Triumph of the Commons

Most people of this country own private property in some form. Few American citizens realize, however, that they are equal shareholders in a vast, complex and immensely valuable estate of public property.

Because people don’t know about their public property portfolio, they don’t realize that the value of their national public estate is in great jeopardy.

Everyone is familiar with the old parable titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. That story tells a tale of a village public pasture which is owned in common by everybody in the community. The pasture becomes overgrazed – as the story goes – into a desert waste because nobody has a reason to conserve the resource, because nobody has an ownership motivation.

American history does indeed record stories of just such tragedies – the whole Industrial Revolution is punctuated with them. Certainly, the early years of cattle grazing on the northern plains, before land management laws were enacted, are an example.

Another parable – one that is actual USA history – is seldom or never told. That parable is of the “Triumph of the Commons”. This example is the history of the invention, development and leadership by the American people to produce the wildlife and wild land miracle that anybody can go out and see around us today. We call this miracle ‘conservation’ or, ‘wise use,’ and too many think it just happened by chance.

We Americans are champion problem solvers. When confronted with the “tragedy of the commons”, we solved the problem by inventing the “public trustee” to take authority over the people’s property and manage it wisely so that we can use it and conserve it at the same time. The “trustee” appointed by the people for the management task is our government – local, state and federal.

Indeed, what loss of value of our public resources that does occur typically comes via the influence and effect of converting our state and national public properties into private hands – ‘unwise use.’

The reason the parable of the ‘Triumph of the Commons’ is less often told than that of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is simply because groups of people who want to profit from taking personal profit from our public resources use the negative parable as propaganda to persuade the American people to surrender part or all of their public ownership rights.

Tragedy is a persuasive parable when you meet it in the context of our national obsession, spanning two centuries, to seize, occupy and exploit the North American continent. Manifest Destiny has been our brightest cultural light from pilgrim days to the present, and expanding private property rights is a hallmark of manifest destiny.

A key difference from the Old World Order that our American forefathers made in their time was to assert that ordinary people have rights of private ownership that can’t be legally taken away without just compensation.

The King once owned everything and the people were merely renters. The American Revolution and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution changed all that in the United States. We The People became our own sovereign. And we set out at the very beginning to protect our individual rights from any future kings or despots. There is no more strongly held value today among the American people than that of ‘private property rights’.

As long as there was more public property available, than there were Americans to exploit it, nobody paid any attention to preserving some of the public resource for the future. About the time that we realized that we had seized, occupied and were in the process of exploiting everything from sea-to-sea, a handful of people began to speak out for holding back parts of the continent from private ownership in order to preserve it for the future. And that is just what ‘We The People’ did.

From this 19th Century public outcry came the National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments, Wildlife Refuges, BLM lands, state lands and other elements of the public estate that we continue to own in common today as a nation of people equal before our laws.

One important part of our American Conservation Movement has lagged behind, however. And the lagging of that part leaves the door open to tragedy on the American commons.

That ‘part’ is the education of the American people to the fact that they are responsible as owners of public property – even though its held in common under direct supervision of hired help we call a trustee. Yes, it’s true, in addition to being the owners of their personal private property; American citizens have to participate in the management of their public estate.

One thing that private property and public property have in common is that: if you want to keep it you had better keep your eye on it – pickpockets are everywhere.

Preserving the value of our public property demands the same diligence as does preserving the value of private property. Just because the people have created a ‘trustee’ in the form of laws and government agencies to administer the laws does not mean the people don’t have to constantly keep a sharp eye out for those who would take unjust value from us.

Turn your back for an instant and the private ‘Takers’ start telling the public Trustee
what to do. The economic interests I call ‘Takers’ will slice a piece of value such as unsustainable resource extraction off here and block an ownership right such as access by locking you out there. And they will try to persuade you, Jane and John Public, that their taking is for your own good so that the alleged “tragedy of the commons” doesn’t occur – even as they are leading you directly down the path away from triumph and toward tragedy.

Assertion of public property rights in our national conversation is the effort to wake people up to the value of their public land, water, wildlife, wilderness, air and mineral property birthright – and to act on their responsibility as citizen-owners of the public estate.

Ownership without owner engagement equals property rights lost.

The great irony is that resistance to recognition of public property rights comes entirely from ostensible champions of private property rights. Proper, lawful enjoyment by the people of their public property rights does not subtract one iota of lawful value from the private property nearby.

The only ‘value’ the private property owner stands to lose is any public property value they have previously taken from the public when he or she has encroached, ‘borrowed’, diverted, locked off or otherwise claimed until challenged by outraged members of the public. On the other hand, enhancing value of one property in a neighborhood also enhances the value of adjacent properties. Public and private property rights are mutually complimentary where people are intent on being good neighbors, rather than becoming value competitors.

The creation of public property and the assertion by the people of their authority to appoint a trustee and control their property is the genesis of our National Triumph of the Commons. The people should not surrender their public property rights with less regret than they would feel for loss for all other personal rights civil and inalienable.

Public Land/Water Access Association Inc. or PLWA,
is a citizen group organized and operated under the Montana nonprofit corporation act.
The Internal Revenue Service has made a determination that PLWA qualifies as a tax- exempt
organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and that it is a public charity.

Articles and Information on this site represent the opinion of the writer and are not intended as legal advice.
Legal counsel may be needed in dealing with specific access situations and issues.

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