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A threat to public commons

Some years ago, a biologist named Garrett Hardin wrote an essay titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which created a great deal of discussion in environmental and political circles. In the essay, Hardin traced the history of common lands in Britain and New England. 

These commons, still with us in place names, like Boston Common, were lands — not in private ownership — but open to the community to use “in common,” usually for grazing.

He pointed out that the benefits of the use of the commons were realized by the individual graziers, but the costs were borne by the community. 

Therefore, individuals had an incentive to graze as many of their animals as they could on the commons, not on their own land. But the “tragedy” came if only a few abused this privilege. The commons could be easily overgrazed, and the resource destroyed for everyone. How could the community prevent this outcome? Hardin showed that “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” was the usual solution. 

Those who might abuse the commons faced social and possibly legal sanctions that made the cost of abuse greater than the profit that might be had from overgrazing.

Hardin’s point was that in our time, resources like air and water are effectively commons; individuals and corporations may profit by polluting waterways with wastes, but the community bears the costs, and the resource itself could easily be destroyed. Our public lands, such as National Parks, National Forests and National Grasslands, federally owned land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as State Parks and State Forest lands, represent a common resource that could be damaged or destroyed if abused by a few. 

Even though ranchers, loggers and miners, who are allowed to make use of these resources, are subject to regulation and fees, the regulations are generally light and lightly enforced (Cliven Bundy still grazes his cattle on public land in Nevada and owes over a million dollars in grazing fees) and the fees come nowhere near the costs of, for example, publicly constructed access roads into the land.

If, as some would have it, these lands were put up for sale or placed in the control of easily influenced and dominated local governments, we would almost surely see a new tragedy of the commons. In the early years of the 20th Century, many ranchers were forced to use public land because they had disastrously overgrazed their own acreage.

The armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge were not only breaking the law; they were threatening one of our most important commons, public land, with unregulated exploitation. 

Bill Shear is a retired professor of biology at Hampden-Sydney College, where he taught for 41 years. His email address is wshear@hsc.edu.