Public Choice Theory and the Public Lands: Why Multiple Use Failed

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Harvard Environmental Law Review

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Harv. Env't L. Rev.


This article applies public choice political theory to public lands decisionmaking and concludes that it explains why multiple-use management, the paradigm for most federal public lands, consistently overemphasizes commodity production at the expense of other values like watershed protection and wildlife preservation. Public choice theory predicts small, well-organized special interests will be able to dominate diffuse, less-invested majorities. Consequently, rent-seeking commodity-based interest groups pressure federal land managers to maintain historic levels of grazing or timber harvest levels in low-visibility administrative decisionmaking under the multiple-use directive. And the lack of meaningful standards in multiple-use statutes means extraordinarily deferential judicial review. The article recommends that Congress discard the existing concept of multiple-use decisionmaking because it produces unbalanced decisions from captured land managers who serve factional interests, and thus undermine the long-term sustainability of public land resources. Instead, Congress should redefine a new concept of multiple-use around Clean Water and Endangered Species Act standards and the fish and wildlife provisions in the National Forest Management Act. Such a redefinition would focus on protecting the most vulnerable public land resources, not those capable of providing economic benefits to a narrow class of rent-seekers.

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