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The Strategy To Privatize The Public Domain

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This article is reproduced with permission by Bill Willers. It was originally published under the same name on the now defunct website of The Liberal Slant published April 21, 2003.


"The organizing principle of this paper is one of ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and the transfer of the parks to private parties." - James P. Beckwith, Jr., 1981.

"Virtually everything President Bush is doing to America is, at some level, related to privatization of our commons. Today we are witnessing the middle game portion of the Corporate Takeover of Everything Agenda. It scares me to imagine what the end-game will look like." - Scott Silver, 2003


The coordinated and decades-long effort to privatize the public lands of the United States, nearly a third of the nation, is now bearing fruit. The Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s that sought to transfer power to states and local units, and that provided the Reagan Administration with James Watt as Interior Secretary, morphed into the Wise Use Movement that sprinkled antigovernment grassroots organizations across the nation. Wise Use, in turn, has given rise to so-called "free market environmentalism" that consists largely of a network of corporations and conservative foundations and think tanks intent on gaining control of the public domain.

This collective is using all of its political clout, every legal loophole, every economic argument, and all of the public relations and media spin its billions can buy. Privatization, the word, is frequently avoided in favor of code terms such as "public - private partnerships", "competitive outsourcing" and "stewardship contracting". Platoons of Bush appointees, right out of industry, are now rewriting regulations to move the privatization agenda rapidly forward.

Beckwith, 1981

The architects of free market environmentalism have been candid. The quotation above, from an essay written by law professor James P. Beckwith, Jr. and published in the Cato Journal in 1981, dealt with the privatization of public parks, but its principles are applicable to all public lands. In brief, the stepwise strategy has been to begin the privatization process with volunteerism, and then to transfer to the private sector positions now held by government employees. Finally, public ownership would simply become a memory.

Beckwith argued that public ownership of parks is a "monopoly [that allows for] suboptimal pricing". He acknowledged that low fees exist because federal law requires that they be "fair and equitable" but claimed this is simply a political ploy by legislators to win votes from "voters who consume recreation." Parks should not belong to all of the people, he argued, but only "to those who use them, and that is only some of 'the people'". His plan to privatize was simple: "Existing public parks could either be given away or sold to the highest bidder." Without doubt, major corporations and the very wealthy would quickly become the new owners. In the world Beckwith set forth, we who are presently the owners of the land, become known variously as "customers", "clients" and "consumers".

Beckwith understood that a sudden takeover of public land would quickly trigger reaction and proposed that privatization be introduced by degrees, with the "most tentative step" being recruitment of volunteers and later "the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit". Governmental bureaucrats, he argued, have no incentive to economize, and with low-bidding private companies providing services, the system would function with maximum economic efficiency.

A shift in this direction is now advancing rapidly in the Department of Interior. Just a year ago Interior Secretary Gail Norton reported that some 3,500 positions in the U.S. Park Service would be marked for privatization. Now, as of January, 2003, Interior, after hiring (for a reported $5 million) the firm CH2MHill to produce a "competitive sourcing" plan, has expanded the plan to privatize 11,807 of the 16,470 positions in the U.S. Park Service - nearly 72%. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the contract was simply given without any bidding process to CH2MHill, a company that is anything but neutral, since it does billions of dollars in business by maintaining federal facilities. CH2MHill is free to bid on positions that have been privatized through its recommendation.

In the system Beckwith prescribed, where market demand is all-powerful and cloaked as Liberty herself, if "customers" are not willing to pony up what managers charge, what then? In such a scenario, lands "might even cease to be parks at all because recreationists might not be willing to pay enough to bid away the land from alternative purposes." What "alternative purposes"? Toward what kind of future could this lead Yellowstone and the rest of what are now the public's lands? Where profit is king, one need only give free rein to the imagination.

And the situation with the National Parks is just a beginning. In the February 5 issue of the Washington Post, Christopher Lee cites President Bush as wanting federal agencies to compete out as many as 850,000 federal jobs.

Charging For The Sky

There is an errie quality to the mechanical cold-heartedness with which Beckwith deals with our land. It's as if he were considering the fate of plastic widgets or writing a doomsday scenario. "The gate fee", he wrote, "could cover such hard-to-charge-for amenities as the sky, broad vistas, and fragrant flowers." Specific fees would be charged for other services and activities such as hiking, bird watching, and the like.

There is irony in that privatization of public domain would be pressed so strongly at this particular time, just as the nation has been given examples not only of rampant corporate fraud but also of the spectacular failure of airport security as a for-profit enterprise, its employees incompetent, ill-trained and underpaid for profit’s sake, this making it necessary for the government of the people to step in. Former Forest Service supervisor Gloria Flora, writing for Headwater News, put it this way: "What will our experiences be like when services, professionalism and even wildlife are managed for profitability? Can you picture former airport security guards stuffed into Park Service uniforms -- disgruntled, unqualified, and underpaid -- in charge of our national treasures? Will carnival rides be installed next to Old Faithful to augment the income stream?"

