The American West is a peculiar place. For new arrivals from the East, the West can seem like an entirely different world. Across the 100th meridian, which roughly bisects the country, crops cannot grow without irrigation. Droughts are common. Winter storms are brutal. And the vast plains and mountain ranges can be both stunning and inhospitable.
As P.J. Hill writes in this issue, to survive on the frontier, early homesteaders like his grandfather had to constantly adapt to the world around them. Agricultural practices had to evolve. New technologies were needed. What worked in the East didn’t always work in the West.
Institutions had to change as well. Settlers established new rules to allocate scarce resources, define property rights, and settle disputes. Whether through bottom-up experimentation or top-down decree, these rules reflected the values and understandings of the era in which they were created.
Today, natural resource policy in the West is still dominated by what historian Charles Wilkinson has called “the lords of yesterday”—the 19th-century laws, policies, and ideas that emerged long ago but are in some cases ill-equipped to address new challenges. Too often, the result is conflict and poor management. As before, adaptation is needed.
Now, says Wilkinson, we must “cross a new meridian” by “gaining an understanding of the origins and content of old laws and policies, and then juxtaposing them with the needs of modern society.” Only then, he writes, can we “sort out those that work and those that do not” to move beyond the lords of yesterday and chart a course for better management.
This special issue of PERC Reports, supported by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, explores several such examples and offers ideas for reform. Whether it’s resolving disputes over the use of natural resources, meeting growing demands for outdoor recreation, or reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires, the ever-changing West once again requires us to adapt. The challenge, from our vantage point, is to do so in ways that respect property rights, encourage voluntary exchange, and promote cooperation to conserve the region’s precious resources.
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