the government, which gives the United States power over its property. It is the just application of the natural law governing property and waste that gave them this land in the first place. And, that is why Senators Cornelius Cole and Walter Trumbull, as chosen representatives by the states of California and Illinois respectively, believed they had the right to determine the best proprietary value of Yellowstone and the best way to manage it. The Homestead Act was the general policy, but this exception to the rule was perfectly consistent in every respect to values as understood by Locke's worldview. And, so today, despite the very complex set of proprietary relationships that exist and the different hierarchical levels of ownership and subordination, issues in the Yellowstone region at large are still argued about in terms of defining the proprietary value of the public good and determining who is most entitled to enforcing that value.

    One can hardly doubt that what John Locke wrote in 1690 is alive in almost every conversation we have about property, governance, and rule in the United States. We can see that, though none of us has been alive since 1690, by the very force of experience.

    What remains to be seen, however, is whether what Locke wrote, though carried into our practical lives in the United States by the force of experience, should carry by the force of reason, which it does not. To that question and critique, we must turn in the next part.

    Part 3: Against the right to private property


    Please also see relevant essays related to this piece:
    Upcoming project: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
    Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park?
    Read Part 3: Against the right to private property
    Read Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights
    The Founding of Yellowstone National Park into Law and into Fact
    Yellowstone and class
    The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
    Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
    Privatize Yellowstone? One capitalist think tank says yes
    all from The Magic of Yellowstone

    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    Part 1: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park?

    Part 1: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park?
    by Jim Macdonald

    After, read Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
    Read Part 3: Against the right to private property
    Read Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights

    On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. In the congressional debate before enactment, Senator Cornelius Cole of California expressed doubts about the plan:

    I have grave doubts about the propriety of passing this bill. The natural curiosities there cannot be interfered with by anything that man can do. The geysers will remain, no matter where the ownership of the land may be, and I do not know why settlers should be excluded from a tract of land forty miles square, as I understand this to be, in the Rocky Mountains or any other place. I cannot see how the natural curiosities can be interfered with if settlers are allowed to approach them. I suppose there is very little timber on this tract of land, certainly no more than is necessary for the use and convenience of persons going upon it. I do not see the reason or propriety of setting apart a large tract of land of that kind in the Territories of the United States for a public park. There is abundance of public park ground in the Rocky Mountains that will never be occupied. It is all one great park, and never can be anything else; large portions of it at all events. There are some places, perhaps this is one, where persons can and would go and settle and improve and cultivate the grounds, if there be ground fit for cultivation.

    But if it cannot be occupied and cultivated, why should we make a public park of it? If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation? I see no reason in that. If nature has excluded men from its occupation, why set it apart and exclude persons from it? If there is any sound reason for the passage of the bill, of course I would not oppose it; but really I do not see any myself. (Congressional Globe

    In reply, Senator Walter Trumbull of Illinois, father of Lyman Trumbull -- one of the explorers with the 1870 Washburn expedition -- rebutted:

    I think our experience with the wonderful natural curiosity, if I may so call it, in the Senator's own State, should admonish us of the propriety of passing such a bill as this. There is the wonderful Yosemite valley, which one or two persons are now claiming by virtue of a preëmption. Here is a region of country away up in the Rocky Mountains, where there are the most wonderful geysers on the face of the earth; a country that is not likely ever to be inhabited for the purposes of agriculture; but it is possible that some person may go there and plant himself right across the only path that leads to these wonders, and charge every man that passes along between the gorges of these mountains a fee of a dollar or five dollars. He may place an obstruction there, and toll may be gathered from every person who goes to see these wonders of creation.

    Now this tract of land is uninhabited; nobody lives there; it was never trod by civilized man until a short period. Perhaps a year or two ago was the first time that this country was ever explored by anybody. It is now proposed, while it is in this condition, to reserve it from sale and occupation in this way. I think it is a very proper bill to pass, and now is the time to enact it. We did set apart the region of country on which the mammoth trees grow in California, and the Yosemite valley also we have undertaken to reserve, but there is a dispute about it. Now, before there is any dispute as to this wonderful country, I hope we shall except it from the general disposition of the public lands, and reserve it to the Government. At some future time, if we desire to do so, we can repeal this law if it is in anybody's way; but now I think it a very appropriate bill to pass (Congressional Globe

    Trumbull’s reply has proven to be inaccurate. Fees are charged by the National Park Service upon entry into Yellowstone National Park; fees are charged to stay at campsites, lodges, or hotels. Private concessions charge fees and collect money for various kinds of access and goods to be had in Yellowstone. The land is inhabited by numerous employees, including a permanent settlement with lawns at Mammoth Hot Springs.

