Just hours before Tim DeChristophermade false bidsin a BLM oil and gas lease auction, he took a final exam at the University of Utah. One of the test questions asked whether the sale prices at the auction would reflect the real value of the leases if the only bidders were from oil and gas companies.
The question got DeChristopher thinking as he went to protest the eleventh hour auction in the final weeks of the Bush administration. When asked if he was there to bid, DeChristopher said yes. He becameBidder 70and went on to win 14 parcels comprised of 22,500 acres for $1.8 million. His bogus bidding caused auction’s results to be canceled by the incoming Obama administration.
But the incident and the exam question raise an important, but largely neglected, question in the saga of Tim DeChristopher: Who should be able to bid for leases on federal land?
Yesterday, a federal juryfound DeChristopher guiltyof disrupting a federal auction and making false statements on federal forms. DeChristopher and his supporters framedhis defensein terms of ending an “illegitimate” auction and fighting climate change. Little has been said, however, about whether environmental groups ought to be able to participate in an open lease auction.
Under current federal leasing rules,leases cannot be held by environmental groups for non-consumptive use. In other words, even if Tim DeChristopher had the money, current rules require leaseholders to develop their parcels, precluding any environmental group from holding them for recreational use or habitat protection. Politically powerful oil, timber, and grazing interests have kept the bidding process free of competition from environmentalists and, in many cases, below market value.
Could environmental groups afford to compete? Consider some of theallotmentsDeChristopher won. One of the first was a parcel near Moab for $2.25 per acre, or $500 total. Another was reportedly for$77. Others were much higher, reaching as much as $170 per acre. Less than a month after the auction, DeChristopher received more than $100,000 in donations. This was enough to cover the initial down payment on the leases. But the BLM would not accept it.
As I describedin PERC Reports last year, open lease auctions have the potential to reduce much of the acrimony surrounding energy leasing on public lands. It would force bidders to consider the tradeoffs associated with other land uses and gives environmental groups an alternative to lobbying, litigation, and political jockeying to preserve important swaths of federal land. In effect, open auctions would lower the transaction costs of cooperation between environmentalists and oil companies—two groups that are almost perpetually at odds with one another.
Some states have experimented with allowing environmental groups to bid on state land leases (see PERC Reportsfor more information). Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico have each allowed nonprofits and private citizens to bid on state grazing allotments for alternative uses such as nature or recreational leases and other forms of land management. Last year, Idaho amended its rules to allow conservation groups to lease state trust lands following a ruling by a federal district court. Under the new rules, ranchers—who often pay as little as $250 annually to graze on a 400-acre parcel—will no longer be able to obtain below-market leases in no-competition bids. Participation by environmental groups is also expected to bring in additional revenue to the state.
On federal lease lands, environmentalists remain shut out of the bidding process. As a result, these groups have largely relied on the political system as a means to protect land. This approach has been somewhat effective, but the results ebb and flow with each passing administration. Open lease auctions provide a sensible and politically-feasible alternative to this politicized land management.
“There are enough of us who value the land and value the climate. We should protect this land,” DeChristopher said in 2009. “That’s the only way we can get the true market value for these leases – if all the people who value the land are involved in the auction.” Allowing all parties who value the land to participate in the bidding process should be a central message in the inspiring story of Tim DeChristopher.
Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its much-anticipated report on the America’s Great Outdoors initiative. The report is the culmination of 51 listening sessions held over the past year by administration officials to gather ideas on land management and outdoor recreation from across the country.
The result, however, is just more of the same.
The initiative is pitched by the administration as a bottom-up, grassroots campaign, but in reality, the proposal is merely a repackaging of existing programs run by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, EPA, and Council on Environmental Quality. Indeed, the cornerstone of the report, a fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), is more about politics than about actual conservation.
The LWCF is the government’s primary land acquisition program. The president proposes to use revenues from federal oil and gas leases to fully fund the LWCF at $900 million a year.
But here’s the problem: the LWCF only provides funding for acquisition of new lands. The program provides no funding to conserve existing lands. This type of “park-barrel politics” benefits politicians eager to cut ribbons on new parks, but neglects the conservation needs on public lands the government already owns. If you set aside land for conservation, don’t you have a responsibility to provide the resources necessary to conserve it?
