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

Gary D. Libecap

NBER Working Paper No. 12598
Issued in October 2006
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Environment and Energy Economics

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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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w12598

Published: 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. citation courtesy of

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