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The Assignment of Property Rights on the Western Frontier: Lessons for Contemporary Environmental and Resource Policy

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  • Gary D. Libecap

Abstract

In addressing environmental and natural resource problems, there is a move away from primary reliance upon centralized regulation toward assignment of property rights to mitigate the losses of open-access. I examine the assignment of private property rights during the 19th and early 20th centuries to five natural resources, mineral land, timberland, grazing and farm land, and water on federal government lands in the Far West. The region was richly endowed with natural resources, but assigning property rights to them required adaptation from established, eastern practices as defined by the federal land laws. The property rights that emerged and their long-term welfare effects provide a laboratory for examining current questions of institutional design to address over-fishing, excessive air pollution, and other natural resource and environmental problems. A major lesson is that property rights allocations based on local conditions, prior use, and unconstrained by outside government mandates were most effective in addressing not only the immediate threat of open-access, but in providing a longer-term basis for production, investment, and trade. Another lesson is how hard it is to repair initial faulty property allocations. Accordingly, path dependencies in property rules are real, and they have dominated the economic history of resource use in the West.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 12598.

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Date of creation: Oct 2006
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Publication status: published as Libecap, Gary D., 2007. "The Assignment of Property Rights on the Western Frontier: Lessons for Contemporary Environmental and Resource Policy," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 67(02), pages 257-291, June.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12598

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Cited by:
  1. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman’s “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation”," ICER Working Papers, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research 33-2010, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  2. Gary D. Libecap, 2014. "Addressing Global Environmental Externalities: Transaction Costs Considerations," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 52(2), pages 424-79, June.
  3. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Water Rights and Markets in the U.S. Semi Arid West: Efficiency and Equity Issues," ICER Working Papers, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research 30-2010, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  4. Gary Libecap, 2007. "Regulation and Deregulation: Property Rights Allocation Issues in De Regulation of Common Pool Resources," ICER Working Papers, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research 28-2007, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  5. Geenen, Sara, 2012. "A dangerous bet: The challenges of formalizing artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo," Resources Policy, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 37(3), pages 322-330.
  6. Daedlow, Katrin & Beckmann, Volker & Schlüter, Maja & Arlinghaus, Robert, 2013. "Explaining institutional persistence, adaptation, and transformation in East German recreational-fisheries governance after the German reunification in 1990," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 96(C), pages 36-50.
  7. Lee J. Alston & Edwyna Harris & Bernardo Mueller, 2009. "De Facto and De Jure Property Rights: Land Settlement and Land Conflict on the Australian, Brazilian and U.S. Frontiers," CEPR Discussion Papers, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Research School of Economics, Australian National University 607, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Research School of Economics, Australian National University.
  8. Gary D. Libecap & Terry L. Anderson, 2009. "The Allocation and Dissipation of Resource Rents: Implications for Fishery Reform," ICER Working Papers, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research 13-2009, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
  9. Gary D. Libecap, 2011. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation"," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 101(1), pages 64-80, February.
  10. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation”," NBER Working Papers 16324, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Fenske, James, 2010. "Trees, tenure and conflict: Rubber in colonial Benin," MPRA Paper 26244, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  12. Hornbeck, Richard A., 2010. "Barbed Wire: Property Rights and Agricultural Development," Scholarly Articles 11185832, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  13. Gary D. Libecap & Dean Lueck, 2009. "The Demarcation of Land and the Role of Coordinating Institutions," NBER Working Papers 14942, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Edwyna Harris, 2011. "The Impact of Institutional Path Dependence on Water Market Efficiency in Victoria, Australia," Water Resources Management, Springer, Springer, vol. 25(15), pages 4069-4080, December.

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