Libertarian Environmentalism

Posted by on Feb 7, 2012 in Outdoor | 6 Comments

I was recently and disparagingly called a “libertarian environmentalist” because of my support for a free society, and my opposition to the SkiLink project. The term was used by a Utah Republican lobbyist who sees no problem with legislators of his persuasion bypassing existing law (at the behest of fellow lobbyists) to grant Talisker ownership of important, and public, land in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Perhaps he’d feel differently if Democrats were sponsoring the SkiLink legislation? Alas, partisanship and hypocrisy are redundant terms.

Nevertheless, I suppose there is some truth in describing me as a “libertarian environmentalist”, although I’ve never considered myself an environmentalist. I prefer the term conservationist. Further, I self-describe myself politically as a classical liberal, although the differences between that and libertarianism are mostly semantic. And so, I’ll accept the charge, and defend it thusly:

“The voice of nature is always encouraging.”

~Henry David Thoreau


The marriage of libertarians and environmentalists is not new. Thoreau is the obvious example. His stinging criticism of the state is only matched by his love for nature. He wrote, “Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.”

Nevertheless, Thoreau is best known as a naturalist, a poet. He famously wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

That deliberate life is still the driving force behind wilderness occupation. The methodology has evolved; we hike, and ski, and pedal. But the intent—to see if we cannot learn—remains. Our lives, collectively as countrymen, are integrated into the wild spaces of desert and forest and mountain. As individuals we creep into wilderness, if only briefly, to confront the essential facts of life. In that sense, little has changed since 1845. Wilderness is still asking men the same questions it ever has. And men are still learning the answers to those questions.

For that reason, among others, wilderness preservation ought to be an essential part of the American character. Wilderness itself is a keystone of the American creation myth. The Republic was founded with westward intentions. Expansion meant economy, progress, and legitimacy. Exploration was, from the very beginning, a Jeffersonian imperative. The ink of the Constitution had hardly dried when Lewis and Clark were sent west.

An Unlikely Pairing?

Libertarianism and environmentalism are often thought of as contradictory. And as caricatures, they are. The common, but erroneous, assumption that libertarians are hellbent on paving over forests in pursuit of the almighty dollar is as misguided as the portrait of the environmentalist who is willing to watch men die, in order to save the life of an obscure woodland creature. Certainly both extremes actually exist, but the truth about both ideologies is far different. The truth, indeed,  is that liberty (the chief principle among libertarians) and wilderness (the primary goal for environmentalists) are symbiotic. The preservation of both wilderness and liberty are equally important to the preservation of American (or Jeffersonian) ideals. As Abbey said, “We cannot have freedom without wilderness.”

Libertarianism is generally described as anti-government. This is a true, but not a complete description. Libertarians oppose centralized power of all kinds. Centralized power can and does come in many forms: government, banks, churches, record labels, movie studios, news organizations, home owners associations, and so forth. Centralization empowers the few, at the expense of the many. Cultural (non-violent) revolutions are waged against centralized power. Modern examples of decentralizing revolutions include: blogging, file-sharing, digital photography and video, social media, crowd-sourcing, and self-publishing. Only a decade ago, individuals needed the approval and support of massive conglomerates to be heard or seen. Today, just a web connection will suffice.

Government is the quintessential embodiment of centralized power. Government draws its influence by force, and is a lagging indicator of social attitudes toward morality, value, and markets. Within our duopolistic electoral system, choice—and change—is non-existent.

“When confronted with anything resembling choice,” write Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, in The Declaration of Independents, “most of us are now readier than ever to hop from one make or model to another.  Insurance, food, clothing, colleges, beer, wine, you name it–Americans, away from the political sphere, have learned how to demand what they want, and in a world of rapidly increasing choices, they are happy and excited to try out new things and move on once they get bored or disappointed with what’s on offer. In politics, of course, that choice has been artificially and dramatically restricted to effectively two options.”

Decentralization is a powerful force for good. It corrects incentives, eliminates cronyism, and empowers individuals. Decentralization democratizes power.

However, environmental policy is almost entirely mired in the swamps of federal bureaucracy.

