Monday, October 05, 2009

Of National Parks and Public Property

Last week we took our family on vacation to three national parks that are in relatively close proximity to each other. Throughout our trip we were blessed with clear blue skies and moderate temperatures.

We knew that putting all seven of us together in a single vehicle for many hours of driving and then jamming us into cramped sleeping accommodations over several days and nights might create a little too much ‘family togetherness,’ but we determined to do it anyway. The experience turned out to be manageable and occasionally pleasant, with only rare threats of physical violence.

Three national parks
We first visited and did some hiking in Zion National Park. Although I do a fair amount of backcountry activity, that is not a favored pastime for some family members, so we stuck to the heavy tourist zones. During much of the year, you can’t drive your private vehicles on the park’s scenic drive. You park your vehicle and ride shuttle buses instead. Although you can choose to walk or ride a bicycle on the drive, the narrow roadway makes that a hazardous proposition.

We enjoyed seeing deer, wild turkeys, chipmunks, various fowl, and even a robust mountain sheep ram (that we caught on video). I think the family’s favorite activity was when we stopped at a pullout on the Zion Mount Carmel Highway for some unstructured playing in the sand and climbing around on the ‘slickrock’ formations.

We next visited Grand Canyon National Park. We went to the less popular North Rim that boasts a number of viewpoints offering various spectacular views of the canyon and the surrounding area. My wife discovered a newfound sense of acrophobia that only struck her when she saw her children scrambling around close to the edges of some of the sheer drop-offs. That’s the innate motherly urge to protect one’s offspring at work.

I think that of the three parks we visited, the kids were least impressed with the Grand Canyon. I thought it was amazing, but it was a bit hazy the day we were there. Also, a couple of our kids are prone to motion sickness and there is a lot of driving on winding mountainous roads to get to the various North Rim viewpoints.

The final featured destination of our trip was Bryce Canyon National Park. We spent most of a day visiting the various viewpoints. It was quite breezy at some of the viewpoints. It seemed to me that most visitors went to the viewpoints concentrated at the north end near the lodge and camping areas and that fewer visitors went to the viewpoints to the south, which offer more expansive views. The rock formations are magnificent at every viewpoint.

Three of my sons hiked with me to Queen’s Garden. This offers a view of the formations from the bottom up. The 1.6-mile round trip hike beginning at Sunrise Point can be challenging, although the trail is very good. We encountered a number of senior citizens on the hike, some using canes.

The foreign element
Everywhere we went we encountered foreigners. Most were from Europe, although, some were from Asia or Latin America. Having grown up with a German father, it was fairly easy for me to make out and understand the Germans. I was able to chat for quite a while with some Danes, who understood my Norwegian. I think that my oldest son was correct in his estimation that we encountered more foreign visitors than American visitors.

We springboarded off of Utah’s two-day educator association school break and took the kids out of school a couple more days to pull this off. I really hate taking the kids out of school because getting caught up on missed work can be difficult. But this was an educational experience as well. And this was the perfect time of year to go. It wasn’t desperately hot and the crowds were smaller.

The dark side of national parks
I have a love-hate relationship with our national parks and other public properties. I have enjoyed using such properties throughout my life. As I have become more conservation minded, I have become aware of the open secret that the U.S. Government demonstrates stunning incompetence in managing lands under its control.

It’s not that the people involved in government land management are bad. But they’re caught in a system that charges them with impossibly implementing conflicting policies. As Randal O'Toole explains in this analysis, “The fundamental problem is, not federal incompetence, but the political allocation of natural resources to favored constituencies, which subsidizes some at the expense of others and inflicts harm on both the ecological system and the economy as a whole.”

The history of federal lands policy is rife with proclamations made by executive fiat, circumventing the legislative branch and appropriate public debate. Although many hail these as hallmarks of this or that environmentally friendly president, they are actually a characteristic of bad government.

Public property often suffers from the tragedy of the commons, because when everyone owns a resource, no one has adequate incentive to properly care for it.

Many libertarian minded people argue for complete privatization of public lands. Under the Coase Theorem, privatization would offer the most efficient use of and access to the land. Most people can only imagine negative outcomes from such schemes. Most people assume that putting Yellowstone National Park into private hands, for example, could only result in keeping most of us out.

Trusting lands
O’Toole realizes that privatization isn’t an immediately likely scenario. So he suggests public land trusts. The concept of a public land trust is explained fairly well at this site. The author explains that “Land trusts respond rapidly to conservation needs and operate in cities, rural, and suburban areas.”

Land trusts work in places like “the California coast at Big Sur; in the San Juan Islands, Washington State; at Jackson Hole, Wyoming; along the Appalachian Trail; in New York's Adirondacks; and at Acadia National Park in Maine.”

The key feature of a land trust is to transfer actual ownership of the property to the trust. In this case, it would be a publicly owned trust. Although public ownership would leave some of the same problems inherent in the current system, the public trust system would create incentive for the trust to better manage the property.

No doubt this would be an imperfect solution. But perhaps it could be politically feasible.


Charles D said...

The reason a private/public trust might be better at managing public lands has to do with the political pressure on government. Obviously there is no particular reason why people working for one non-profit entity would have a greater incentive to manage land appropriately than people working for another.

Over the last 30 years, pressures from conservatives have stripped money from the Federal Park Service, outsourced and privatized components of park and visitor management resulting in higher costs on less professional management, and appointed administrators and directors who were opposed to the mission of the agencies they were supposed to run. I doubt any entity could have succeeded under those conditions.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Your partisan criticisms are far too myopic. Even if none of the evil conservative elements you describe had been present, the state of our public lands would not be any better than at present, and it may even be worse.

It seems that progressives continually seek to bring greater and greater amounts of property under the control of government, despite government's demonstrably horrible track record in exercising a proper stewardship.

Not that using the government to give special treatment to certain enterprises is any better.