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The Assignment of Property Rights on the Western Frontier: Lessons for Contemporary Environmental and Resource Policy

  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Political Science


I examine the assignment of private property rights during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to five natural resources on federal lands in the Far West. Assigning property rights required adaptation from established, eastern practices. The resulting property rights and their long-term welfare effects inform over-fishing, excessive air pollution, and other natural resource and environmental problems. Allocations based on local conditions, prior use, and unconstrained by outside government mandates were most effective in both addressing the immediate threat of open-access and providing a longer-term basis for production, investment, and trade. Initial faulty property allocations and path dependencies are discussed.This is what stretched westward from the 100th meridian, this complex, misunderstood two fifths of the continental United States where men had come before law arrived and where before there were adequate maps there were warring interests, white against Indian, cattleman against sheepman and both against nester, open range notions against the use of the newly invented barbed wire, Gentile against Mormon, land rights against water rights, appropriation rights to water against riparian rights to water, legitimate small settler against speculator and land-grabber. The public domain as Powell knew it was all of these, its only unity the unity of little rain.Wallace StegnerStegner, Beyond the 100th Meridian, p. 218.

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