Federal land agencies posses an abhorrent history. Land that ought to be developed is prevented from being developed. Land that ought to be protected is destroyed. Grazing permits are over-issued. Strip mines are illogically built. Zoning laws, environmental regulation—designed to enrich connected parties, rather than protect the environment—, and needless bureaucratic lunacy have done nothing to protect or conserve wilderness. Yes, the 1964 Wilderness Act was, and is important. But Wilderness designation is not a guarantor of preservation, nor a hinderance of overuse.

Legislative arguments about the proper permissions for public land use are heated, passionate, and partisan. However, in the end, land use policy is unchanged, regardless of which party controls the levers of power—over-grazing continues, needless construction rolls forward, and local input and opinion are ignored. Clearly, as SkiLink demonstrates, the federal government is readily willing to sell land to politically connected, financially influential groups, despite the majority opinion of the people who recreate on that land.

What Can Be Done?

Land management policy would benefit immensely from the disruptive powers of decentralization. “The focus on center stage should be on promoting institutions that empower people both politically and economically…” suggest Terry Anderson and Laura Huggins. “These institutions allow people to improve environmental quality indefinitely into the future. This stands in sharp contrast to the undying conclusion of the doomsayers for whom the environment and the plight of human beings will always be worse.”

Public land ought to be managed as locally as possible. State and local governments ought to assume stewardship over state and local land. Change is much easier to affect on a smaller, more local scale. Further, public land could be successfully managed by private entities—conservation groups, individuals, non-profit, and for-profit corporations, and co-ops. Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Audubon Society  are each examples of private groups working toward environmental preservation. Richard Stroup writes that, “[u]sing the market, such groups do not have to convince the majority that their project is desirable, nor do they have to fight the majority in choosing how to manage the site.” If selling the land is not feasible, governments can hire private managers to run state parks, campgrounds, and forest land; this is already happening, and the results have been positive.

Why decentralization? Incentives.

Incentives are a remarkably powerful force. Under current land use permissions, which revolve around federal leases being granted to miners, ranchers, loggers, and other interested parties, there is no incentive for any of the various groups to act conservatively. There is no accountability. And so, ranch lands are decimated. Forests are clear-cut. And strip-mines spider-web unchecked across the countryside. Federal leases are a grand-scale demonstration of the tragedy of the commons.

Privately owned, or managed, lands fare much better. A rancher will not over graze his own pastures. A timber corporation will not clear-cut its own forests. But rather, careful consideration is placed on future uses of the land, and its potential longevity. Economic survival is contingent on ensuring long-term production. Long-term production is founded on sustainability. Federal leases disincentives sustainability, and eliminate accountability.

A study in 2000 “found that civil and political liberties, the rule of law, less-corrupt governments, and the security of property rights reduced deforestation rates in sixty-six countries across Latin America, Asia, and Africa.” A similar study in 2004 concluded “a strong positive correlation between several measures of human well-being and varying degrees of the strength of the rule of law. For example, countries with a strong rule of law have a 45 percent lower death rate by age forty than countries with a weak rule of law; 59 percent have more access to safe drinking water; and 79 percent have lower deforestation rates.”

Anderson argues that “[e]conomic prosperity emanates from the institutions of freedom—namely, private property and the rule of law—and environmental quality emanates from economic prosperity.”

In other words, liberty is wilderness.

Wilderness As Wilderness.

If there is inherent value to wilderness, as Stegner, Abbey, Thoreau, and so many others have argued, then there is also a market for the preservation of wilderness. Wilderness is an amazing and wonderful boon to our lives. If we, as a people, love the outdoors, and demand its existence, just as we demand iPhones, fuel-efficient SUVs, and carbon fiber mountain bikes, then, and only then, will true wilderness preservation thrive.

Today we have little say in how public land is managed and used. The federal government is unchecked in this (and every other) regard. We can sign petitions, and write letters, and make phone calls. But the whims of senators and representatives, secretarys and ministers, cannot be stayed. The responsibility to protect wilderness is ours, but in order to do that, we must wrest control of these lands from the tentacled grasp of the bureaucratic kraken.

If we value wilderness as an idea, and as an ideal, then preserving it is imperative. We need wilderness to remind us that even today, in the technocratic world of 2012, that we are a wild species, an untamed and primitive creature that thrives in the uncertainty of forest and desert and alpine. Even if only in the pursuit of recreational fantasy. Do we value wilderness? If so—and I believe we do—then we will preserve it. Whether as private property, cooperative holdings, or with guns and pitchforks, we will preserve that which we value. And that is why liberty and wilderness are so symbiotic. They are similitudes of one another.

