Anderson may be an iconoclast, but other environmentalists are moving his way. No, the Sierra Club is not about to promote bow-hunting. But markets, once seen only as a cause of pollution, are increasingly being embraced as a way to make the world more green.
The evidence for this is everywhereâ€“the so-called cap-and-trade regulatory schemes being proposed to curb global warming, individual fishing quotas that limit depletion of global fisheries, the rise of organic farming, GEâ€™s Ecomagination initiative, the greening of Wal-Mart, and so forth. The climate (pun intended) has changed dramatically since 1991 when Anderson and his co-author Donald Leal published the first edition of Free Market Environmentalism. Back then, Anderson recalls, a book reviewer wrote that â€œfree market environmentalismâ€ was an oxymoron and that the authors of this book were the morons.
I met Anderson at Stanford, where he teaches a class on environmental entrepreneurs in the business school, and we spent some time together last weekend at a conference in Big Sky, Montana, sponsored by PERC, the Property and Environmental Research Center, a nonprofit he leads. (Disclosure: PERC paid my expenses, as well as those of other reporters at the event.) Anderson, I was pleased to learn, is not an ideologue; he says, for example, that we need government regulation of carbon to curb global warming. Instead, heâ€™s a pragmatist who has thought a lot about how best to address the big environmental issues facing the west, from water rights to the energy boom to wildlife restoration to the decline of our national parks.
He and his PERC colleague, Holly Fretwell, and most everyone else who has looked closely at the parks, including NPS managers, agree as currently operated, the parks are in trouble. Infrastructure is crumbling, services are declining and museum collections are gathering dust, as the National Park Conservation Assn. points out. More tax dollars would be nice, but how realistic is it to expect Congress to devote money to the parks during a time of war, rising budget deficits, a national health care crisis, etc.?
Andersonâ€™s recommendent would use markets: Charge people more money to get into the parks, he says. Right now, it costs $25 per car per week to visit Yellowstoneâ€“less than a family of four spends to go to movie and a whole lot less than the $200 (minimum) that it costs to take four people to Disney World. This is nutty when you think about it. Consider: Only about 8% of National Park Service revenues are covered by fees. What this means is that the average American taxpayer is subsidizing the Yellowstone vacations of people who are almost surely better off, if only because they can afford to fly or drive to Montana or Wyoming for an extended vacation. Thatâ€™s not even to consider the British, German and Japanese tourists we are subsidizing. Meanwhile, the parks are deteriorating.
The obvious objection to charging higher fees is that they would keep poor people out of the parks. OK, says Andersonâ€”letâ€™s let anyone who earns less than $30,000 a year get in free. Or give people who canâ€™t afford the higher fees tax credits to offset their costs. Either way, itâ€™s hard to believe that higher fees would keep many people away.
PERCâ€™s Fretwell calculated what it would cost, per person per day, to cover all the operating expenses of a number of parks. Here are her numbers:
Mt Rushmore $1.31
Grand Canyon $4.61
Steamtown national historic site $42.39
Gates of the artic national reserve $415
You can see this isnâ€™t a simple problemâ€”some parks donâ€™t get enough visitors, for whatever reason (remoteness, lack of appeal) to cover their costs with reasonable fees. But most do.
Putting the national parks on a pay-their-own-way basis would accomplish something else, too: It would align the interests of park managers and visitors. (I was going to say â€œcustomers.â€) So as parks serve visitors better, more people will come, more money will come in, permitting more investment. This is known as capitalism. Right now, Congress and its notorious earmarks have too much control over park spending. One result is the infamous $1 million outhouse in Glacier National Park.
The parks will need and very much deserve government support for capital improvements and the like. They provide a public good, arguably even to those who never set foot in themâ€”like the museum you never visit, but itâ€™s nice to know itâ€™s there. The bottom line, though, is that we need to think in more creative ways about environmental problems, particularly when the alternative is business as usual.