Sierra Magazine

Ways and Means

Reclaiming the Commons

Privatization has plenty of cheerleaders, but does it work?

By Carl Pope

A politician out fishing on a rippling stream or clear lake makes a fine photo op, a manufactured image of a wholesome person who cherishes nature. Too often, however, concern for our waters—and for the fishermen and others who depend on them—extends no farther than a fly-cast.

Consider the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border. When Interior Secretary Gale Norton visited in March and opened gates to send its water to irrigation channels, Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok Indians from downriver greeted her with signs reading, "Bush Kills Salmon." Why? Because even though federal courts and Norton’s own department have ruled that excessive withdrawals for irrigation violate both tribal water rights and the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department has done nothing to restore the Klamath River. On the contrary, withdrawals are allowed to continue, because the Bush administration is catering to influential agricultural interests.

The administration and its wise-use allies consistently sacrifice fish-dependent communities to agriculture, dams, or timber companies. This is puzzling; after all, the wise-use movement is supposed to stand for the productive management of natural resources, and commercial fishermen are blue-collar paragons of the American work ethic who make a significant contribution to the economy. The collapse of the Klamath fisheries alone has eliminated 3,700 jobs and a 660-ton annual commercial catch. Yet when conservationists advocate for fisheries, asking that their health be considered as important as the farming, logging, or mining that puts them at risk, we hear the same old accusation—that we put fish ahead of people.

I wonder if this indifference to fishing communities is because fishermen depend on lakes, rivers, or the sea, but cannot conquer them. They have to live off nature’s bounty, rather than divide it up, privatize it, and remake it. Not that we should romanticize fishing. Giant modern trawlers are as destructive to oceans as feller bunchers are to forests. But we suffer from a deeply ingrained cultural hostility to holding resources in common. In his famous essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin laid out an environmentalist version of this anti-commons attitude. He argued that a pasture managed as a commons will inevitably be overgrazed, because the benefits of grazing too many sheep accrue to the individual who has the most, while the costs are shared by all users.

For this widely cited oversimplification, Hardin offered no evidence. In fact, many historic commons were better managed than their privatized successors. Native Americans used the commons of the Great Plains for millennia; private farming nearly blew it away in a generation. The English countryside commons of the 17th century harvested, sustainably, a huge variety of resources. Its replacement, the enclosed sheep pasture, was plagued by overgrazing. The English commons was not privatized because commons management had failed, but because landlords wanted to monopolize it for their own gain—and enclosure accomplished their goal.

Here in America, experience suggests that tragedy occurs at least as often on private lands as on commons. Our national forests have been overlogged, but many private forest holdings have been almost liquidated. The western forest type with the least remaining old growth is the coastal redwood, the one forest that passed most completely into private hands.

Despite the lack of evidence, Hardin’s analysis has become accepted as gospel, strengthening the cultural bias against the commons. But the reality is that we live in a commons—or, as Adlai Stevenson put it, we are "passengers on a little spaceship." The oceans, the atmosphere, the genetic legacy of biological diversity, even the global geochemical cycles are all common resources. There is only one ozone layer, and we can’t privatize it.

Nor should we privatize our waterways, as a glance southeast of the Klamath shows. Nevada’s Pyramid and Walker Lakes once boasted remarkable commercial fisheries—thousands of Lahontan cutthroat trout, weighing up to 40 pounds apiece, were landed every year. But when the watersheds of the Truckee and Walker Rivers, like the Klamath, were overdrawn for private irrigation, both lakes and their fisheries were devastated. Happily, Pyramid is now being rescued by restoring the Truckee’s water to the commons, with government and conservation groups buying out water rights from alfalfa growers and letting the water flow into the now-rising lake. The Paiute Tribe, which has always protected Pyramid’s shores, now nurtures a lake that is recovering.

Nevada senator Harry Reid, who led the fight to revive Pyramid, is now striving to save Walker by restoring its water, helping Walker join Pyramid as an example of successful commons management.

But private forces, many close to the Bush administration, are willing to look at Walker Lake the way Norton does the Klamath River, and let the resource die. Their warning to Reid: We will block you, and there will be a political price to pay.

If private management can yield no better answer than "let it die," while collective stewardship is restoring Pyramid Lake, the house of cards on which Norton bases her position on the Klamath—and indeed on all her broad domain—collapses. If intelligent commons management, not private property, creates genuine wise use and stewardship, then maybe we should reexamine our cultural prejudice against the commons. And we certainly ought to question the even deeper dedication to privatizing—and destroying—nature’s bounty.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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