Property Rights Are Crucial to Protecting Our Environment

Property Rights Are Crucial to Protecting Our Environment

As discussed below, property rights are as important to protecting the environment as they are as guarantors of individual liberty.


NOTE: this article was originally published to on May 15, 2020. It was written by Nick Lindquist.


While they’ve long been recognized as a guarantor of individual liberty, it’s time we acknowledged the vital role they can also play in conservation.

Nature is inherently valuable, and preserving it is inherently conservative. We need trees and wetlands to protect us from floods. We need water to drink. We need fertile soil to grow crops. Conservatives have long understood this, and have taken steps to treat our invaluable natural environment right.

From Nixon’s EPA to George H.W. Bush’s Clean Air Act, conservatives have a rich history of environmental stewardship. Despite these wins, of course, there is still a long way to go for those who wish to protect the environment. And an under-discussed solution to many of our most persistent environmental problems fits perfectly within conservatism: stronger property rights.

Property rights go deeper than just the physical ownership of property; they also refer to the understanding of all parties involved about how a good or resource can be used. The weaker the understanding of property rights is, the less ideal the outcomes will be.

For example, if a rancher and a public-land agency have a weak mutual understanding of what is and isn’t allowed on a given plot of leased public land, a tragedy-of-the-commons effect is bound to rear its head, furthering the degradation of the land in question. This is a reality across thousands of acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management, in our National Parks, and on many other publicly held lands. By better defining what is and isn’t allowed on such lands, we can reduce environmental degradation and its costs to taxpayers.

Making the regulatory scheme that governs federal lands more equitable would further the same aims. From the Nature Conservancy to Ted Turner, there’s a very large appetite for private conservation efforts in the United States. Private conservation happens mostly on private land. But there are plenty of private conservationists who want to pay land-management agencies like the BLM for the right to conserve public lands, much in the same way ranchers and other businessmen pay the BLM for the right to use those lands. And those conservationists are forced to compete with industrial concerns on a grossly uneven playing field: They aren’t allowed to bid for much of the public land that businesses can bid for, despite the ability and willingness to pay for it. Though some have broken through this by technically ranching on the land, many have failed. Our public land should be open to private conservation efforts as it is open to businesses.

Western water markets are also an example of poorly drawn, dated property-rights rules. Water in America’s West is different from water in its East. For one thing, there’s a lot less of it available. For another, many of the rules and regulations around it were developed as far back as westward expansion and are in dire need of updating. A prime example of this is the “use it or lose it” rule. Rather than incentivizing water conservation, “use it or lose it” incentivizes the opposite: It encourages ranchers and landowners to divert as much water from rivers and streams as they can, because they will lose the rights to however much water they don’t divert the following year. The result is that water is unevenly distributed, much of it is wasted, and the water-scarcity challenges faced by states such as California and Colorado are exacerbated. If “use it or lose it” was done away with, water conservation would be incentivized without disrupting anyone’s access to water. Water could be traded and sold through market systems and water rights would be much better defined.

Property rights are part of the foundation on which the nation was founded, and they’ve stood the test of time. But while they’ve long been recognized as a guarantor of individual liberty, it’s time we acknowledged the vital role they can also play in protecting the environment we all share. They are a quintessentially conservative means to a quintessentially conservative end.

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.
  • I agree that ‘use it or lose it’ needs to be clarified and quantified. Colorado is an example of poorly managed water plan….where the state owns and allocates all water. I am not sure that Texas law ‘right off capture’ is much better, especially in the bone dry habitats of the Trans Pecos and nearby counties.

  • How do we fix policies like ‘use it or lose its in Colorado, or ‘right of capture’ in Texas.? Both of these policies are anti conservation and extremely pro ‘big’ business

    • I agree, but I am not sure how we get there. Here are some thoughts however.

      First, distinguish between groundwater (wells) and surface water (streams and rivers).

      Surface water is reserved by the states. Because of the formulae that establish how much water is available, and the process by which it is allocated, most if not all water basins are, in a regulatory sense, in a deficit which means none is left for private use – commercial or domestic.

      So private and commercial users turn to groundwater. Dentists’ offices, bottled water and hydraulic fracturing fall into this category. The “law of the biggest straw” (Right of Capture) is fast fading and being replaced by regulations both scientific and bureaucratic. As a result, Right of Capture no longer exists in its purest form.

      Every state has it’s own recipe; Texas’ is terrible until you compare it to any other.

  • It seems to me that there is some general confusion in this country over the use of the terms Conservative and Conservationist. The topics you mention (allowing conservation-minded groups to bid on the use of public lands, and fixing the arcane water laws of the west) are certainly fine examples of conservation/ecological-based thinking, but they are typically strenuously opposed by folks who self-identify as conservative. Folks I chat with who claim to be “conservative” see extraction as the only significant value that public lands bring. Conservationists, just the opposite.

    • I take your point about “extraction thinking” John.

      Generalizations are often inaccurate and unfair, but I would say that conservatives would be more inclined to seek market solutions than liberals. Conservatives distrust ‘conservationists’ who they think are liberals, and who they rightly believe often ignore the social and economic consequences of their actions. The challenge is to get conservatives to embrace the environmental considerations of liberals and liberals to accept economic rather than big government fixes. That’s the middle ground towards which PERC is trying to move both sides.

      Thanks for your comment.

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