Free Market, Free Schmarket

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Free Market, Free Schmarket

Republicans are forever extolling the virtues of the free market, which is why I enjoyed reading this column by the New York Times' John Tierney:

[Dell] LeFevre, who is 65, has no affection for the hikers who want his cows out of the red-rock canyons and mesas in southern Utah, where his family has been ranching for five generations.

He has considered environmentalism a dangerous religion since the day in 1991 when he and his father-in-law found two dozen cows shot to death, perhaps by someone determined to reclaim a scenic stretch of the Escalante River canyon.

... But [Mr. LeFevre] is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an environmentalist named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Mr. Hedden's group doesn't use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive out ranchers. These environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy it.

To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that entitle Mr. LeFevre's cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He figures it was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses are reappearing, now that cows aren't eating and trampling the vegetation.

Mr. LeFevre likes the deal because it enabled him to buy grazing permits for higher ground that's easier for him and his cows to reach than the canyon.

And Republicans should like it too, right? I mean this is all about two parties voluntarily entering into a win-win kind of transaction -- it's the highly venerated "free market" at work.

But, no. Utah politicians (the vast majority of whom are Republicans) and the Bush administration are fighting the permit purchases. Tierney explains:
Even though Mr. LeFevre and other ranchers along the Escalante willingly sold their grazing permits, local and state politicians are fighting to put cows back on those lands. They say their communities and the ranching way of life will be destroyed if grazing lands are allowed to revert to nature, and they've found sympathetic ears in the Bush administration.

The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer simply buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law -- not wholly shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration -- land currently being used by ranchers has already been determined to be "chiefly valuable for grazing" and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.'s "land use planning process" deems it necessary.

But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a "land use planning process" of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If an environmentalist offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that's the best indication the land is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.

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