Government, while paying lip service to both, does not have any interest in the preservation of either. After all, a free people, left to explore and to recreate in a free land, are hardly governable.

In the end, the fight for environmental freedom is always a fight worth fighting. After all, “the voice of nature is always encouraging.”



  1. DaveC
    February 7, 2012

    I agree with your thesis, on both a historical and contemporary level. I’ve always been very sympathetic to Thoreauvian libertarianism as well, though I think modern public land management is in many respects a good argument for federalism. State and local interests are in many (but certainly not all) cases too hasty and short-sighted.

    Most of all, I’m glad you’re writing about this.

    • Grizzly Adam
      February 8, 2012

      Thanks Dave.

  2. Clayton Mauritzen
    February 8, 2012

    Adam, how do you reconcile the historical realities of state-sponsored imperialism and genocide that made wilderness travel possible, then the state-sponsored preservation of wilderness in the face of powerful market forces to the contrary with this libertarianism? It seems to me that if it were up to the market, something like Lewis and Clark would have likely happened (though very differently with less emphasis on science and more on mapping and resource prospecting) but most/all wilderness areas would be fundamentally destroyed.

    Case in point—Glacier NP was developed initially by the Great Northern Railroad. Do you really believe if the federal government had not had regulatory control over the area (not to mention the ability to negotiate the Blackfeet off the land) that it would be still considered a wilderness area today?

    • Grizzly Adam
      February 8, 2012

      Clayton, thanks, these are good questions. And who knows the answers? I’m certain our present world would be significantly altered if events of the past played out differently. However, I think your own words fit nicely here: “It is certainly not beyond our power to waste… but we have chosen to keep [the Grand Canyon] (mostly) wild for future generations. Amidst so much bad news, that at least is encouraging.”

      They key is that we have chosen to preserve something we value. In your example, the Grand Canyon. It has been preserved through the National Park system, which I think is a fantastic accomplishment. Would the Grand Canyon be any different today, if it were protected by Grand Canyon Inc.? Who can say? But I highly doubt it. I’m optimistic about humanity. I trust us enough to hope that we will continue to preserve important resources. I believe the most effective way to do that (among most other things) shouldn’t involve government force.

      • Clayton Mauritzen
        February 9, 2012

        One of the things that I really appreciate about your thoughts above are what you say about decentralization and the democritization of power. I want to agree with you that government control is less ideal than other options—especially because it represents a significant centralization of control in a largely detached power center. I just don’t know that the free market is any better. Economic power is highly centralized and detached as well. Government is one of the few (but also relatively minor) checks on that power.

        This is my concern with the free market: I know of only a few examples of voluntary preservation among the private sector (though, Grand Teton and Acadia National Parks are excellent examples, largely thanks to the Rockefellers) whereas there are far more examples of government preservation. As to abuse of that power and the misuse of wilderness areas, both can have pretty poor records as well. Neither are really optimal, in my opinion.

  3. JohnR
    May 2, 2012


    I really enjoyed reading this article as I have found difficulty in reconciling my libertarian political beliefs with my love of the outdoors. I feel as though the libertarian would argue that if the most efficient use of the land protected as a national park, i.e. the use that gets the most value out of the land, was to keep it as a park then a businessman would purchase it, leave it as a park and run it like any other attraction (charging an entrance fee). However, I believe that if a businessman was thinking in the short term, as we have seen both banks and governments are prone to do, that the most profitable use would be to develop it, thus ending public use of the land.

    I completely believe in private organizations such as conservancies, but if the government were to open up private lands to the highest bidder, it is clear that corporations would have a much easier time raising the significant amount of capital in order win the bidding war while a conservancy has to go through the fundraising process. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue because once the conservancy raised enough money to entice the winning bidder to sell the land, it would be a moot point. With the wilderness, however, there’s no going back if someone buys the land and immediately develops it before any private institution can obtain enough capital to purchase it. By then, the wilderness would already have been destroyed.

    The only thing I can think is if the government were to open the lands up to purchase by a private entity but stipulate that the land must be conserved and any deviation from that agreement would result in the land being returned to the government to be resold. Now any libertarian would most likely say that is still far too much government intervention, but that’s the best I can think of. What are your thoughts?

    Sorry about the long winded response and thanks again for the very thought provoking piece!

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