By NICO PERUGINI
There are few things that are more American than the public lands that form our national parks system and protect wild animals. These vast wilderness preserves were established more than 100 years ago for the common enjoyment and recreation of the stunning scenery and recreational opportunities they offer. It is shocking that 70 percent of the public land they have been granted historically has been sold by states, considering how popular protection of these lands can be.
How do markets and legislation influence the frequency of the sale public lands? There are clear trends in prioritizing the short-term economic interests and government over the well-being and environment of the public. Current and future generations of Americans are being robbed by the rich natural capital and essential ecosystem service provided by the natural world.
Some natural resources are unrivalled and everyone can have them. However, there are limited quantities that are available for sale. These include land and timber, water, or minerals.
Natural capital stocks can be described as resources that are not subject to public control, but have public benefits. These resources are often highly valuable but finite in value and are therefore both rivals and exclusionary for firms when they are extracted. Although markets have been relatively efficient in allocating these resources, they fail to properly account of intangible public goods like flood regulation or carbon sequestration.
In mainstream economics, and current business practices pollution is simply viewed as an inevitable consequence of production. The externalities or costs of private operations often spillover into the public sector, leaving it to bear the consequences of environmental destruction and remediation.
Because of decades of unregulated extractive private operations in Montana for decades, taxpayers are left with billions in cleanup costs incurred in the past by defunct mining companies. While a few corporate executives were able to make a lot of money from irresponsible and environmentally reckless business practices, the public was not as fortunate. These kinds of situations are quite common. They often arise from the sale or leasing of public land to corporations for their economic activity. This can leave beautiful environments in ruin and incur huge costs over the long-term.
The question of whether the net profit from the sale of public lands to private entities is greater than the insurmountable development and mining costs begs the question:
The value of land as a whole depends on the services and goods that are being assessed. In mainstream theory, there is no mechanism to account for the long-term degradation ecosystem services. It is also nearly impossible to price public goods like clean air.
An old-growth tree will not be valued on its ability or capacity to absorb waste or provide clean air. Instead, the market price for timber may be used to value it and it could be sold for pennies on each dollar of its true value. The ability of ecosystems and their ability to regenerate naturally is under threat due to the current scale of resource extraction. Ecosystems that have little conventional monetary value should be ignored and eradicated.
Modernization of property ownership is possible through a system that can accurately account for the natural resource value and entrust it to the public today and in the future. One such system is the a Common Asset Trust(CAT) uses the concept of common assets to fundamentally claim the ownership rights to natural capital to all people. It also implements a trust which is an adaptable legal structure designed to manage assets and protect their beneficiaries.
A CAT, which is a collection agreement, institutions, and funds that work together, aims to sustainably manage natural assets so that they do not run out. The CAT controls are enforced by society’s cooperation and the government. This ultimately ensures that property rights agreements are not violated.
A few trusts are in place that are highly effective and can be used as a framework to make future efforts more extensive. The United States has the following example: Alaska Permanent FundThe, a managed trust that is available to all Alaska residents, even those in the future, exists independently from the state treasury. It receives 25 per cent of oil revenue. Half of the returns are invested and used to build schools and highways. The remainder is distributed equally to Alaskan residents. Residents will receive $1,114 as a dividend from oil companies operating in the state.
To ensure that future generations can enjoy the same benefits as we do today, concepts such as CATs need to be promoted and formalized. Although there is no current legislation, Americans share the belief that common resources should be part of the general public.
We have an opportunity to end the current flawed system and create a new system that values people and promises to ensure that future generations can enjoy the benefits of the natural world. If you care about the issue and want to make a difference, please call or email your elected officials.
Nico Perugini, a Barrington (R.I. High School) graduate in 2019, is a junior at University of Vermont.