Common Property Is the Culprit in Land-Use Conflicts

Glen Tenney

In his recent book The Business of Commerce, Chapman University philosopher and Hungarian immigrant Tibor Machan offers a compelling truth: “In a community with a large public sector, people engaged in various projects face a constant risk of intruding on one another and having conflicting interests.” When it comes to land-use issues, Nevadans and our neighbors throughout the West understand Machan’s observation all too well. As the dispute over repairing the South Canyon Road in Jarbidge illustrates, common property is controlled not by market mechanisms but politics.

It's a Tragedy

In a classic article written in 1968, University of California biologist Garrett Hardin discussed how any resource owned in common will inevitably be overused, which will ultimately result in antagonistic struggles over who gets most of the benefits that stem from that resource. Hardin’s discussion of “the tragedy of the commons,” as the idea has come to be known, is sound. If there is a common pool of resources to which everyone is entitled, we would indeed expect various individuals or groups to try to use the resources for their own uses. And if not required to bear the cost, we would expect people to use the resource to a greater extent than they would if they were required to bear the full cost.

Land use is a hot issue in Nevada, as it is in most of the Western states. Almost 90 percent of the land in Nevada is “public land.” Miners, ranchers, recreationists and environmentalists—not to mention others who are less organized, and therefore less visible—all want to use the land for their own purposes. After all, since so much of Nevada is public, there is a good chance that benefits can be extracted out of the land without requiring a user to bear all of the costs associated with using it. The very existence of public land virtually opens the door to disagreements. Socialistic ownership—which is really no ownership at all—virtually guarantees that conflicts will inevitably arise. This conflict results from severing the link between those who receive the benefits and those who bear the cost of land use.

A Shovelful of Common Sense

In Nevada’s Elko County, things seem to be coming to a head with respect to certain land issues.  Members of the Shovel Brigade, a private group of citizens, insist that it is the county’s responsibility to fix a damaged portion of the South Canyon Road, which runs through the remote Jarbidge Wilderness. Federal land managers disagree. Potential harm to a species of fish that resides in the nearby Jarbidge River is being used as a reason to block repairs of the road, but the real issues go much deeper than the health of the fish.

What is disconcerting in all this is that we hear so very little talk about the true basis of the squabble in the South Canyon Road case. The origin is so often overlooked, although it is probably the source of nearly all the conflicts over property rights in the West. The problem is that the public lands are public. Property conflicts can and do occur between private property owners, but they are settled in courts of law based on established rules within society—rules that people know and understand quite well. But the rules governing public property are by their nature not adequate, for two reasons. First, the rules are not determined through the market process, where people’s desires, wants, needs and values can be expressed through their actions of buying and selling. And second, the rules are subject to political whims of all kinds rather than being based on the implicit moral standards associated with ownership.

The Answer Is Privatization

Terry Anderson, an economist at Montana State University, tells a story about an experience he had during the first Sagebrush Rebellion. In 1979, he was invited to Salt Lake City to organize workshops with activists who were involved in various land and water issues. Feeling that he probably shared much common ground with the rebels, Anderson planned to center the discussions around strategies for privatizing the lands in the West.  Almost immediately, however, he found that the participants were more interested in discussing how to get more control over the federal estate than they were willing to discuss various proposals for privatizing federal lands.

That was 20 years ago, and things have changed somewhat since then. We now have much more support—both theoretical and empirical—for the idea that public ownership of property cannot do a good job of making people use it responsibly, nor can it adequately serve the purposes of those who would preserve the lands for whatever purpose. Land users and land preservers alike would indeed be better served if the federal government subjected its massive property holdings in the West to market forces. Private individuals or groups would then be financially responsible for the use or misuse of the former public lands. It’s time we started paying attention to the reasons why common ownership does not work well, instead of continuing to provide political incentives for individuals and groups to reap benefits off the public lands while not bearing the full costs.


Recent actions of the Clinton-Gore administration with respect to roadless initiatives as well as the handling of the Jarbidge issue have tipped the scales in favor of those (most of whom live outside Nevada) who have different intentions for the land than do most residents of the Silver State. Those involved in the Shovel Brigade in Elko County and elsewhere are on the right track in their attempts to stop the administration’s attempts to cater to radical environmentalists. But to be successful in the long run, they must keep their minds on privatization.  Similarly, environmental interests inside and outside the state should recognize that private land ownership will produce results more in accord with their desires than will the dictates of majority-rule politics operating through today’s bureaucratic system.

Glen Tenney is a professor of economics at Great Basin College and a senior research fellow with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.