Beckwith's essay, prepared for a 1980 conference titled "Property Rights and Natural Resources: A New Paradigm for the Environmental Movement", was sponsored by the Cato Institute and the Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources of Montana State University at Bozeman. He acknowledged the editorial assistance of Terry Anderson and John Baden, both of whom now, two decades later, have become leaders of the privatization agenda. Anderson is public lands adviser to President George W. Bush.

Terry Anderson and PERC

It’s difficult to overestimate the power of language manipulation. The Political Economy Research Center (PERC), heads its website with the note. "The Center for Free Market Environmentalism". This use of "environmentalism" in connection with the language of free market economics one now sees again and again, not only with PERC, but with a host of similar groups, as if it were a valid form of environmentalism rather than a tactic in the overall strategy for taking control of the public’s land. It's the principle of hitting the public mind constantly with a falsehood until, in time, it has a ring of truth.

Go to PERC's website www.perc.org , click on "links", and one is led to a list of 55 of the country's most powerful rightwing foundations and organizations committed to deregulation of industry and to the privatization of everything. PERC's basic premise is that ownership and management of land by government is bad for the environment, and that private property rights lead to better "stewardship of resources". Our government is depicted not as an entity "of, by, and for the people" but as something far, far away and characterized by faceless, incompetent, bureaucrats.

PERC advances its agenda through policy analysis, conferences, books and articles, and "education". Its funding comes from a host of the country's most conservative foundations - Bradley, Sarah Scaife, John M. Olin, JM, Lambe, McKenna, Earhart, Koch, Carthage and Castle Rock -- the guts of a force of roughly a dozen or so foundations that, since the 1960s, have coordinated their efforts toward forging national policy favorable to deregulation of industry and to privatization.

Terry Anderson, PERC's director (and a senior fellow at the rightwing Hoover Foundation), landed in the consciousness of environmentalists in 1999 as lead author of an alarming policy paper published by the Cato Institute, "How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands". The paper, in which public ownership was painted "red" by being identified as a "failure of socialism", was based on four assumptions: That a given piece of land be "allocated to highest-valued use", that transition costs (to private ownership) be kept to a minimum, that there be "broad participation" in the divestiture, and that "squatter's rights" be protected. The plan advanced was to allocate to each citizen "shares" in what are now public lands. That's the "broad participation" part - everybody gets "shares". But here's the rub: shares would be "freely transferred", i.e., sold on the open market.

With 280 million citizens, what would an individual's shares be worth? $5,000? $50,000? Whatever the value on the open market, the poorer a citizen, the greater the inducement to sell quickly. But even the middle classes, bombarded with college tuition, mortgages, medical bills and the like, in time would be needing the cash their "shares" represented. In the wings, corporations and the very rich would be waiting to vacuum shares up. There would be a great sucking sound of the sort Ross Perot once described, and within a generation or two what is now the priceless heritage of all U.S. citizens would gravitate into the ownership of the wealthy.

Actually, Anderson's vision is for a process that would take place over a 20-40 year span - about two generations. As the push to privatize heats up, our common assets, held for us by a government of the people, are drifting into the control of the private sector, no longer for public benefit but for private profit. And we are failing to notice.

Anderson writes that his plan "provides opportunities and incentives for environmentalists and their organizations to participate directly in the ownership and management of amenity resources by bidding for surface rights to parks and wilderness lands." But surely he knows this is nonsense, for how could the environmental community ever compete with global corporate interests, extractive industry and the billionaire set? For those who love the land it would be panic time and a scratching together of any available funds to save a few revered spots.

And the language! "Amenity resources" indeed! A soulless concept dripping with dollar signs and devoid of any deeper sense of connection between humans and the natural world. Calling this kind of economics "the dismal science" is much too kind. It says "Here's a piece of land. Take a hike and enjoy. $50 please, in the interest of free marketeering. Thank you, and have a great day. Nature, Inc.”

Terry Anderson became George W. Bush's adviser on public lands issues. In May of 1999, as reported by Mark Hertsgaard in the February, 2003 issue of The Nation, Anderson was one of a group that met with Bush at the Texas Governor's mansion. Bush was advised, as Anderson explained, to "devolve some responsibility for meeting environmental standards to local levels". Bush was also advised at that time to give private property rights precedence over public interests and to replace governmental law and regulation with the laissez-faire principles of the free market - exactly what the privatization lobby has worked toward lo these past four decades.

First The States and "Local" Interests

In a 1995 report, "Conservative Foundations and their Activist Grantees", the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP) wrote that Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, and his Administration's efforts to increase the authority of states, gave the conservative collective opportunity to establish state power bases from which it not only crafted and pressed legislation in all states but also mobilized for impacting national policy. Don Eberly, a principal in the conservative movement, was quoted as saying "We simply will not have power on the national level until we declare war on state legislators".

