At the end of the 19th century, historians declared that the American frontier had closed. The Homestead Act had caused population density in the West to exceed two people per square mile—the metric the census used to gauge frontier status. Writing in 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner regretted the impact this would have on the character of the American individual. The frontier, he claimed, created freedom by “breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, [and] calling out new institutions and activities.” According to Turner, with the closing of the frontier went the American propensity to forge new ideas, institutions, and solutions in the face of new environments.
Now, more than a hundred years later, the Great Plains are experiencing Manifest Destiny in reverse— people are leaving in droves. Rural counties have lost 20 percent of their population since 1980, continuing a steady downward trend that dates back to the 1930s. The young are leading the exodus, seeking better opportunities elsewhere, and the median age in some rural counties is pushing 60. This situation in the Great Plains is widely portrayed as dire. The Atlantic described a “slow death in the Great Plains,” and the New York Times spoke of “dying towns” and futures “mired in poverty.”
Without a doubt, the plains are undergoing a period of economic and demographic change—agriculture provides only half as much employment and income to the region as it did in 1969—but where some see the death of a traditional way of life, others see a landscape full of new opportunities. Land values are rising and nonlocals are buying up property for investment or recreational purposes. Entrepreneurs are creating new enterprises by capitalizing on ecotourism and the preservation of environmental amenities, thus transforming the region’s traditional agriculture-rangeland paradigm into a new nature-based economy.
Hidden in this dynamic process of change is an irony: population density outside of metropolitan areas in the Great Plains has fallen to 1.5 people per square mile—well below frontier density. The frontier that Turner saw as the engine for new institutions and innovations has returned. What’s emerging is a new type of region—one that is led by entrepreneurs discovering innovative ways of combining traditional land management with new opportunities on the frontier.
Forests are a valuable part of the global carbon cycle. They hold the largest stock of terrestrial carbon on earth, mostly stored in living trees. Forests absorb, or sequester, carbon during photosynthesis. More carbon is absorbed in younger trees during faster growth phases. Carbon is emitted in decomposition and when wood is burned.
Net carbon refers to the difference between carbon absorbed and emitted. A forest is a source of carbon when emissions exceed sequestration. A forest is a carbon sink when absorption is greater than emissions. Net carbon from a forest is sensitive to natural conditions, forest disturbance, and forest management activities. Wildfire, for example, contributes about 5 percent as much emissions as does the nation’s coal production each year.
Wildfire can turn a forest that is a carbon sink at one time into a carbon source for many years that follow. Because wildfire is a major carbon source, reducing wildfire can help to control carbon emissions from the forest.
There are proposals to remove fuels in the forest to reduce fire severity. The 80/80 rule proposes to decrease woody debris in American forests by 40 to 50 percent which, in turn, would allow about 80 percent of the existing trees to sustain a fire. This can reduce wildfire carbon emissions by as much as 50 percent. But that is a lot of wood removal.
The last several decades have proven difficult for public land managers to remove timber. As wildfire and insect infestation become more prevalent, public forest management may see political tides begin to revert back toward increased timber removal.
An unintended consequence of landfilling garbage is the emission of greenhouse gases, yuck! A modern landfill, however, can capture nasty methane gas and turn it into electricity. Presently, about one-quarter of the municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills in the United States are capable of capturing methane gas and turning it into energy, making it available for homes and local industry. It is estimated that at least as many more also have the potential to capture energy.
Imagine this; maybe one day garbage will become a commodity.
Here's what not to buy for your kids: books like Where Does the Garbage Go?, Oil Spill!, and What’s So Bad About Gasoline?
As PERC fellow Andy Morriss writes in this essay on eco-propaganda for kids, "If these books are what kids grow up with today, we should hope they spend their time on video games instead of reading." The books are troubling, according to Morriss, because by "ignoring economics and by focusing on eco-politics, they get the solutions to environmental problems wrong."
