Rather than uniting the communities of the American West, the region’s natural resources often divide them. From the decades-long “water wars” between agricultural and environmental users, to altercations over livestock grazing on public lands, to the seemingly endless litigation over forest management, natural resource conflicts in the West seem more numerous and acrimonious than ever.
A major source of this tension is the shifting demands placed on the region. In recent decades, the extraction of resources such as timber, forage, and minerals has been overshadowed by “New West” values that prioritize environmental amenities, primarily outdoor recreation and conservation values. Demographic and land-use patterns are also changing, with population decline in rural communities mirrored by growth and development in urban and suburban areas.
The political process, by its very nature, tends to pit these competing demands against one another in a zero-sum struggle. One side wins only if the other side loses. As a result, expenditures on lobbying and litigation over natural resources are increasing, while public investment in the stewardship of these resources is either flat or declining.
The chasm between traditional commodity extraction and non-traditional amenity enjoyment is often made wider by the institutions that govern natural resources in the West. Legal and political institutions that raise the cost of resolving competing demands cooperatively through markets only exacerbate the acrimony over the use of resources in the region.
This special issue of PERC Reports, supported by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, explores the shifting demands placed on the West’s natural resources. It seeks to encourage a rigorous discussion of solutions that promote cooperation instead of conflict, entrepreneurship instead of acrimony, and compromise instead of litigation.
The articles in this issue explore ways we can more amicably resolve competing demands between Old West and New West values—sometimes by reforming the institutions that govern the use and enjoyment of natural resources, and other times by advancing entrepreneurial, market-based solutions. But like everything we do at PERC, it is ultimately about replacing political conflict with voluntary cooperation. And that has the potential to make the West—and the world beyond—an even better place.