On the 650 million acres of existing federal land, conservation projects are going unfunded. Maintenance of infrastructure is already lacking—as evidenced by leaky sewer systems, crumbling roads, and dilapidated buildings. The National Parks Conservation Association notes that despite millions in stimulus funding, a chronic backlog of about $8 billion (with a B!) exists for current maintenance and preservation projects. Decades of neglect on Forest Service lands have also led to a multi-billion dollar backlog.
Besides conservation, the program also plans to increase Americans’ awareness of the outdoors—especially for children. It is true that children are spending less time outdoors. Indeed, visits to national parks have been trending downward for 23 years. According to the National Park Service there were 281 million visitors in 2010—six million visitors less than in 1987, despite a larger population.
Parents are no longer sending their kids to camps or even outside to play. Author Richard Louve coined this phenomena "nature deficit disorder." As a parent and an environmentalist, this situation concerns me, but is it the federal government’s job to solve this problem? This special report on outdoor education has some interesting alternatives.
I attended one of the first listening sessions in Montana. During the session a video explained that President Obama intended to build on a “breathtaking legacy of conservation” started by Theodore Roosevelt, whom Obama described as “one of my favorite presidents.”
But there’s something this “grassroots” initiative has forgotten from the start: if Obama intends to emulate President Roosevelt, then the approach will be top-down, not bottom-up. Theodore Roosevelt, the original progressive, moved the country away from local control of resources toward centralized bureaucratic management. Roosevelt set aside 200 million acres of public land and created several new federal management agencies. See Greener Than Thoufor more details on Roosevelt’s conservation legacy.
The Great Outdoors Initiative is touted as a bottom-up program looking to the private sector, nonprofits, and the people who live and work in towns across America to identify innovative solutions to protect the environment and encourage kids to go outside. But buyer beware. This program looks like more of the top-down political land management that we've seen from Washington for decades. The administration is to be commended for recognizing the need for change, but what we got was just more of the same.
Similar to other states and the federal government, Montana has been increasing its acreage of ownership. The Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has acquired 232,000 acres over the past six years.
This sounds fine and dandy. I like to fish and hike and my husband hunts. We use the public lands that surround us a lot. The idea of better access for recreation is appealing to many voters. It seems that Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, is playing this as a political card. My thought is reconfirmed with his statement that “this administration will best be remembered for finding new opportunities for families to hunt, camp and fish.”
Unfortunately, the governoris ignoring the maintenance needs. One division administrator recently stated that the division is in a “terrible fiscal situation.” It has been said that these lands may have to be “mothballed” for a while until budgets are sufficient. But the division can’t even account for actual maintenance expenditures and needs. Does it really make sense to add acreage to an already overstretched budget? Here’s a thought on that subject:
If more public land is what the public wants, then the public land users should pay for use and maintenance through fees. This way individuals who desire additional access realize the costs and can make a fair judgment as to how much is enough. Such user fees can help keep the benefits and costs in check.
While much of the seafood industry in Louisiana has recovered, NPR reports that the oyster business is still plagued by the BP oil spill. However, the threat is not exactly from the oil itself, but rather, from the response to the oil:
"The oil came in and the oil left, disappeared [or] whatever," [oysterman Mitch Jurisich] says. "And the mortality to the oysters [was] very minimal in most areas."
But the stress didn't stop when the oil moved away. That's because the state of Louisiana built berms to keep the oil from reaching fragile wetlands. And two of the berms cut right through Jurisich's oyster beds.
He estimates that about 20 percent of his oysters have been buried or smothered by drifting sediment.
"We fought the oil. We won the battle in a way," Jurisich says. "And now we're fighting man's decision to stop the oil. They have destroyed more oyster crops than I think the oil would have ever."
Jurisich is concerned he won't be compensated for his losses due to the sand berms, which some say have questionable effectiveness and environmental impact.
Paul Schwennesen recently appeared on Fox Business to discuss food safety. Paul offers more comments on the issue below.
We all want safe food. Question is, how do we get it? “There oughta be a law,” seems to be the generally conceived approach, as evidenced by recent passage of the now-famous food safety bill. A tidy and altogether comforting solution: simply slay the beast of dangerous food with the bludgeon of enlightened bureaucracy. But for the food advocates who support this kind of top-down solution, beware. The kind of government meddling that created cheap-at-any-cost is now about to do the same for “safe” food.