Furthermore, as PERC's Holly Fretwell discusses in PERC Reports, many green-themed children's book, including classroom textbooks, are influenced “by an ideological view that presents human beings as evil.” The patriarch of the vogue green books is Carl Hiaasen, the author of Hoot and Scat. In Hiaasen's books children are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats. Good nature, bad capitalist is always the theme.
Finally, as Morriss points out:
The vision of the world these books present lacks human agency as anything other than motivating the mindless consumption that leads to ecological catastrophes. Not only is this a world missing entrepreneurs and inventors, there’s also no excitement to its vision of the future. Although I am still waiting for my personal jetpack, the world of the The Jetsons promised a future of excitement and fun rather than a grim time in which we merely replace our cars with hybrids. The optimism that prompted Julian Simon to term humanity “the ultimate resource” is missing from this literature.
So much for picture book classics like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel or The Little Engine that Could.
Armen Alchian, one of the most important economists of the 20th century, has passed away at his home in Los Angeles. He was 98.
Alchian grew up in Fresno, California, the son of Armenian refugees. His training at Stanford was in both economics and statistics. His early statistical work, as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, played a key role in enhancing pilot candidate selection procedures. The result: lower failure rates in pilot training programs, and superior performance where it counted—in combat.
After the war Alchian was offered appointments in both the statistics and economics departments at UCLA. Fortunately for economics, he opted to for the latter, and he spent his entire career there, save for occasional visiting positions. For many years, he also had an appointment at the RAND Corporation, where he played a key role in the formative years of that organization.
Alchian is best known to younger economists as one of the founders of the New Institutional Economics, but he began his career with important work on economic methodology—work that is regularly cited even today. He moved on to investigate the foundations of economic cost and production functions and, with Rueben Kessel, wrote a series of seminal papers on the economic effects of inflation. In the late 1950s, he began an inquiry into the economics of property rights, a research agenda that produced path-breaking papers over a span of nearly forty years. And, with Harold Demsetz and others, Alchian’s research on the theory of the firm has contributed importantly to our understanding of a wide array of economic institutions.
Alchian’s appetite for golf was legendary; on at least one occasion he showed up for class in golf shoes, having just finished “a quick nine” at his local course. One of his great friends and golfing partners was George Stigler who, Alchian claimed, asked a question on the course one day that led Alchian to write his famous paper on information costs and unemployment. Alchian continued to play well into his eighties, and even authored an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining why golf was the exemplary game of a capitalist society.
He was the consummate practitioner of the Socratic Method, and his students remember him as a terrifying and exhilarating master of the classroom. The terror stemmed from the prospect of being called upon by Alchian, for no diligence or foresight in preparing for class could withstand Alchian’s inquiries. The exhilaration arose from the simplicity, elegance, and power of the ideas that came out of every classroom session. Alchian was fascinated with the behavior he observed in the world around him, and every day he dissected another part of it in front of his students. It was a transformative experience for those privileged to enjoy (or, occasionally, suffer from) it.
Despite Alchian’s formidable classroom (and seminar) presence, he was fundamentally kind, shy, compassionate, and humble. He was a relentless debunker and intellectual inquisitor, and a passionate champion of individual liberty. Economics has lost a powerful force, and we have lost a man who exemplified the best of what humans can be.
Research director and long-time PERC fellow Donald Leal is retiring this month after nearly 30 years at PERC. Leal is best known for his work on property rights in marine fisheries and his 1991 book with Terry Anderson, Free Market Environmentalism, winner of the Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award and the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award. In his time at PERC, Leal has written and edited dozens of books, policy papers, and articles on fisheries, water, outdoor recreation, as well as timber and federal land use policy.
Don Leal helped move PERC out of the wilderness and into the center of the environmental research and policy world, leading to collaborations with Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Bank. In 2005, Leal was appointed to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and to the Ad Hoc Grouper IFQ Advisory Panel on rights-based fisheries management policy.
