Privatization: Turning The Commons Into Gold


Thanks, Alison and Stephers, for the inspiration and love of life struggling to survive. And love the paradox.

This piece was something I wrote in 2005. A lot has changed, but the general process and trend has not. Today’s enclosure laws and regulations give to oligarchs and take from commoners. The mode of production is today, as it has ever been: colonialism.

Plight of the Commons

“By the law of nature these things are common to all mankind, the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea,” proclaimed the Roman Emperor Justinian.  Justinian’s code, the original protection of the public trust, or commons, become the law of the land in 528 A.D.  Over the centuries that have followed this precept has become widely known as the Public Trust Doctrine. 

Today, the commons face unprecedented new threats from an American 21st Century Emperor and the expansion of so-called neo-conservatism, or privatization.  From a neo-conservative perspective, laissez-faire individualism and free-market (corporate) economics, the conceptual building blocks of a bold return to medieval feudalism, offer efficiency, smaller-sized government, and greater individual choice.  Public tradeoffs or costs (public losses) are seldom discussed. 

Since the institutionalization of greed in the 1980s under the Reagan Administration, the expansion of the domain of property rights has delivered dramatic rewards to the selfish desires of America’s consumer culture elite. 

In 2004, the Montana Republican Party adopted the following platform resolution:  “Be it resolved by the Montana Republican Party that we support privatization in all aspects of government, whenever possible and practical.”  If, as President Reagan stated, “the problem is government,” and the solution is privatization, then a wholesale return to servitude seems inevitable for all but a handful of 21st Century lords hunkered down in heavily fortified, gated communities, and on private islands.

The privatization of public assets by corporate capitalists, elected and un-elected political operatives (lobbyists), and international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, has become a global phenomenon influencing public policy in every corner of the globe.  Our air, water, privacy, schools, energy, railroads, busses, airports, airwaves, health care, social security, prisons, seeds, forests, calories, silence, knowledge, sunlight, soil, and everything else once publicly owned, is being snatched up to make a quick buck. 

In the U.S., especially in the arid West, the extreme anti-environmentalist, Wise-Use movement, a regional variant of the privatization movement, is advancing a growing number of proposals to give-away, sell, exchange or otherwise reduce public ownership and/or control over public lands. 

Recently, an outrageous proposal by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) authorized the liquidation and development of millions of acres of “mining claims” on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior/ Bureau of Land Management (BLM) passed the U.S. House by one vote.  Pombo’s bill listed some National Parks, which were to be sold, allegedly to balance the budget, and raise relief funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina and future disasters.

Democrats have also played leading roles in privatizing the commons.  In 1995, House minority leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sponsored the Presidio Trust legislation, which created the first privatized national park in the United States.  Private businesses now control more than 80 percent of the 1,408-acre park in San Francisco.  Pelosi’s legislation requires that leases, and other real estate development pay the entire cost of managing the park by 2013. 

Tax-exempt foundations led by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Tides Foundation, and some brand-name groups like Environmental Defense and The Wilderness Society, hopped on Pelosi’s privatization bandwagon.  Privatization of The Presidio demonstrates the new way private foundations function like corporate lobbyists and PACs (Political Action Committees) to promote their narrow, short-term political agenda – the greater public interest be damned.  When it suits their short-term objectives, some environmental groups will do just about anything to claim victory. 

In Idaho, Pew, The Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League have teamed up with Rep. Simpson (R-ID) to promote his Central Idaho Economic and Recreation Act (HR 3603), or CIEDRA, a classic example of collaborative realpolitik in action.  CIEDRA would designate 300,000 acres as wilderness, but would give-away to county governments over 8,000 acres of public land, including some congressionally protected lands in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.  In total, CIEDRA would hand over 130,000 public acres to motorized recreation and potential real estate development.  Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), ranking member of the House Resources Committee, said at a hearing last fall it was the first time he could remember opposing a wilderness bill.  “The focus of this bill is placed on development, with public land giveaways, monetary favors and special legislative provisions for a select few,” lamented Rahall.

Opposed by over 50 grassroots conservation groups, CIEDRA is a privatization bill, disguised as a Boulder-White Clouds “wilderness bill.”  Boulder-White Clouds legislation is only the latest in a series of “wilderness-lite” or “virtual wilderness” bills making their way through Congress that are taking the new “free-market” (quid-pro-quo) approach.

One common force driving the privatization agenda appears to be the lavish funding provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based behemoth controlled by heirs to the Sun Oil fortune, and its national Campaign for American Wilderness.  By defusing political dissent through endless meetings, collaboration, and compromise, Pew and its foundation-dependent allies help spread the privatization pandemic, aided by a network of sympathetic and biased “main-stream” journalists.

Pew pours huge sums of money into its campaigns independently, and through other foundations, which ultimately finds its way to submissive local groups willing to sacrifice wilderness principles for hollow political victories. 

