Want to Promote Conservation? Protect Property Rights!

President Obama recently launched the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, asking for comments on what the administration can do to promote outdoor conservation. From what we’ve seen in the past, whenever the Democrats talk about “conservation,” they’re really asking, “how can we take more land for the federal government?”

If President Obama really wants to promote outdoor conservation, he should create more opportunities for private ownership and respect individual property rights. People who have a vested interest in something, whether it’s land or an iPod, are more likely to take care of it. Land ownership naturally creates incentives to protect the property.

We see examples of this all over the world. Niger for instance, is much greener now because the government allowed citizens to own trees. According to the New York Times,

"From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them…But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them."

However, the Administration has continually used conservation as an excuse to trample on property rights. Take the passage of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, as an example. The legislation included over 100 land grab bills that designated millions of acres of land as either wilderness protected or heritage areas.

Wilderness areas are lands that the government protects from most human influence. Anything that requires a mechanical device to operate, like a bicycle, is strictly prohibited. This means no businesses can develop to hire people, and exploration for new minerals is off limits. Heritage areas on the other hand, restrict the use of land and property for historic preservation. The government can regulate property to such an extent that the owner could lose any beneficial use of the property.

There are 756 designated wilderness areas and 49 national heritage areas. Creating more would only be a drain on the taxpayers and the National Park Service—which is already dealing with a $9 billion maintenance backlog. For the sake of the economy, any talk of increasing wilderness or heritage areas should be cut off.

Literally shrinking the size of government and respecting private property are the best ways to promote conservation. Private citizens would do a better job of protecting land than the government could ever hope to.