But isn’t food safety a pressing concern, a public health problem we can’t afford to fool around with? The problem is, the problem isn’t. Emotional rants that “thousands die every year!” do not help us grapple with the scope or magnitude of this alleged threat. Let’s try some perspective: according to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated number of deaths caused by food borne illness numbers around five thousand a year. Sounds pretty bad, eh? Time to call in the Salmonella SWAT team? Before you do, consider that the same number of people die by intentionally strangling themselves each year. Or that the same number of people die from Alzheimer’s in California alone each year. Or that four times that number die each year accidentally falling off of things. Moreover, 70% of food borne illnesses result from poor food handling procedures during preparation. Unless you’re also on a crusade to flatten everything or cure Alzheimer’s, I’d think twice about ceding greater authority of our food system to centralized management.
True to form, Congress has blithely offered its professional problem-solving services to rid us of the menace of deadly food. And, true to form, it’s about to embark on another unarmed expedition into the tortuous territory of unintended consequences.
More regulations always have the effect of reducing the number of operators in that sector. It can be dramatic (as in the case of the payday loan industry), or it can be insidious (as in the case of the livestock industry). The food industry is no exception; it’s impossible to envision a wave of enthusiastic newcomers clamoring at the gates to enter the food business now that the FDA has been granted the most sweeping extension of powers in seventy years. Granted, some of the bad actors need to be pushed out of the industry (as in the Peanut Corp. of America, which apparently intentionally distributed salmonella-laced product). Call me a Pollyanna, but I don’t think the bad actors generally represent the food industry. The people who do represent a large part of the industry are the small, local, independent operators who have been squeaking by for decades. This kind of regulatory barrage is exactly the sort of thing to make them call it quits. BSE (mad cow) regulations pushed our predecessor to hang up his hat. The increasing silliness over E-coli testing pushed his predecessor over the brink years ago. Warranted or not, an increasingly difficult regulatory environment will always winnow out the small players, leaving the field more sparse than before.
Of course the demand for food hasn’t gone down, so how does the system accommodate a hungry public? Well, that’s where Cargill, Tyson, Monsanto and the rest of the Big Food set come in. They’re not evil (despite bumper-sticker claims to the contrary) they’re just picking up the slack left when the small guys get pushed out by Big Government. I know, I know, it’s easier to blame their success on high-priced lobbying and a cozy relationship with regulators. But consider this: government regulators can only be manipulated by the lobbying and cozying when their hands are firmly on the wheel of that particular industry.
The unintended consequence in this legislative bid to create safer food is to push more and more production into fewer and fewer hands. As we all know, the more top-heavy a thing gets, the more prone it is to toppling (pick your metaphor: pyramids, the Eiffel tower, icebergs, Michael Dukakis...). As Tom Philpott writes, “the real systematic risk of the food system [is] the exponential expansion of hazard that comes from concentrating huge amounts of production in relatively small spaces.”
So, is there any solution? If we agree that even one death from food borne illness is too many (and it is), then how can we aim to squeeze out that lingering menace without artificially exacerbating the very problem we are trying to solve? How can we do to Lysteria what we did to malaria?
I may be waxing heretical, but might I suggest de-regulation? Contrary to myth, markets are in fact very good at giving us what we want, even if those things are intangibles like clean air or safe food.
Let me give you an example: As a producer of livestock and owner of a small (very small, according to the USDA) packing house, I know about the raft of bureaucratic “protections” between you and the beef I produce. There is little or no incentive for me to create a remarkably safer production system because my processes are effectively in the hands of our state inspector. The incentive among producers is to win the race toward the bottom, where you can most cheaply and easily meet the minimum standard. Imagine for a moment what the food world would look like if we made food safety a competitive advantage. What if I could demonstrate (through third-party quality assurance, a sophisticated testing regime, or something completely unthought-of of) that my beef was quantitatively safer than my competition? I suspect that the maligned self-interest of “money-grubbing capitalists” would be instantly harnessed toward the greater public good. I, for one, would probably behave considerably differently if I were continually striving for the next-higher grade on a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” instead of aiming simply for the “Inspected -- Passed” stamp.
We didn’t regulate malaria out of existence; we simply ensured that millions of empowered individual actors had the information to combat it (that, and some choice applications of DDT). Allowing food processors to compete for customers by marketing their very best possible food handling practices would have a similar effect.
