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

  • Gary D. Libecap

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
Note: DAE EEE
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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Anderson, Terry L & Hill, Peter J, 1990. "The Race for Property Rights," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 33(1), pages 177-97, April.
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  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. Grafton, R.Q. & Squires, D. & Fox, K.J., 1998. "Private Property and Economic Efficiency: A Study of a Common-Pool Resource," Working Papers 9804e, University of Ottawa, Department of Economics.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
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  27. 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.
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