Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The National Parks

As a devoted visitor to our National Parks, I have been avidly watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on television this week. The segments combine gorgeous photography with historical accounts and personal diaries.

A few years ago I visited Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, where I learned that, prior to federal protection in 1906, visitors had freely lugged away the colorful logs. Without that protection the logs would soon all have been gone.

For some time now I have regarded our National Parks as (among other things) giant refutations of the libertarian contention that matters go best under private ownership. Clearly in many significant areas this is not so. Unattended by government, the sites of our National Parks would constitute a chain of Coney Island tawdriness, or a constellation of strip-mining horrors. Or else everything of interest would simply have disappeared, the fate that threatened to overtake the Petrified Forest.

The story of the National Parks seems to be Government One, private enterprise Zero. The reality is more complex.

To be sure, petty capitalists did do a lot of damage. An egregious case is that of Ralph Henry Cameron who sought to privatize the Grand Canyon through spurious mining claims. He charged admission to use his squalid facilities, and proposed to add two ugly hydroelectric dams. Cameron continued illegally occupy large parts of the Canyon even after it became a National Park.

The role of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was entirely different. He acted decisively to protect the Grand Tetons, just south of Yellowstone. Then he put up a huge sum of money to buy the land for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which was being ravaged by lumber interests. The Park was not without costs, however, when as many as 500,000 poor whites and Indians were removed from their homes inside the perimeter of the Park.

Still the message seems clear. Petty capitalists like Cameron turned out to be villains. Megacapitalists, at least John D. Rockefeller, Jr., were heroes. Of course Rockefeller could afford it.

The role of the government is considered entirely laudatory, but Washington often accepted responsibility for individual parks with great reluctance. The needed appropriations for maintenance were often lacking.

So the balance sheet between private enterprise and government is a mixed one--just the opposite of the simplistic message we are getting from Michael Moore’s latest visual screed, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” or for that matter from Paul Krugman's contentious columns, with their ongoing demand for ever more deficit spending.



Blogger Burk said...

To clarify your thinking, you might want to learn about public good and common good economics. The problem of resources held in common, followed by tragedies of the commons, is long-standing in the field.

Anyhow, what Rockefeller did had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with philanthropy. His actions provide no justification for free enterprise, other than perhaps giving all our money to rich people and hoping that they have it in their hearts to do a few good turns in return.

Seems to me that government is generally a better mechanism for managing public resources in what perhaps quaintly is known as the public good. And the public good right now clearly includes deficit spending, (as per Keynes), as it did not include deficit spending earlier in the decade when Bush and friends gave themselves a hefty and unpaid gift from the government which played a small part in the various asset and financing bubbles that we are all now heir to.

PS- You might be interested in a TNR review of Maurice Bowra.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I am familiar with the problem of the commons, but not sure how it applies here.

My contention is a simple one, that we are best off with a combination of private and public entities, one serving to check the other. The trouble with allotting the chief role to government is that, in our present pseudopopulist system, it always subject to takeover by private interests, as Cameron's later career as a US Senator from Arizona shows.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

California, with 20 national forests, the Redwood National and State Park, and Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Saguero, and Sequoia National Parks, in addition to the Golden Gate Recreational Park and more than 200 state parks, including the stunning Lake Tahoe Recreational Area, keeps the largest state ever in a rush to preserve the state's natural beauty, including the highest and lowest points in the continental U.S., the tallest and oldest living things on planet earth, and recently the "undamming" of four dams erected to harness the San Joaquin River for agriculture and Los Angeles' swimming pools and golf courses, to once again flow from the Sierra Nevada along its 350 mile route into San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific Ocean.

Whether one stands before "nature's cathedrals" in Yosemite or among the vast Redwoods soaring to heights of majestic splendor, all our resources, our ability to connect with our natural habitat, is nearly the exclusive preserve of state and federal government.

My only criticism of the otherwise excellent documentary film maker Ken Burns was his shift to human faces rather than keeping his eye on the natural environments with their voices-overs heard rather than seen. The faces of writers, conservationists, and other folk detracted from the central message: Keep our Inheritance as a Permanent Legacy. On many levels, I do not think Burns documentary matched his earlier triumph "Civil War" nor was on par of the BBC effort "Planet Earth." But, he has most of us talking, at least, to preserve our greatest asset: Our land.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Nature Conservancy is entirely a private, non-profit conservation organization that purchases land in order to preserve it. It is among my favorite eleemosynaries.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

It is not clear how private entities serve as a check in the sense of national parks and other such public goods. They seem to serve more as rapacious corrupters when given half a chance. Really, the only way to rationally provision such goods is through a political / civic process that is explicitly predicated on the common good. That private interests may corrupt this process does not seem like a reason to give them a greater role (or a "checking" role, whatever that may mean).

The distinction between private goods (like food) and public goods (like parks) is vast. Private goods are best provisioned by private markets- no question about that. But even these activities touch on public goods, like pollution, grazing on parklands, abuse of labor, etc., which become the interest of the general polity.

The government has a large role in checking as well as enabling private markets, but the reverse is not true. The government is checked by those it is accountable to- the people. If the people are led astray by pseudo-populism, as you put it, (or corporate corruption, for that matter), then it is intellectuals, muckrakers, free media, and other proponents of the common good who form the check, not private interests, who, as a rule, use their influence (lobbying, etc.) for private gain, not for the public good.

Cases of pure philanthropy are completely aside, unless you advocate an aristocratic/feudal gift culture like that of the northwest native Americans, or ancient Greece/Rome to some extent (though private interests won out over public ones routinely), which is far from realistic or desirable in our current conditions. If private philanthropists, such as the Nature Conservancy and Rockefeller, understand and promote the public good over and above the state's capacity to do so, that is most excellent, but is not a "check" on the state. At most, it is yet another check on the more common run of private interests, which the Conservancy is busy buying land from at dear prices to forestall development and other degradation.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Burk --

I agree generally with your observations. In the 1970s, a referendum was placed on the California ballot that required all coastal property to grant pedestrian easement, lest access to the Pacific Ocean be for only residents and property owners, like Malibu.

The opponents fought bitterly, and lost resoundingly. While many land owners still "charge" for ocean access -- not the least of which, are city and county governments -- no property owner can deny public access to beachfront property by foot (charging for parking is legal).

While I applaud the efforts of the Nature Conservancy, which has done the best job of reclaiming natural habitats privately, I am first and foremost cognizant of the John Muirs, the Teddy Roosevelts, the Burton Brothers, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and even Ronald Reagan, in their sweeping legislation to guarantee that America's "simple fee title" to its natural wonders is our collective inherent right of democracy in a free republic.

Anyone who has stood on Yosemite's Valley floor and not weeped in its majestic wonder has no heart or mind for the wonders that nature confers on us all. The great Sequoias, Bridal and Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and granite and glaciers so old and majestic only one bereft of nature itself has a dry eye.

Such persons probably find Los Angeles and its rape of natural resources from Northern California justified, as did Gov. Edmund Pat Brown, who scooped up the Sacramento River, so what should flow into San Francisco Bay, is transported via the 400 mile Brown Aquaduct to water the lawns and swimming pools of the desert without an oasis, commonly known as "Below the Tehaccipis." Maybe Mexico will reclaim L.A. for reparations. Northern Californians are appalled at Southern California's avarice of natural resources, dams, and aquaducts. Freeway lovers can enjoy I-405 during rush hour. I get a rush on Mt. Tampalpais.

2:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home