How the Greens Went Red

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As many supporters of the free market have observed, the mainstream environmental movement firmly supports big government. Yet this wasn’t always true, and it is conceivable that it won’t always be true in the future.

I worked as a free-market environmentalist within the environmental movement for many years, and I still have many friends within the movement who support free-market ideas. I’ve found that the environmental movement is really many different movements, although they mostly fall into two categories. My friend John Baden likes to call them “romance and sludge.” I worked mostly in the romance area – forests, parks, wilderness, and wildlife – and only peripherally in the sludge area – air and water pollution, solid waste, and toxic chemicals. So my view may be a bit skewed, but my experiences should still be useful to those who want to promote free-market solutions to environmental problems.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1862. But he also wrote, “that government is best that governs not at all.” Unlike many environmentalists today, Thoreau did not view government as the best, or even an appropriate, way to preserve the wildness that he valued so highly. Since Thoreau’s time, conservationists and environmentalists have had a love-hate relationship with government. Some have pursued preservation using entirely private means. Others have focused on government programs – but almost invariably have been disappointed with the results. Only in recent years have environmentalists tied themselves almost exclusively to big-government programs.

In 1890, less than 30 years after Thoreau’s death, conservationists in Massachusetts followed his teachings by forming the Trustees of Reservations, the world’s first private land trust. The group has since purchased 25,000 acres of land that it preserves as parks and wildlife refuges.

But the 1890s also saw the growth of big-government conservation. This resulted from several quirks in American history.

First, American common law, which normally was based on British common law, departed from the English precedent when it came to wildlife. In England, wildlife was owned by the owners of the land on which the wildlife resided. If a bird flew from my land to your land, the ownership transferred as soon as it crossed the property line. If I wanted to hunt birds or other wildlife, I had an incentive to manage my property in a way that would attract the wildlife.

Most land in 18th-century England was owned by comparatively few people, and much of the land in colonial America was also ‘in a few hands. Early American courts decided that it was unfair that wildlife should be owned by a few private landowners; they therefore changed the common law so that wildlife would be owned by everyone. In many colonies (and this remains true in some states today) if I hunt on my own land, I cannot legally stop you from also hunting on my land. This removed the incentive to protect wildlife or wildlife habitat.

The ultimate result of these changes in the law was that, by the 1880s, populations of elk, bison, and birds such as the passenger pigeon were being hunted to extinction by people who sold the carcasses for meat. In 1887, future president Theodore Roosevelt founded the Boone & Crockett Club to lobby for regulation of hunting. Under state laws promoted by the club, people could hunt only for their own personal use, and not sell the meat to shops or restaurants; even personal hunting was severely restricted. Since state wildlife agencies charged fees to hunt, and got to keep those fees, the states effectively became owners of the wildlife and had an incentive to recover huntable species.

There remained little incentive to protect the habitat of wildlife that were not huntable, and this eventually led to passage of the federal Endangered Species Act. Yet if it had not been for American common law, private measures to protect wildlife and their habitat might have been sufficient to keep most species from going extinct.

A second quirk led to the creation of the world’s first national park. When early Californians recognized the scenic beauty in Yosemite Valley, which was mostly in federal ownership, they persuaded Congress to turn it into a park in 1864. But Congress simply handed the park over to the state of California to manage as a state park.

An 1870 expedition to the Yellowstone country led to a proposal that the geyser areas also be made into a park. But Wyoming would not become a state until 1890, so in 1872

Early American courts decided that wildlife was owned by everyone. The result was that by the 1880s, populations of elk and bison were being hunted to extinction.


Congress turned Yellowstone into the world’s first national park. Up to that point, Congress had a policy of disposing of all federal land as rapidly as possible. Yellowstone set a precedent that the federal government could and should retain land for conservation.

In 1890, John Muir successfully lobbied Congress to take Yosemite back from California and make it into a national park as well. In 1891, Congress passed a law allowing the president to reserve forest lands in federal ownership, thus preventing their transfer to settlers or timber companies. Soon, the federal government was managing more than 100 million acres of land for conservation purposes.

The third quirk was that concern about conservation grew at about the same time as the Progressive movement, America’s version of socialism. The two fed off each other. On one hand, Progressives cited conservation issues as examples of private failure and the need for government action. On the other hand, conservationists used the growing power of the Progressives to achieve their goals of land and wildlife conservation.

Most environmental histories of the era focus on the debate between preservationists such as Muir, who wanted to stop dams, timber cutting, and overgrazing on public lands, and conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot, who believed in using resources “wisely.” The two sides clashed in the famous debate about proposals to build a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Pinchot’s support of the dam (which was completed in 1923) had a hidden agenda: he wanted dams and power stations to be owned by the public, not by private electrical companies. Yet in their desire for public ownership, Pinchot and Muir were in agreement. Muir, in fact, disdainfully called Henry David Thoreau “that huckleberry picker” because he realized Thoreau would not have supported government conservation programs.

