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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
Triumph of the Commons
Out Of Bounds
We all know the story of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” that metaphorical pasture owned by none and hence, exploited by all.

If that story didn’t possess a certain wisdom we’d still be battling that communal superpower, the Soviet Union, to see who gets to boast, “You’re not the boss of me!” at U.N. Security Council meetings. But it’s an over simplification to say economic systems preordained the winner of the 20th century’s superpower tilt. The cards were always stacked against the Russians. No country with a cuisine based on cabbage and root vegetables washed down with vodka should have a legitimate claim on world domination.

Our country has been on a 30-year experiment with the other extreme: unfettered capitalism. Now there are circumstances where capitalism does a fine job regulating markets so that goods and services are available at fair prices. Unfortunately, those are just the sort of markets capitalists usually demand the government step in to regulate, squeezing the fairness out of the system so they can make more money than competition would otherwise allow.

More importantly, there are resources, such as wildlife, for which free-markets are ill-equipped to manage. It’s a tried and proven failure, at least if you measure wildlife by its abundance and accessibility to the average citizen.

While I’m not prone to sneering at all things European, when it comes to wildlife management our friends across the pond have it all wrong. There, wildlife is property and hunting is the exclusive game of wealthy elites. Working class folk don’t have the money, or the access, to experience that essential act of freedom — stepping out into wild places and hunting our own food — that Americans too often take for granted.

The North American model of wildlife management is the envy of the world, yet it’s nothing more than garden variety socialism. The thing is, it’s not the type of system that makes the system important, it’s its effectiveness. Hunters and anglers — working hand-in-hand with state and federal wildlife agencies — successfully implemented the greatest act of environmental restoration in the history of humankind when they set out to restore this continent’s wildlife populations during the 20th century.

That success continues today. North American hunters have access to abundant game, abundant public land on which to pursue game, and it’s all available at an affordable cost.

But all is not perfect. Our access to land and water is under constant assault. The Montana Stream Access Law has become an obsession with the property rights movement. That obsession, combined with money, means it’s a threat that isn’t going away. The anti-access forces got their heads handed to them on Mitchell Slough down in the Bitterroot a few years back, yet responded this April by telling the Montana Supreme Court that they own all the land and water and sky on the Ruby River. And a new report estimates that nearly 4 million acres of public land in the West are inaccessible to the public due to surrounding ownership patterns and other barriers to entry, legal or otherwise.

Some folks are fighting the good fight. Montana has the Public Land/Water Access Association, a private group working to ensure illegal gates are removed and folks who block stream access find themselves defending the indefensible in court. There’s been a shift for the big national conservation organizations as well. Groups have heard from their membership that while habitat is important, habitat with access is the Holy Grail.

As we open presents from loved ones this Christmas, take a moment to consider the gift hunters and anglers of earlier generations bequeathed to all of us. We can hunt or fish or hike or bird watch, and we have the world’s greatest playground just outside our front door.

Let’s make it our New Year’s resolution to keep it that way.
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