Among responsible environmentalists there are considerable differ­ences of opinion about how best to manage national forests, parks and other ecologically sensitive areas. People learn from the successes and failures of others. By maintaining a diversity of private land ownership in the United States, we maximize this learning ability and hence, maximize the opportuni­ties for environmental stewardship.

For example, we hope the ecological destruction caused by the mismanagement of Yellowstone National Park has taught valuable lessons to the managers at the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and other private organizations. Diverse ownership and competition for ownership responsibilities is a wise political course. The worst thing we could do is turn over control of all our natural resources to the people who manage Yellowstone.

Case Study: Playing God in Yellowstone. The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem covers almost 20 million acres. Almost 70 percent is owned by the U.S. government and managed by five separate agencies. How is Uncle Sam as a steward? Public debate tends to focus on the "let it burn" policy of the Park Service. But other government policies also deserve scrutiny:

  • Yellowstone Park Rangers have killed at least 261 grizzly bears in the last 18 years, and only 200 are alive in the park today.

  • Because the Park Service closed the garbage dumps to the bears, they look for food elsewhere – causing a steady rise in the number of humans killed by grizzlies.

  • Because the Park Service has allowed the elk and bison populations to grow out of control, their grazing has caused considerable ecological damage, including the virtual disappearance of the beaver.

In his groundbreaking study of Yellowstone, Alston Chase described how the park managers have transformed the area from the pristine wildlife habitat that so impressed Teddy Roosevelt years ago into its current condition. According to Chase:

Over the last seventy years nearly every conceivable mistake that could be made in wildlife management has been made by the Park Service in Yellowstone. Not a year has gone by since it assumed responsibility there when the National Park Service ... did not kill an animal in the name of an environmental ideal. Today its man­agement policies threaten the very capacity of the park to sustain life. [176]

In contrast to the management of Yellowstone, there are numerous examples of exemplary land management. But to find them we must turn to the private sector.

Case Study: Private Land Management. Although the federal government owns a lot of land in the West, in other parts of the country land is largely in private hands. For example:

  • Although the federal government owns 404 million acres of land outside of Alaska, about 421 million acres of farmland are in private hands. [177]

  • In the South, about 73 percent of forestland (132 million acres) is owned by private individuals and another 33 million acres by corporations. By contrast, public agencies own only 18 million acres. [178]

  • In Maine, which contains numerous ecologically sensitive areas, less than seven percent of the land is owned by the federal government. [179]

Moreover, even in areas where large tracts of land are federally owned, the wildlife frequently depends on private lands for food. By one estimate, 80 percent of the food supply for wild birds in the form of insects, weed seeds or , crop residues is on private land. [180]

The private sector, therefore, has long played a crucial role in determining environmental quality throughout the U.S. And as it turns out, the private sector frequently has outperformed government in achieving sensible economic and environmental goals. Frequently, people have discovered that maintaining environmental quality not only is profitable but in some cases is more profitable than any other alternative:

  • Many U.S. ranchers and farmers have discovered that maintaining wildlife preserves for hunting or birdwatching is more profitable than cattle ranching or farming. [181]

  • In the Southeast (especially in Georgia, Florida and Alabama), private timber companies have a history of managing hunting preserves – often employing staffs of biologists and wildlife managers to improve the habitats. [182]

  • A for-profit company (Sea Lion Caves) in Oregon owns the nation's only mainland breeding area for the once-endangered Steller sea lion and operates it as a tourist facility. [183]

  • Several ranchers in Texas have converted their properties into game preserves for rare mammals gathered from around the world. [184]

  • Edison Electric Institute has worked diligently to create artificial nesting platforms for ospreys, peregrins and eagles – partly out of a financial interest in preventing power outages that can occur as a result of the electrocutions of these birds along their power lines in western states. [185]

  • For decades, Hilton Head Island (one of the largest Barrier Islands between New Jersey and Florida) has served as a model for balancing economic development goals with environmental goals. The private developers discovered that preserving the environment raised property values and was good for business. [186]