In June, I had the opportunity to attend a student colloquium hosted by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) on the theme of “Property Rights, Markets, and Freedom.” PERC is an institute based out of Bozeman, Montana. For more than thirty years, the institute has steadily been advancing the concept of free market environmentalism. I must admit – the experience of being the only Canadian in a group of twenty-five students from all across the United States was just as interesting as the topics discussed during the week!
PERC staff at the conference who have been involved with the organization since its inception explained how when PERC was founded by several Montana State University economics professors, they were labeled as “fringe economists” and called crazy. This was all because they dared to question why, as economists, they were constantly encouraged to think about how the market can be the best way to solve a wide range of problems simply through its assignment of property rights, except when it came to environmental issues. These professors questioned why the environment was so different, and came up with the novel idea that maybe it isn’t so different, and maybe, just maybe, property rights could be used to bring about solutions to environmental problems.
The wide range of speakers and many socratic discussions among participants made for an informative week, but one experience in particular stands out for me. This was a visit to the Granger Ranch, a working cattle ranch where fifth generation rancher Jeff Laszlo has been conducting a private conservation initiative to restore a wetland located on his ranch, at the headwaters of Madison River and O’Dell Creek.
Jeff explained that his incentive for restoration is the result of the fly-fisherman who pay for access to waterways on his property pointing out that the water quality and fish population were not what they used to be. Motivated to fix the problem in order to keep this source of income, Jeff traced the problem to the ditches where a wetland once was. Private funding (and some public funding accessed through existing programs) as well as knowledge and labour from scientists and others familiar with wetlands has made the project a success.
For those interested, more detailed information about Jeff’s project can be found here. But what you really need to know is that in the 1950s the wetland was drained as part of a government initiative, and now a landowner, exercising his property rights, chose to restore it. And the benefits of improved water quality and aquatic and avian life flow not just to his own ranch, but to the surrounding area as well.
To me, what is taking place on the Granger Ranch demonstrates the notion that private individuals, through property rights, can best address a problem – including an environmental problem. Remember: it was government planning, likely by bureaucrats who never left their office to visit and learn about the wetland, who drained it decades ago. Today, it is not government, but rather those who know the natural environment the best – because they live on it – who are restoring the wetland and improving their environment and the environment of their neighbours. Let us hope that when private property owners wish to undertake these types of initiatives on their land, government will stay out of the way and let them do so.
Naomi is currently completing a Master’s of Public Policy at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary. Her area of focus is energy and environmental policy. Naomi also holds a B.A in political science from the University of Alberta. Naomi has worked at both the federal and provincial (Alberta) levels of government in the area of natural resources, transportation, infrastructure, education, and municipal affairs. She is currently working at the Canada West Foundation as a research assistant.