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My good friend and long-time collaborator Terry Anderson wants “the market to decide whether the cowboy will survive or be replaced by bureaucrats.” (Guest opinion: Montana’s bison-cattle range war, Oct. 15). But those are not the only alternative futures for the prairie lands that would constitute the American Prairie Reserve.

No doubt the cowboy is at risk, but not because of APR. The economy of rural Montana has been struggling for decades. Like thousands of others, my cowboy grandfather’s ranch in Custer County long since succumbed to the harsh economic realities of ranching in the arid isolation of eastern Montana. Consolidation of smaller ranches and below-market grazing fees have kept the cattle industry alive, but with fewer cowboys and declining populations in the towns that dot the prairie landscape.

On its website, APR declares that it “intends to hold title to its private lands in perpetuity.” Anderson doubts that promise. He clearly agrees with Grass Range rancher LeAnne Delaney that at some point in the future APR will “try to flip it to the federal government.” Anderson also thinks APR will fail to raise the funds needed for land acquisition and operations.

To be sure, APR faces a challenge to raise the money necessary to achieve its objectives, but it has had remarkable success to date securing funds to purchase 30 parcels totaling over 100,000 private acres, with over 300,000 acres of accompanying public land grazing leases. Rather than question its sincerity and prospects for success, a believer in free markets should admire APR’s ambition and its commitment to acquiring land only from willing sellers. Sure, APR could fail, but that is the nature of the free market. Should we oppose our city’s permitting of a new restaurant because restaurants often fail?

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Anderson predicts that politics, not markets, will dominate the reserve’s future. He suggests that APR follow Ted Turner’s lead and build a reserve entirely from private lands. But APR is not painting on a blank canvas. Vast federal lands intermixed with private lands are the reality. He notes that APR’s “authority stops at its private boundaries” – but why object to an effort to collaborate with federal land managers, particularly where the acquired private lands and much of the public lands are meant to serve a common mission?

The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), the organization Anderson co-founded and led for many years, has long advocated bringing market forces to the management of public lands. Among the group’s proposals has been to treat grazing permits as real property rights and allow anyone to acquire grazing leases with the option of leaving the land to native flora and fauna. Isn’t that exactly what APR seeks to do? Of course the lands will have to be managed and the fecund bison culled, but in the American West of today, as around a densely populated planet, there is no escaping some combination of public and private wild lands management.

Fears of a Trojan horse filled with bureaucrats aiming to create an American Serengeti may reflect former APR CEO Sean Garrity’s description of the projected reserve as a “new kind of national park.” But what he envisioned is a new kind of national park. National in the sense that it will preserve a treasure of the nation, and new in the sense that it will be created with private resources, utilizing property rights, and managed with a mix of private and public objectives. It won’t be the product of purely private enterprise, free from government and politics, but no venture, including existing private cattle ranches with public grazing permits, can be free from government and politics in the real world we live in.

I’m sympathetic with the cowboys whose lifestyle is threatened, just as I’m sympathetic with the loggers and miners who have lost jobs and homes to the harsh realities of market forces. But change is coming, and rather than file lawsuits and appeal to government regulators, APR seeks to influence that change by purchasing land from willing sellers – an approach grounded in free market principles.

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James Huffman of Portland, Ore., is dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School and a board member of PERC in Bozeman. 

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