    However, the inaccuracy of Trumbull’s reply is not nearly as telling as the debate in which the founding of Yellowstone has been framed. Senator Cole opposed the creation of Yellowstone National Park because he thought it was superfluous; if Yellowstone has no use except for sightseeing, he failed to see why settlement should be restricted. If it could not be settled, then why restrict it? Trumbull’s response does not deny the force of Cole’s argument, namely that Yellowstone may have no use besides sightseeing; instead he argues erroneously that the public interest of sightseeing might be put into danger by a private interest unless Yellowstone is set aside by Congress. In fact, Trumbull and Cole have a lot more in common than perhaps may meet the eye. Even before Trumbull could disagree with Cole, he had to acknowledge that the land could not be bettered by the use of agriculture or some other use. What Trumbull fears is that the highest public good of Yellowstone, namely sightseeing of its geysers, might ultimately serve private interests who might impose fees and restrictions on access. The proprietary good of Yellowstone, then, is its sightseeing potential. To maximize that potential for the good of the public, it was necessary to set Yellowstone aside from private interests who might restrict access the way that some were attempting to do in Yosemite. In other words, Trumbull agrees with Cole to the extent that the value of a place like Yellowstone needed to be determined in terms of the public good. Where in most cases, the government wished to open land up to private interests (see for instance the Homestead Act of 1862 at, here was simply an exception to the rule. The public good here, according to Trumbull, was best served by reserving the land from private interest, and that is the point where Cole seems to disagree.

    Though, in the fact of the law, Yellowstone was not set aside to protect the public good of sightseeing from private interests, those who argued about its creation thought that was the issue of importance. For Congress to pass a law to make Yellowstone a national park, the members of Congress needed to be convinced that the sightseeing interest was more beneficial to the public good than other interests more commonly associated with settlement. Putting the land to good use in most places meant farming. In other places, it meant mining, fishing, or cutting timber. The Northern Pacific Railroad, who pushed hard for the legislation that enacted Yellowstone National Park, went to great lengths (even with folios of the art of Thomas Moran and the photos of William Henry Jackson who had just been on the1871 U.S.G.S. Hayden Expedition of Yellowstone) to convince Congress that sightseeing, of all things, was the most proper use for this stretch of land.

    What has rarely been asked when discussing the act that created Yellowstone National Park, however, is by what right does the Congress of the United States legislate over the public good of a land? Does Congress have a proprietary right to the land, and does it determine what is the public’s good? When Trumbull and Cole, Senators of the Congress debate what to do about Yellowstone, they assume they have the right to legislate over it. Where does this right derive?

    Yellowstone today is administered by the National Park Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior of the Executive Branch of the United States Government. Those administrators execute the laws of the United States Congress. In administering those laws, and the rules and regulations developed in support of the laws, the National Park Service uses both its own employees as well as those of private interests that have been contracted out. While immediate access to the geyser areas lie within government boundaries, access to the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park itself are governed by a large maze of interests, some federal, some state, some Indian, and some private. With some exceptions, most agree that there is some value in protecting the geysers; most will agree that there is value in protecting much more than the geysers. Legislation has since made clear that the wildlife and other natural curiosities of Yellowstone are to be protected.

    Much of the debate about issues related to Yellowstone are about the best ways to preserve faithfully the intent of Congress. However, it is much rarer to challenge the rights of the various proprietary stakeholders in and around Yellowstone National Park. It is assumed by many that the people in West Yellowstone or Cody, for instance, have a proprietary right to make a living. It is assumed that ranchers have a proprietary right to make money from their livestock so long as it doesn’t run afoul of the public goods assumed for Yellowstone.

    On what do these rights rest? We have state governments, tribal governments, local governments, the federal government, and private property owners who all claim rights in and around Yellowstone. These all are property rights of various kinds interwoven by the contracts of political society. Yet, on what basis do these various property rights rest? Much of the debate about property rights is whether they should be held more by private interests or whether they should be held more by the government. In fact, that is the debate that Senators Cole and Trumbull were having about Yellowstone. Yet, why suppose that there is any right to private property at all, whether the private individual is in fact an individual person or rather the government itself?

    Much of the justification that is offered can be found in the philosophy of an English philosopher named John Locke, a hallowed name among many American political thinkers of both conservative and liberal persuasion.

    In the next part of the discussion, let us consider John Locke, his defense of a right to property, and how this philosophy relates to the scenario I have been sharing about Yellowstone National Park both yesterday and today. Then, we will need to consider whether there is any basis in reason for this philosophy. I will argue that there is not and furthermore that there is not a sound basis for a right to property. Finally, we must consider what such a shocking revelation must mean for Yellowstone today. That is, if there is no right of property to set Yellowstone aside on the basis of its public good, does that mean that there is no public good to Yellowstone? And, if there still is a public good of Yellowstone, what can rightfully be done about it? Indeed, I am not simply arguing here that the government has no proprietary right to Yellowstone, but also that the states, tribes, and individuals also have no proprietary right to Yellowstone. What does ethics become in a world void of property rights? We shall see as the parts unfold.

    Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property

    Please also see relevant essays related to this piece:
    Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
    Part 3: Against the right to private property
    Part 4: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights
    Upcoming project: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
    The Founding of Yellowstone National Park into Law and into Fact
    Yellowstone and class
    The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
    Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
    Privatize Yellowstone? One capitalist think tank says yes

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    Jay Nightwolf speaks about Pine Ridge -- Please help

    Tonight, I had the opportunity to learn more about the current situation with our brothers and sisters, the Lakota, who live on the Indian reservations in South Dakota, especially Pine Ridge. A local native, who hosts a radio show on WPFW, Jay Nightwolf, recently took a large trailer full of clothes over Christmas to the Sioux reservations of South Dakota and was horrified by what he saw.

    In -45F weather, he stayed in the basement of one family. They did not have heat; they could not afford the $125 for the propane truck to come heat the home. In fact, many live on $100 a month. For food, they ate white flour with a little lard mixed in. They saw a woman who was 97 years old who had just walked 9 miles in the bitter cold just to get flour.

    This was just one sad story, and I've put some facts at the bottom of this entry that were shared with me in order to pass them along to you. Many of them I knew already, but the experience shared by Nightwolf was astoundingly painful to witness. A group of Oglala elders plan on coming to Washington, DC in May in order to petition Congress. I fear they will be unsuccessful and that the cries of some of the poorest people on this continent will fall on deaf ears. I wish they could see the poverty in DC and see the allies in this city that could be made outside the halls of Congress.

    It is painful to me that while some of us work to protect national parks like Yellowstone, my particular passion, we don't see that Yellowstone is a reservation much like Pine Ridge is a reservation. We have parceled off that which we chose not to civilize and set it aside. We parceled the Shoshone from the land they once lived and traveled through; we punished the Sioux by trying to make them farmers on some of the worst farmland in the country. We massacred them, sent their children to distant schools, and then gave them no means to make a living, while shutting down any spiritual or communal inspiration they had. Then, we allotted their land into individual parcels and took even more of it. Now, the Pine Ridge of today is so bad it looks as though it had been hit by Katrina.

    Near Yellowstone, in Big Sky, a house for $155 million is being sold; that reservation is increasingly the land for the rich. In South Dakota, $100 a month won't even heat your home. How can we talk about the one without remembering the other?

    Jay Nightwolf is going back to Pine Ridge in July with as many volunteers as he can muster. I wonder if I'll be able to join him. How can I in good faith hear his call for help and not do so? If you are interested, please contact him.

    Jim Macdonald

    Excerpted from "The Arrogance of Ignorance; Hidden Away, Out of Sight
    and Out of Mind" By Stephanie M. Schwartz,

    • Roughly the size of the State of Connecticut, Pine Ridge Reservation
    is the second-largest U.S. Reservation

    • Pine Ridge is home to approximately 40,000 persons, 35% under the age
    of 18.

    • 58.7% of the grandparents on the Reservation are responsible for
    raising their own grandchildren.

    • 97% of the population lives below Federal poverty levels.

    • Life expectancy on the Reservation is 48 years old for men and 52 for
    women, the lowest in the U.S..

    • The Pine Ridge infant mortality rate is the highest on this
    continent, about 3 times the national average.

    • Alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and malnutrition are
    pervasive, with the rate of diabetes on the Reservation is 8 times the
    U.S. national average. The death rate from alcoholism is 3 times the US

    • The tuberculosis rate on Pine Ridge is 8 times the national average.

    • The cervical cancer rate is 5 times the U.S. national average.

    • Many Reservation residents live without health care due to vast
    travel distances, under-funded and under-staffed medical facilities,
    and outdated or non-existent medical equipment.

    • The Pine Ridge school drop-out rate is over 70%, and the teacher
    turnover is 8 times the U.S. national average.

    • An average of 17 people live in each family home (which may only have
    two to three rooms) and at least 4,000 new homes are needed in order to
    combat homelessness.

    • 59% of Reservation homes are substandard, with over 33% lacking water
    and sewage systems, electricity, and basic insulation or central

    • Many residents must carry (often contaminated) water from the local
    rivers daily for their personal needs.

    • Most Reservation families live in rural and often isolated areas
    where there are few paved roads and most of the rural homes are
    inaccessible during times of rain or snow.

    • Weather is extreme on the Reservation, with summer temperatures
    reaching well over 110*F, and winters that can reach below -50*F. Each
    winter, Reservation residents, especially elders, die from hypothermia.

    • There is no public transportation available on the Reservation and
    only a minority of Reservation residents own an operable automobile.

    • Much of the water and land on the Reservation is contaminated with
    pesticides and other poisons from farming, mining, open dumps, and
    mining operations.

    • The High Plains/Oglala Aquifer which begins underneath the Pine Ridge
    Reservation is predicted to run dry in less than 30 years due to
    commercial farming use in south of the Reservation. The Oglala Aquifer
    is not renewable and recent years of drought have accelerated the