As a tribute to Don's legacy at PERC, we reached out to friends and colleagues for their reflections on Don's remarkable career.
Terry Anderson, president of PERC:
Don Leal came to PERC in 1985 as an experienced statistician, which he still is, but I couldn’t imagine what he had to offer PERC. Boy, was I wrong.
By 1988 we had published our first article in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. From that we went on publish 11 articles in journals, magazines, and newspapers. Of course, I brag most about us having an article in Fly Fisherman, even if it was on economics. I suppose now that Don is retired, he’ll publish there again, but this time without me and on the subject of “tight lines.”
It wasn’t long after his arrival that we began writing the first edition of Free Market Environmentalism, published in 1991. I don’t recall how we got started, but I do recall that it was a treat working with Don. I quickly realized that this statistician has economic insights and intuition that only a few economists can dream of, and he has a keen sense of what are the interesting applications of those tools. Writing that first edition and the second (2001) and Enviro-Capitalist: Doing Good While Doing Well (1997) and, now, the third edition were all team efforts.
During those early years, Don didn’t spend a lot of time going to meetings, though he was a key player in PERC conferences from his early days until his retirement. The fact that I was more in the limelight because I went to more meetings and conferences, led some to ask whether “Don Leal” was really a room full of graduate students who wrote things for me. Hardly! We were a team, and Don was my mentor as much as I might have been his.
The third edition of Free Market Environmentalism will have a subtitle of The Next Generation, that being a double entendre: the next generation of new applications and the next generation of “PERCies” because most chapters are co-authored with younger PERC scholars. Those co-authors are as lucky as I have been to work with and learn from Don.
Don definitely retires having left his mark on PERC, generally, and me, particularly. Free market environmentalism is Don Leal. I now only hope that he will continue to leave his mark on me by scoping out more pheasant hunting and fishing venues. With a little luck we will continue our team effort into the future, this time with more practical applications in the field.
Michael Arbuckle, senior fisheries advisor to the World Bank:
I have known Don and his work for over 20 years but have only fully appreciated his remarkable abilities over the last five years. During this period he has contributed greatly and lastingly to our work at the World Bank defining pathways for rights based reform of fisheries in the more challenging parts of the world.
In the game of rugby in New Zealand Don is akin to what we call a “safe pass.” He is at the center of the team, will never drop the ball, lifts others to do better and most importantly is not distracted into making mistakes. In environmental policy circles we desperately need “safe passes” like Don who can stay on message and keep property rights at the fore of our thinking. Don has done this service for PERC for many years and must be credited with contributing greatly to the global application of property rights in fisheries and in environmental policy more generally.
I wish the indomitable Don and his lovely partner Sandy a well-deserved retirement but sincerely hope that Don finds time to stay engaged in our work in some small way.
Holly Fretwell, research fellow at PERC:
When most people think of public lands they see visions of parks, campgrounds and roasting marshmallows, abundant wildlife, historic landmarks, and protected landscapes. Few delve behind the scenery to explore the tangled web of politics and public land management. That is where Don Leal became the don of the public lands.
Leal plunged into the PERC scene with an eye toward “environmental federalism.” In his early years at PERC, he completed numerous studies and books to clarify public land issues. In one of his eminent works on public lands, Leal compared the management structure of federal and state forestlands and the resulting outcomes. This was neither Leal’s first nor final study of the federal estate but one that changed the way PERC and others examine public land issues. Leal created a template that compared bureaucratic management incentives and environmental outcomes. The piece itself and the research it instigated helped motivate public land users and managers to look more closely at the desired outcomes and the policies needed to get there.
P.J. Hill, senior fellow at PERC:
One of the many pleasures of working with Don over many years has been his attitude towards those who disagree with him. Don has been at the heart of many intellectual battles over fisheries, government lands, and free market environmentalism generally. He has always been quick to respond with vigor, providing evidence and logic for his position. But his response has never been at the level of personal attacks, even when he has been subject to the same. And his workday world is remarkably free of complaints. What a great model of cheerful laboring for his ideas and the ideas of PERC.