Indeed, it has been run as a war, and one strategically so well organized, and with such an extensive support network, that elements as diverse the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association appear as part of a united front. And because the conservative foundations have been joined by large corporations such as RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Shell Oil, Pfizer, Phillip Morris, etc., the conservative collective, now with billions of dollars at its disposal, has been able to outspend progressive efforts many-fold in its mission to redesign national policy. It’s propaganda campaign disseminates information to media and supports a wealth of "educational" literature for all levels of consumption, including school newspapers. It is within this vast network that PERC rests.

John Baden and FREE

As with PERC, so with FREE (the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, www.free-eco.org . FREE , also based in Bozeman, Montana, has received millions of dollars from roughly the same profile of foundations that funds PERC, and is a prime engine for free market environmentalism in the area of "education". Preaching reliance on market mechanisms and private property rights, rather than on environmental law, for protection of the environment, it's chairperson, John Baden (a past member of the National Petroleum Council), stresses decentralization - a shift of control from what he calls "Green platonic despots in D.C." to "local interests". He has written, apparently in all seriousness, that the agenda of FREE is "the norm among progressive, intellectually honest and successful environmentalists".

One of FREE’s current projects is the “Charter Forest” scheme, in which the national forests would no longer operate under the “multiple use” mandate. Rather, each forest would be are managed by whatever industry would be able to realize the greatest profit.

For more than ten years, FREE has been offering expense-paid seminars in its philosophy to federal judges (It's invitation can be seen, at least at the time of this writing, at http://www.mediatransparency.org/recipients/free.htm ). Seminars, held primarily at resorts and private ranches in Montana, with good access to trout streams and golf courses, include such topics as "The Environment: A CEO's Perspective" and "Liberty and the Environment: A Case for Judicial Activism" [emphasis added]. In the late nineties, FREE boasted that nearly a third of the federal judiciary had either attended or was seeking to attend its seminars, this as the Bush Administration now strives to pack federal benches with rightist judges. The group also offers expense-paid courses for university faculty and students, these reportedly taught on the campus of Montana State University.

User Fees

User fees as tools for controlling use and "rationing access" to public land is a central aspect of the privatization agenda. Here, the American public that in its ownership capacity has for generations supported public lands with its taxes, transforms into a population of paying customers. Beckwith, in his 1981 landmark paper, underscored that user fees are feasible only if nonusers can be excluded from users. Then, "if the price of recreation is raised", he writes, "less of it will be demanded by consumers, and overcrowding in the parks will be reduced". That this excludes lower income citizens is not a factor of interest for free marketeers.

The public ownership model that American citizens presently enjoy makes it impossible to exclude "non-users", and this impedes the path to the fee system envisioned by the free market establishment. For this reason, Beckwith wrote, "it is essential that property rights in the parks be defined, transferred, and enforced..."

In fact, the ongoing diminishing of federal funding of land management agencies (under the guise of “streamlining” government) strongly assists the privatization agenda, since it makes user fees ever more necessary for the operation of land management agencies.

The Bush Administration is forging ahead in this direction. Grover Norquist, the key rightwing strategist and White House advisor who spearheads the immense Bush tax cut, was widely reported in 2001 as saying his goal is to shrink government so that it will fit into a bathtub where he can then drown it. This really is nothing less than to a plan to kill government of, by, and for the people.

With market incentives introduced into land management, data can be collected and analyzed regarding customer preferences within the menu of uses and services. Because income and ability to pay are not reliable predictors either of taste or of understanding about the biological aspects of natural landscapes, the door is opened to the most mechanized, destructive and vulgar of activities, if those are what provide the most dollar votes. What is presently managed for an entire population of owners, and in the best interests of the land itself, would quickly become geared toward the interests of those "users" providing the greatest profit.

There is indication that there is much money to be made in “industrial recreation”. The American Recreation Coalition (ARC) represents every conceivable snowmobile, jetski, ATV, 4-wheeler, off-roader, motorcycle and RV interest, whether manufacturer, dealer, or user group, as well as petroleum interests and Disney Corporation ( http://www.funoutdoors.com/members.html ). Even with the public domain under its present public ownership, ARC's immense financial, political, and public relations clout allows it to exert considerable control on public land management. Despite the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Americans, ARC has been instrumental in keeping Yellowstone Park, the very crown jewel of the nation's parks, open to snowmobile traffic. A privatizing of management would simply demolish any remnants of the public interest presently holding at bay a total industrial takeover.

Beckwith, PERC, FREE, ARC ... these are just parts of a massive and massively-funded, interconnected system and long-term strategy dedicated to the transfer of public domain into private hands. It is so vast and multifaceted that it's difficult to keep tabs on it, and given the politics and obligations of the present Administration, it is advancing with frightening rapidity, largely unnoticed by a citizenry focused on terrorism and foreign wars.

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