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

  • Libecap, Gary D.

I examine the assignment of private property rights during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to five natural resources on federal lands in the Far West. Assigning property rights required adaptation from established, eastern practices. The resulting property rights and their long-term welfare effects inform over-fishing, excessive air pollution, and other natural resource and environmental problems. Allocations based on local conditions, prior use, and unconstrained by outside government mandates were most effective in both addressing the immediate threat of open-access and providing a longer-term basis for production, investment, and trade. Initial faulty property allocations and path dependencies are discussed.This is what stretched westward from the 100th meridian, this complex, misunderstood two fifths of the continental United States where men had come before law arrived and where before there were adequate maps there were warring interests, white against Indian, cattleman against sheepman and both against nester, open range notions against the use of the newly invented barbed wire, Gentile against Mormon, land rights against water rights, appropriation rights to water against riparian rights to water, legitimate small settler against speculator and land-grabber. The public domain as Powell knew it was all of these, its only unity the unity of little rain.Wallace StegnerStegner, Beyond the 100th Meridian, p. 218.

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Article provided by Cambridge University Press in its journal The Journal of Economic History.

Volume (Year): 67 (2007)
Issue (Month): 02 (June)
Pages: 257-291

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Handle: RePEc:cup:jechis:v:67:y:2007:i:02:p:257-291_00
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  1. Anderson, Terry L & Hill, Peter J, 1975. "The Evolution of Property Rights: A Study of the American West," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 18(1), pages 163-79, April.
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  4. Alberto Alesina & George-Marios Angeletos, 2004. "Fairness and Redistribution," Levine's Bibliography 122247000000000283, UCLA Department of Economics.
  5. Milgrom, Paul, 1989. "Auctions and Bidding: A Primer," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 3(3), pages 3-22, Summer.
  6. Wiggins, Steven N & Libecap, Gary D, 1985. "Oil Field Unitization: Contractual Failure in the Presence of Imperfect Information," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(3), pages 368-85, June.
  7. Paul Klemperer, 2000. "What Really Matters in Auction Design," Economics Series Working Papers 2000-W26, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
  8. Libecap, Gary D., 1981. "Bureaucratic Opposition to the Assignment of Property Rights: Overgrazing on the Western Range," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 41(01), pages 151-158, March.
  9. Clay, Karen & Wright, Gavin, 2005. "Order without law? Property rights during the California gold rush," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 42(2), pages 155-183, April.
  10. Hansen, Zeynep K. & Libecap, Gary D., 2004. "The allocation of property rights to land: US land policy and farm failure in the northern great plains," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 41(2), pages 103-129, April.
  11. Libecap, Gary D & Wiggins, Steven N, 1984. "Contractual Responses to the Common Pool: Prorationing of Crude Oil Production," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(1), pages 87-98, March.
  12. Revesz, Richard L. & Stavins, Robert N., 2007. "Environmental Law," Handbook of Law and Economics, Elsevier.
  13. Libecap, Gary D. & Johnson, Ronald N., 1979. "Property Rights, Nineteenth-Century Federal Timber Policy, and the Conservation Movement," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 39(01), pages 129-142, March.
  14. Anderson, Terry L & Johnson, Ronald N, 1986. "The Problem of Instream Flows," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 24(4), pages 535-54, October.
  15. Doyle, Matthew & Singh, Rajesh & Weninger, Quinn, 2005. "Fisheries Management with Stock Growth Uncertainty and Costly Capital Adjustment: Extended Appendix," Staff General Research Papers 12291, Iowa State University, Department of Economics.
  16. Umbeck, John, 1977. "A Theory of Contract Choice and the California Gold Rush," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 20(2), pages 421-37, October.
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  18. Lee J. Alston & Gary D. Libecap & Robert Schneider, 1996. "The Determinants and Impact of Property Rights: Land Titles on the Brazilian Frontier," NBER Working Papers 5405, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  19. H. Scott Gordon, 1954. "The Economic Theory of a Common-Property Resource: The Fishery," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 62, pages 124.
  20. Allen, Douglas W, 1991. "Homesteading and Property Rights; or, "How the West Was Really Won."," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 34(1), pages 1-23, April.
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  23. Johnson, Ronald N & Libecap, Gary D, 1982. "Contracting Problems and Regulation: The Case of the Fishery," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 72(5), pages 1005-22, December.
  24. Libecap, Gary D., 1978. "Economic Variables and the Development of the Law: The Case of Western Mineral Rights," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 38(02), pages 338-362, June.
  25. Johnson, Ronald N & Gisser, Micha, 1981. "The Definition of a Surface Water Right and Transferability," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(2), pages 273-88, October.
  26. Johnson, Ronald N. & Libecap, Gary D., 1980. "Efficient markets and great lakes timber: A conservation issue reexamined," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 17(4), pages 372-385, October.
  27. Alston, Lee J., 1983. "Farm Foreclosures in the United States During the Interwar Period," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 43(04), pages 885-903, December.
  28. Libecap, Gary D & Wiggins, Steven N, 1985. "The Influence of Private Contractual Failure on Regulation: The Case of Oil Field Unitization," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 93(4), pages 690-714, August.
  29. Stavins, Robert, 2003. "Market-Based Environmental Policies: What Can We Learn from U.S. Experience and Related Research?," Working Paper Series rwp03-031, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  30. John McMillan, 1994. "Selling Spectrum Rights," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 8(3), pages 145-162, Summer.
  31. David Gerard, 2001. "Transaction Costs and the Value of Mining Claims," Land Economics, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 77(3), pages 371-384.
  32. Umbeck, John, 1977. "The California gold rush: A study of emerging property rights," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 14(3), pages 197-226, July.
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