Monica Lane Guenther, senior director for program management at PERC:
PERC always has prided itself in taking research from the bookshelf to policy makers. Don Leal’s research efforts have helped move PERC to another plain of influence in the policy arena. Don understands PERC’s strategic mission and his research in natural resources, and especially in fisheries management, put PERC in the international limelight. Don’s appointment to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and to the Ad Hoc Grouper IFQ Advisory Panel enhanced PERC’s reputation as an institute that generates practical solutions to environmental problems. Don was a consummate team player and demonstrated his leadership in mentoring and directing PERC’s young research fellows as they sought new research topics to apply the FME paradigm.
I value the years of friendship I have shared with Don. (He shared the miseries of chicken pox with my three children when they all came down with spots two weeks after enjoying a Super Bowl game at our home!) Don shared many hunting adventures (North Dakota-style, of course, where he learned bungee cords and duct tape are man’s best friend). Some of the best memories are yet to be told. For now, Don, you are entitled to a well-deserved retirement rich in seasons of successful hunting, fishing, reading, and relaxing.
For more on Donald Leal's important work on rights-based fisheries management watch the video and follow the links below:
Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will begin two days of oral arguments in a set of challenges to the EPA’s various rules applying the Clean Air Act to greenhouse gas regulations. These rules are the inevitable outgrowth of the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, as I explain here and here. For this reason, most of the industry challenges face tough sledding. For instance, given Mass v. EPA, it is difficult to argue that the EPA Administrator was wrong to conclude that the emission of greenhouse gases cause or contribute to air pollution that could be reasonably anticipated to threaten health or welfare. Yet this is one of the claims the industry groups have to make if they are to succeed. Similarly, it will be difficult to challenge the substance of the EPA’s rules governing GHG emissions from motor vehicles.
The more serious challenge to the EPA comes from the challenges to the so-called “tailoring rule” which is the EPA’s effort to apply some of the Clean Air Act’s stationary source provisions to greenhouse gases. The reason this challenge is more serious is because the EPA looked at the statutory requirements of these provisions and realized that implementation of the Act, as written, was impossible. The statutory thresholds that determine what facilities are covered are low enough that, when applied to GHGs, they increase the number of regulated facilities over 140-fold, according to EPA. The administrative costs of trying to process this many permits threatens to grind the EPA’s air office – and state air permitting authorities — to a halt. So, the EPA is trying to rewrite the relevant Clean Air Act provisions by administrative fiat. In the alternative, the EPA has argued, regulatory agencies would have to hire hundreds of thousands of new regulators to handle the permit applications. The problem for EPA is that the relevant emission thresholds are expressly written into the Clean Air Act, and there is no provision giving the EPA authority to modify these limits. So, what the EPA is asking for authority to do, is rewrite the law by administrative fiat — something no federal agency has the authority to do. This puts the D.C. Circuit in a tough place: either let EPA rewrite the law, or enforce a statutory provision that threatens to shut down the agency. Further evidence the Supreme Court was wrong in Mass. v. EPA, particularly when it suggested that applying the Clean Air Act to GHGs would pose no problems.
The John E. Walker Department of Economics recently created a new graduate fellowship in honor of PERC Senior Fellow and Professor Emeritus Bobby McCormick.
A Clemson University alumnus funded the fellowship in recognition of McCormick's inspiration and mentoring of numerous students throughout his career.
The anonymous donor was quoted as saying, "The Economics Department has many great professors, but Bobby McCormick is one of a kind. He was always willing to engage in intellectual discourse with anyone willing to think, anywhere and anytime. He cared enough about economics and his students to sharply criticize our work, helping us forge it into something immeasurably better. And I'd be shocked if there is another professor in America who has cooked more meals for more students over more years in his home. He cares more about people, more about ideas, and more about Clemson than anyone else I know. It's a great privilege to initiate this fellowship in his honor."
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.