Regulations are good for imposing minimums, but not at creating excellence. Since our food safety “problem” is clearly in the vanishing margins, excellence is what is needed. This can only really be attained when incentives are structured to push our producers (and consumers) to go the extra step to make food as safe as it can possibly be.
Many food advocates rightly criticize government meddling in the food sector in the late 1940s for attempting to create cheap food at tremendous ecological and sociological expense. Let us not condone the same mistake under the aegis of “safe food.”
Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher and a PERC Enviropreneur alum. He can be reached at AgrarianLiberty.com. For more from the Schwennesens on this topic, see here, here, and here.
That's the central question Holly Fretwell and Shawn Regan pose at Forbes.com, and it's an important one. Congress is currently proposing to permanently extend the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would set aside nearly a billion dollars each year to acquire more public land. But, as Holly and Shawn suggest, there is reason to believe it won't amount to much conservation:
Federal land management has largely resulted in poor stewardship of America's most treasured natural areas. Maintenance, in particular, has been dismal. The Forest Service estimates a backlog of $5 billion in deferred maintenance projects and the National Park Service has a backlog of more than $10 billion. The outcome is overflowing sewer systems, failing roads and ruined cultural resources.
But that hasn't stopped these agencies from acquiring even more land. Since 1960 the government has taken over more than 50 million acres--an area the size of Utah.
To an increasingly conservation-minded public, putting more land in government ownership might seem sensible. But, in reality, more federal land does not necessarily mean more conservation. The LWCF only provides funds for land acquisition, not for the care and maintenance of existing lands. And given the current management needs of the 650 million acres already owned by the government, spending millions acquiring new land is irresponsible.
Advances in efficiency might presage greater energy consumption?!
Yep. Here's how it works:
Common sense tells us that increasing energy efficiency reduces energy use. But this is not so. William Stanley Jevons first identified this paradox in his 1865 book, The Coal Question. Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which represented a vast improvement on Thomas Newcomen’s inefficient design.
Jevons pointed out that efficiency gains reduce the cost of energy, allowing the steam engine to penetrate other industries, i.e., textiles. This lead to an increase in the total energy consumed. Jevons wrote, "It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth."
The increase in the use of household appliances bears this out. As appliances become ever more energy efficient, we use more of them. Survey data for 1980 and 2001 shows increases in microwave ovens from 14 percent to 86 percent, dishwashers from 37 percent to 53 percent, and central air conditioning from 27 percent to 55 percent.
Even though energy efficiency has improved in almost every aspect of our society, overall energy consumption continues to grow. Improvements in energy efficiency are good for the economy and for people’s lives, but it doesn’t mean we’ll use less energy overall. We’ll use more, especially in the developing world. In their 2005 book, The Bottomless Well, Peter Huber and Mark Mills wrote, "Efficiency fails to curb demand because it lets more people do more, and do it faster—and more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains."
For over two decades, Defenders of Wildlife has paid outmore than $1.4 million to livestock owners that have had livestock killed by wolves. With wolf numbers on the rise, Defendersrecently announcedthey were ending their compensation program, but it appears--at least for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico--another nonprofit organizationwill take over the payment program.
Defenders of Wildlife on Friday wrapped up its long-standing program of compensating ranchers for livestock killed by endangered Mexican gray wolves, as the payment program is shifted to another nonprofit organization.
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started reintroducing gray wolves to a recovery area in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico in 1998, Defenders has paid ranchers in the two states $127,545 for the loss of livestock.
Now Fish and Wildlife is in the process of setting up a board of stakeholders, including both ranchers and conservationists, that will decide how to disburse funds managed by the Washington, D.C.-based National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The program has been dubbed the Mexican Wolf Interdiction Trust Fund.
Defenders will make a one-time contribution to seed the fund with enough to cover wolf compensation for several more years.
Founded 30 years ago in Bozeman, Montana, PERC—the Property and Environment Research Center—is the nation’s oldest and largest institute dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.
The goal of PERC’s programs is to fully realize the vision of establishing “PERC University,” where scholars, students, policy makers, and others convene to expand the applications of free market environmentalism.
PERC's fellowships share a common goal of exposing new scholars, students, journalists, and policy makers to free market environmentalism, as well as enable scholars already familiar with FME to explore new applications.