December 6, 2017 1:32PM

Who Stole What from Whom?

I visited the Patagonia web site looking for some Christmas presents yesterday and learned that "the president stole my land." How horrible! So I looked into it and discovered that President Trump took federal land that was managed by a particular set of federal agencies under a particular set of restrictions and changed it into federal land managed by the very same federal agencies under a slightly different set of restrictions. Not to jump on Patagonia, whose clothing I've always enjoyed, but where's the theft in that?

Of course, what Trump did was reverse changes by Presidents Clinton and Obama, who first imposed the slightly different set of restrictions in 1996 (Clinton for the Grand Staircase-Escalante) and 2016 (Obama for the Bears Ears). I can say with absolute certainty that, when they made those changes in 1996 and 2016, many people in Utah said, "the president stole our land."

Supposedly, one issue is vandalism and destruction to Native American antiquities and artifacts. But such vandalism and destruction was equally illegal (under laws that are equally difficult to enforce) under both sets of restrictions, so claims that Trump's decision opens the areas to more looting or devastation are red herrings.

Another issue is energy, but that isn't very important either. Supposedly, there is coal in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area, but at the moment the United States has a surplus of coal and declining demand. Meanwhile, the state of Utah admits that Bears Ears has "very little energy potential." So why all the fuss?

We call the federal lands public lands, but in fact it would be better to call them political lands because decisions about their use are made by the political system, not by the public. Yes, the agencies pretend that the public has a say, but the reality is that those who want to have a say have to build up political power to do it. This creates an interesting set of incentives.

First, to build political power, you have to convince people there is a crisis. Thus, a small rule change becomes "the president stole your land." Second, to keep that political power, you have to compete with other groups who are nominally your allies, and the best way to compete is to be more radical than they are. Anyone who compromises is a sell-out and risks losing support to other more radical groups.

As a result, the political system promotes polarization and a winner-take-all mentality. There's no need to decide whether any particular acre of land is most suitable for wilderness, grazing, timber, or mining. Instead, just demand that all land be dedicated to your favorite use.

President Trump's reclassification of some Utah lands may lead to only minor changes in on-the-ground management, but he made them to cater to an important political constituency. The shrill response from environmental groups (and some recreation businesses such as Patagonia) caters to another political constituency, some of whom may be secretly happy to see Trump take this action so they can use it as a fund-raising and membership-building tool.

This is very different from the market system, which promotes cooperation and compromise. When a Wisconsin dairy decides to turn their milk into cheese instead of yogurt, you don't see the National Yogurt Society sending out impassioned emails claiming "the dairy stole your yogurt." If the price of yogurt goes up, some dairy or another will redirect some milk to yogurt production. In effect, every member of the public has a say in how milk will be used every time they buy (or don't buy) a dairy product, which in a real sense makes markets more democratic than the political system.

Some will argue that markets can't work for natural landscapes because they are a finite resource. But federal lands make up just 27 percent of the nation, and so long as the federal government gives away recreation and other "natural" uses of the land, private landowners have no incentive to provide such uses. If managers were allowed to charge market rates for recreation, private landowners would have an incentive to provide similar natural experiences, thus greatly increasing the land available for such uses.

Although many of my Cato colleagues would say the best way to transfer federal lands from the political system to the market system is to privatize them, I've argued that we can achieve the same results with less controversy by turning them into fiduciary trusts that are funded out of their own revenues, receiving no tax dollars. If fully carried out, this could take care of problems related to wildfire, endangered species, and a wide variety of other issues.

A less radical solution is the creation of collaborative partnerships that include interest groups and the agencies themselves. These are fragile (one collapsed on the death of just one partner) and often depend on continuing federal subsidies for success, so I am not as enthused about them. But they could be a short-term solution for the southern Utah monument lands.

Those who truly care about the federal lands would seek a better system than the one we have now for managing those lands. Those who seek to perpetuate the political system of management are often more interested in promoting their organizations than in improving on-the-ground management.