The preservation-conservation debate resumed in the 1960s. In the early 1900s, however, it was much less important than a debate over who should practice conservation: the federal government or states and private landowners. This debate is largely forgotten today.

Pinchot – the first chief of the Forest Service and a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s “kitchen cabinet” – strongly believed that the federal government should control all conservation programs. This view was challenged by those who still believed in limited government. Many westerners in particular felt threatened by Pinchot’s aggressive campaigns to keep half or more of the land area of their states in federal ownership. When Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, appointed former Seattle Mayor Richard Ballinger as head of the Department of the Interior, Pinchot decided to demonize Ballinger as someone willing to sacrifice conservation principles by allowing the transfer of federal resources to private owners.

Ballinger had done nothing legally or ethically wrong. But to keep the subject in the press, the independently wealthy Pinchot maneuvered Taft into firing him from his job as Forest Service chief. This made Pinchot into a martyr for the conservation cause, and helped him to attract 10,000 people to a National Conservation Congress in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1910.

Most of the delegates at the congress were handpicked for their support of federal conservation. As a courtesy, Pinchot invited St. Paul resident and railroad baron James J. Hill, who had spoken many times before on the need for soil conservation, to speak at the convention. Hill was a strong conservationist, who practiced what he preached. Among other things, he created the Great Northern Railway Extension Service, which taught farmers about soil conservation, paid them to engage in demonstration projects, and donated money to land reclamation programs. But he was skeptical about federal involvement in conservation.

So, rather than talk about soil conservation, Hill used his hour at the Conservation Congress to tear into the idea of federal conservation. Conservation “has come into that peril from which no great truth escapes,” Hill told the convention. “It has been used to forward that serious error of policy, the extension of the powers and activities of the national government at the expense of those of the states.” He proceeded to give example after example of how the states and private landowners were better than federal agencies at conserving resources, emphasizing “the extravagant financial tendency of every federal department and bureau.” “It might be said of certain administrators,” he added, in a clear swipe at Pinchot’s efforts to claim as much of the West as possible for the Forest Service, that “they make a desert and call it conservation.”

Hill’s speech shook up the convention. One of Pinchot’s supporters responded by accusing Hill of hypocrisy because his railroad had accepted federal land grants – although the Great Northern was built without land grants and the only federal land grants Hill ever owned were those belonging to bankrupt railroads that he had purchased at fair market value. Angry western governors led a walkout of opponents of federal conservation to a conference of their own in Salt Lake City.

It was too late. For the next 50 years, the federal government would be the nation’s conservation leader and anyone who challenged that leadership would be demonized as anticonservation.

Except for some debates over dams, this mindset would not be questioned until the 1960s, when the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management accelerated timber cutting, mining, and livestock grazing on federal lands, often with heavy subsidies from taxpayers. Hunters, hikers, anglers, water users, and others felt betrayed when they saw that agencies created to conserve resources had become the ones most responsible for their destruction or exploitation. To distinguish themselves from conservationists – now a tainted term – these people began calling themselves environmentalists.

When I joined the environmental movement in the early 1970s, it included people of all political persuasions, from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats. It even included a few Marxists, who were treated by the rest with the same fondness that you might accord to a slightly crazy uncle. There was no litmus test for participation; nuclear engineers worked on antilogging campaigns while loggers worked on antinuclear campaigns and agreed that they wouldn’t have to agree on all issues.

No one questioned government ownership of national parks and national forests, but no one thought that the government was their friend; all their experience had shown exactly the opposite. The goal was to save the planet, and if capitalism would save it, they would endorse that as readily as anything else that might work.

The election of Ronald Reagan coincided with the “sagebrush rebellion,” a backlash of lumber, mining, and ranching interests against the environmental movement, and led to the first serious proposals to privatize federal lands in at least 70 years. Since the privatizers were identified with the sagebrush rebels, most environmentalists automatically opposed privatization. But some recognized that the privatizers had a point: the federal government had not turned out to be the savior of natural resources that Gifford Pinchot had promised.

In the 1980s, I published a monthly magazine called “Forest Watch” that gave a fair hearing to the privatizers and challenged environmentalists who hated federal land management but couldn’t support privatization to come up with a better solution. The only alternative some could propose was to proscribe everything they personally didn’t want to do. “No logging, no mining, no grazing, and no off-road vehicles,” one wrote to me.

