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

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  • Libecap, Gary D.

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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  • 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:cup:jechis:v:67:y:2007:i:02:p:257-291_00
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    Cited by:

    1. Edwyna Harris, 2011. "The Impact of Institutional Path Dependence on Water Market Efficiency in Victoria, Australia," Water Resources Management: An International Journal, Published for the European Water Resources Association (EWRA), Springer;European Water Resources Association (EWRA), vol. 25(15), pages 4069-4080, December.
    2. Gary D. Libecap & Terry L. Anderson, 2009. "The Allocation and Dissipation of Resource Rents: Implications for Fishery Reform," ICER Working Papers 13-2009, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
    3. Gary D. Libecap, 2014. "Addressing Global Environmental Externalities: Transaction Costs Considerations," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 52(2), pages 424-479, June.
    4. Richard Hornbeck, 2010. "Barbed Wire: Property Rights and Agricultural Development," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 125(2), pages 767-810.
    5. Fenske, James, 2014. "Trees, tenure and conflict: Rubber in colonial Benin," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 110(C), pages 226-238.
    6. Gary D. Libecap, 2011. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman's "Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation"," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(1), pages 64-80, February.
    7. Eisenack, Klaus, 2016. "Institutional adaptation to cooling water scarcity for thermoelectric power generation under global warming," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 124(C), pages 153-163.
    8. 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," NBER Working Papers 15264, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Ilia Murtazashvili & Jennifer Murtazashvili, 2015. "Anarchy, self-governance, and legal titling," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 162(3), pages 287-305, March.
    10. Gary D. Libecap, 2018. "Property Rights to Frontier Land and Minerals: US Exceptionalism," NBER Working Papers 24544, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. 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.
    12. Bennett, Drew E. & Gosnell, Hannah, 2015. "Integrating multiple perspectives on payments for ecosystem services through a social–ecological systems framework," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 116(C), pages 172-181.
    13. 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, vol. 96(C), pages 36-50.
    14. 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.
    15. Geenen, Sara, 2012. "A dangerous bet: The challenges of formalizing artisanal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 37(3), pages 322-330.
    16. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Institutional Path Dependence in Climate Adaptation: Coman’s “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation”," ICER Working Papers 33-2010, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
    17. Gary D. Libecap, 2010. "Water Rights and Markets in the U.S. Semi Arid West: Efficiency and Equity Issues," ICER Working Papers 30-2010, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.
    18. Bryan Leonard & Gary D. Libecap, 2016. "Collective Action by Contract: Prior Appropriation and the Development of Irrigation in the Western United States," NBER Working Papers 22185, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. Gary Libecap, 2007. "Regulation and Deregulation: Property Rights Allocation Issues in De Regulation of Common Pool Resources," ICER Working Papers 28-2007, ICER - International Centre for Economic Research.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • K11 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Property Law
    • N21 - Economic History - - Financial Markets and Institutions - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • N22 - Economic History - - Financial Markets and Institutions - - - U.S.; Canada: 1913-
    • N5 - Economic History - - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Extractive Industries
    • Q15 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Land Ownership and Tenure; Land Reform; Land Use; Irrigation; Agriculture and Environment
    • Q2 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q27 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation - - - Issues in International Trade
    • Q28 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation - - - Government Policy
    • Q3 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation
    • Q32 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Nonrenewable Resources and Conservation - - - Exhaustible Resources and Economic Development

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