Protecting Yellowstone from Politics

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Protecting Yellowstone from Politics

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on February 25, 2004 FREE Insights Topics:

“Unfortunately for everyone who cares about Yellowstone Park, [federal judge] Brimmer’s decision further entangles the park in a legal quagmire: The opponents of recreational snowmobiling sue. The government responds. The proponents of snowmobiling sue. The government responds. Then the cycle starts all over again. What will the rule be next winter? Where will this all end? We don’t know.” (Billings Gazette editorial, Feb. 18.)

We’re watching political ping-pong over Yellowstone Park. I believe our first national park is far too valuable to be swatted around this way.

There are more than a dozen environmental groups in Bozeman interested in preserving the values of Yellowstone Park. I support several of them. Most, however, rely upon politics and the elusive search for Green Platonic despots. This is futile and frustrating.

As a political agency, the National Park Service simply cannot be insulated from political forces. Two decades ago local author Alston Chase documented this in his book Playing God in Yellowstone. (While the book upset many folks, nearly all agree that his critique of problems and pathologies was right on.) When politics governs, chaos reigns, science is often silenced or slanted, and communities suffer. This outcome is no accident; it is the predictable consequence of prevailing institutional arrangements.

On the other hand, the libertarian fantasy of auctioning Yellowstone to the highest bidder is culturally and politically impossible. Also, unless the purchaser were severely constrained by carefully designed deed restrictions and covenants, selling the Park is a naïve and a fundamentally silly and destructive idea.

But there is near universal agreement that reform is way overdue. Any successful reform will require entrepreneurial talents. Here’s my suggestion.

Let’s consider a well-tested alternative to government ownership and political control: transform Yellowstone into a public trust. We have, after all, some 600-plus years of experience with trusts for land, libraries, laboratories, orphanages, and many other public purposes.

The goal is to maintain the Park true to its purpose. This requires empowering Yellowstone’s managers and scientists. We want them to apply their skills to a noble cause: managing the world’s first national park. They must be insulated from transitory, ever-shifting, political forces that frustrate reason, sustainability, and adaptive planning.

National parks are one of America’s best ideas. Such places clearly merit preservation. The fundamental problem is not one of bad people but rather institutional arrangements that frustrate good intentions. Here is the key lesson of public choice economics: Better outcomes result from superior incentives, not superior people.

There are three ways to generate cooperative behavior. To reduce injustice and protect the weak from the strong, government is essential. To produce commodities and provide commercial services, the market process excels. For many other public purposes, e.g. hospitals, schools, research institutes, and parks, non-government endowment boards have accomplished a great deal and hold great promise.

Endowment boards (trusts) successfully manage independent schools, hospitals, and museums. Board members have fiduciary responsibility for their organization’s mission. When managing parks, the boards would be charged to prudently manage for highest values: habitat, preservation, recreation, and scenery. A trust with regional and national members could ensure sensitive stewardship and freedom from shortsighted political pressures.

If trustees fail to honor their accepted mandate to foster values specific to each park, then they suffer loss of position, shame, and disgrace. Trustees who violate their mandate are a vanishingly small proportion of the politicians who routinely break promises.

How could we collect payment from various park beneficiaries? User fees, gifts from membership organizations, concessionaire contracts, and corporate sponsorships all have potential. A Yellowstone trust would generate and manage these funds. This should foster more support, sensitivity, and responsibility than politics.

Here as with other environmental issues, we face trade-offs, not perfect solutions. No single set of arrangements is perfect, or even preferable, for all circumstances. We’ve learned that trusts, with memberships drawn from environmental, community, business, and science leaders, have incentives to seek subtle, tasteful sponsorships. Wide public support follows.

Support and management of our national heritage is best derived from those who most appreciate and benefit from those parks. When parks pay their own way through friends and fees, more responsible stewardship follows. The parks are too precious for a precarious dependency on politics. Let’s try trusts.

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