Others were more thoughtful. Sally Fairfax, a nominally left-wing professor of natural resources at the University of California at Berkeley, decided to look at how the states managed their land. She found that, in many ways, James J. Hill

In 1872 Congress turned Yellowstone into the world’s first national park. Up to that point, Congress had a policy of disposing of all federal land as rapidly as possible.


was right: the states were conservators at least as good as and in some respects better than the Forest Service and other federal agencies. The difference, she found, was that the states often treated their lands as fiduciary trusts, a practice that completely changed land managers’ legal obligations and scope of authority.

Starting with Ohio, the federal government granted lands to most states to sell or manage in order to provide revenues for schools. The courts interpreted these grants as trusts, and placed on the states the same obligations that would be placed on a trustee of the funds that someone might put in trust for their children or grandchildren. Fairfax found that court interpretations of trust law forced state land managers to be both more environmentally and more fiscally responsible than federal land managers.

Meanwhile, in 1988, Island Press published my book, “Reforming the Forest Service,” which proposed to U marketize” the national forests by allowing them to charge fair market value for recreation and other resources, funding them exclusively from receipts, and removing, not adding to, most of the regulations that managers worked under. Recreation would become the dominant source of revenue on most forests, I predicted, and this would lead managers to be more environmentally sensitive even as they produced whatever timber, minerals, and other resources could pay their way.

My proposal received cautious support from many environmentalists, including (at least briefly) the Wilderness Society and a few other major groups. For a time, the only significant opponent was the Sierra Club, which believed everyone should be charged to use the national forests, except for its own members and other wilderness users, who should all get in for free on the theory that they didn’t do any harm to the land. The group’s leaders were immune to my argument that basing user fees on the amount of harm users did would only give the agencies incentives to emphasize activities that did the most harm.

The fall of the Soviet Union persuaded many Americans that socialism didn’t work. Ironically, however, it strengthened the strains of socialism in the environmental movement. In the early 1990s, polls showed that the vast majority of Americans believed that government screwed everything up, but polls also showed that most Americans still believed environmental protection was one of the few things the government could do. So American socialists joined the environmental movement as one of the few places where their big-government programs were still welcome.

“I remember the beginnings of this trend,” says former Greenpeace leader Patrick Moore, “when young activists in army fatigues and red berets began to show up in Greenpeace offices as volunteers.” My own recollection is that people who said they had previously worked as labor organizers showed up to volunteer for environmental groups. They quickly demonized anyone who disagreed with their extreme views and drummed them out of the environmental movement.

Ironically, the strongest resistance to the socialists came from the Washington DC staffs of the various environmental groups. Like any inside-the-beltway lobbyists, these people were essentially incrementalists who didn’t want to lose their seats at the tables of power by proposing anything too radical. But when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, the national groups that had based their funding strategies on the perceived threat of a Republican in the White House suddenly lost many of their more moderate members.

At about the same time, liberal foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts discovered environmental issues and began generously funding groups that had previously relied on members for support. Thus, the loss of members who did not agree with the extremists had little effect on environmental funding. A few of the foundations were overtly socialist, but I suspect that others simply jumped on the bandwagon because it became respectable within the foundation community to fund environmental causes. Of course, for the big-government advocates, global warming became the ideal issue. On one hand it is such a complex problem that it is virtually impossible to prove whether or not it is actually happening or what its effects will be. On the other hand, if it is happening, it is difficult to imagine a cure that doesn’t involve the heavy hand of government. So people working on all sorts of environmental problems quickly learned to tie their issues to climate. “To stop global warming, we have to save the forests/stop driving/end the use of plastic grocery bags/shut down any activity that happens to disturb my idea of utopia.”

At the same time, I remain convinced that the environmental movement is not inextricably tied to big-government solutions. Most rank-and-file environmentalists are far from socialists, and even many of the leaders are willing to question government programs if they think they can do it without losing their funding. For many environmentalists, environmental protection remains the goal, and the means to achieve that goal is still open to debate.

Free-market advocates who work on environmental issues are sometimes frustrated with the big-government leanings of the movement and spend much of their time trying to discredit environmental leaders or claiming that environmental problems don’t even exist. To the general public, such environmental bashing is not very persuasive.

A more effective approach is to identify real environmental problems and show how markets will solve those problems better than government regulation. For example, the Reason Foundation promotes road pricing as a solution to traffic congestion and the pollution that is associated with that congestion. The Property and Environment Research Center has shown how improved property rights can protect water for both fish and people. Some of my own recent work has combined the idea of marketizing public land agencies – that is, allowing the agencies to charge fair market value for all uses and funding the agencies exclusively out of those fees – with the idea of turning these agencies into fiduciary trusts that would be obligated to work in the marketplace while they protect wildlife, watersheds, and other resources. Such efforts can be used to build bridges to people who genuinely want to protect the environment and not just use environmental issues to promote a big-government agenda.

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