The life of a free market environmentalist can be interesting. One of the most important tasks of a free market environmentalist is to overcome political environmentalism. People who have lived their entire lives under political environmentalism are often unable to think of alternative systems. I do not mean to insult those who advocate political environmentalism. As an advocate of a different system it is my duty to convince others that it is better, which is what I hope to do with my posts on environmentalism.
One of the questions often asked to libertarians is how would national parks exist under free market environmentalism. In fact a recent thread in /r/Libertarian lead to this very question, to which I provided an answer. In this post I plan to clean up and expand upon what I said in that thread.
A common misconception people hold regarding national parks is that they were established after the state foresaw the need to preserve exceptionally beautiful areas of nature. This isn’t the case. The value Yellowstone, the first national park, held was actually first realized by Norther Pacific Railroad. The Not So Wild, Wild West discussed this starting on page 207. On that page there is a quote from an unnamed Northern Pacific Railroad official that demonstrates what I’m claiming:
We do not want to see the Falls of the Yellowstone driving the looms of a cotton factory, or the great geysers boiling pork for some gigantic packing house, but in all the native majesty the grandeur in which they appear today, without as yet a single trace of that adornment which is desecration, that improvement which is equivalent to ruin, of that utilization which means utter destruction.
Northern Pacific Railroad saw Yellowstone, in its natural state, as a source of profit. Namely they could make a great deal of money by transporting tourists to the area. One must wonder why then did Northern Pacific Railroad lobby the state to establish Yellowstone as a national park instead of simply claiming the land for themselves. This has much to do with the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act was a bill passed by the federal government meant to encourage development of western territories. In exchange for living on granted land for five years the state would grant an individual or family a deed for no additional cost. As you can imagine the Homestead Act encouraged many individuals to claim great tracts of land and do everything possible, whether it be destructive to the land or not, to survive on the land for five years. What homesteader wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to own a piece of Yellowstone? Obviously Northern Pacific Railroad needed the area protected from homesteaders and the only way to do that was to beg the state to make some kind of exemption for the area we now call Yellowstone National Park (in addition to that Northern Pacific Railroad asked the state to grant it a monopoly on transportation to the park, no surprise). Effectively the state was lobbied to protect against a problem of its own creation (in other words business as usual).
Could Yellowstone have been preserved in a stateless society? I believe so. In fact I believe it would be better preserved in a stateless society (Yellowstone is periodically used by drug gangs since it’s an optimal place to hide from the state’s drug prohibition). First, of all the absence of a state would have eliminated the threat created by the Homestead Act. Second, there was obviously recognized value in Yellowstone as it existed in its natural state. The second point brings the important aspect of self-interest, which is the basis of all human action, into the equation. As a tourist destination I believe people would have acted to preserve Yellowstone.
This is where I’m going to diverge from most libertarian philosophies. Under most libertarian philosophies land can only become owned if one mixes their labor with the land, an act of appropriation, or obtains it from appropriator. Libertarianism makes no allowance for claiming ownership of land in its natural state. With that said there is a method of declaring ownership that I’ll call de facto ownership. Property rights are only applicable if other individuals recognize them. I could claim myself to be the owner of the Egyptian pyramids but that claim would be entirely pointless since nobody would respect it. The same applies to any claim of property, if nobody else in society respects the claim then the claim is meaningless. I’ll be taking a concept from my post describing alternatives to prisons. If enough individuals wanted to prevent the development of Yellowstone, or any other nature preserve, they could accomplish their goal by simply refusing to cooperate with anybody who attempted to develop it. Effectively an individual attempting to develop Yellowstone would find themselves banished from society insomuch as others would be unwilling to interact with him or her. Life is miserable when nobody is willing to cooperate with you. Imagine how your quality of life would diminish if nobody was willing to serve you at a restaurant, sell you food at a grocery store, or fix broken water pipes in your home. In effect the land would become useless because no value could be derived from it. Sure one could build a factory in Yellowstone but if nobody is willing to buy the goods that came from that factory then the self-interest wouldn’t exist to build it. The land would essentially become toxic to development and create a de facto deed to nobody (or the community, depending on how you look at it).
Nature preserves can exist without a state so long as enough people demand it. In essence the creation of nature preserves in the absence of a state falls unto society instead of a handful of bureaucrats sitting in some marble capitol building. It also means that there isn’t a state that can later sell or allow privileged access to the preserve (for example, the state wouldn’t exist to sell drilling rights to an oil company).