Doug Scott, formerly a 17-year veteran with the Sierra Club, now heads up Pew’s Campaign for American Wilderness.  Scott works tirelessly to marginalize critics of Pew’s “new way,” insisting that no wilderness bills ever passed without compromises.  He cites past efforts like the Frank Church Wilderness, which traded mineral access for wilderness, or the statewide Wyoming Wilderness bill of 1984, which traded oil and gas exploration access, “hard release” and “sufficiency language” for rocks and ice wilderness, and the Gospel Hump Wilderness, which traded access to timber for wilderness.  But Scott’s examples are disingenuous.  He is well aware that in those instances large tracts of public land weren’t gifted or sold in exchange for wilderness protection, primarily in uncontested areas, the way it is today. 

The broader implications of the increasing frequency of these new ‘Wise-Use’ variants – massive public land disposals, statutory exemptions for motorized recreation industry, and total elimination of federal reserved water rights in wilderness – have scarcely been debated in public. 

For example, how many people ever heard about legislation passed by the 108th Congress creating a 768,000-acre wilderness area in Lincoln County, Nevada (north of Las Vegas), which also allowed for utility corridors and the sale of 100,000 acres of federal land for real estate development?

First popularized by Gifford Pinchot over 100 years ago, ‘Wise-Use’
described an exploitive, utilitarian model for natural resources management.  In the  ’80s, right-wingers Alan Gottlieb and Ron Arnold fathered the anti-environmental, ‘Wise-Use Movement’.  Today, through a process of compromise and collaboration, a growing number of ‘New Way’ conservationists find themselves arguing for solutions bracketed by the ‘Wise-Use’ visions of Gottlieb/Arnold and Pinchot.

The ideology of  ‘Wise-Use’ collaboration has spawned a number of well-funded new organizations like The Quivira Coalition in New Mexico, the Sonoran Institute in Arizona, and the Red Lodge Clearinghouse in Montana.   Dedicated to advancing collaborative processes, these ‘stakeholder’ groups set the bar so low that success is defined by simply getting all the stakeholders to hold meetings.  For these group-grope interlopers, process, or ‘process-process,’ provides the means, the lifestyle, the job, and the end product, all rolled into one. 

Forgotten in all the collaborative process and privatization is the decades-old debate within our movement between the competing visions of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.  Before totally abandoning Muir’s vision there is one last battle worth fighting, one to rekindle the American spirit in support of genuine wilderness.  In the Northern Rockies, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Act best captures that fighting spirit.

Wilderness area proposals for Northern California and Washington are scheduled for congressional consideration later this year.  Like CIEDRA in Idaho, all are part of larger, multi-designation packages that include giveaways or sales of public lands, non-conforming (wilderness) uses, and/or exceptions to statutory restrictions or important administrative protection measures. 

The national significance of what is being proposed cannot be overstated. Collaboration based upon privatization, public land disposal, pure political “pork” and wilderness designation establishes a dangerous precedent that could have far-reaching impacts to all future wilderness bills nationwide.  The integrity of the very idea of wilderness and the Wilderness Act of 1964 is under attack.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the
landmark tool used by Theodore Roosevelt to protect more than one million public acres by designating 18 National Monuments in 9 states, our intuitive appreciation of the public commons must guide us through the morass toward a brighter future.  The illusion of abundance, and the failed notion that the private elements of our private property system can shove all of the public trust attributes into a back corner, must cease.  Private claims and public needs are both essential elements of our limited common capital, from which we derive the means to sustain our common survival.  The paradox is that what we are experiencing today is simultaneously very new and very old.  The reality of the spaceship earth is upon us.  Let’s not blow it.  

11 thoughts on “Privatization: Turning The Commons Into Gold

  1. Great to see this focus on the commons. All the earth’s land and resources should be consider a commons with equal rights to earth as a birthright. The question, like AD asks, is “What do we do?” Well it depends on the type of land and resources. Oil, minerals and such type of natural resource users should be charged a large fee for access and those funds should be used to pay for public goods or even as direct citizen dividends as the case of the Alaska Permanent Fund. The urban commons is the surface land that is of high value, in which case taxes should be shifted from labor and production onto the “land rent” which is more than enough to pay for needed public goods and services. Not to do serves land speculators and hoarders and increases land and thus housing costs. I am happy to help anyone who wants to work for this tax shift, for more see our Baltimore Thrive project here:


  2. One can consume less. One can sue using existing laws and regulations in federal court. One can pester congressional representatives, stop voting for anti-nature candidates (obviously that doesn’t leave many to vote for), or write something in your local newspaper — op ed or letter to the editor. One can volunteer at your local, grassroots organization saving nature. One can buy a billboard (six words or less). These are some of the things we have experimented with. One can contribute money to a group that does work that saves acres. Bottom line; “Show me the acres.” Big groups typically tend to be ineffective and wasteful, and front for Democrats. Just do it! Be creative.


    1. Spring Chinook season in the Willamette (near the Columbia) is off to slow start. Cool weather and cool water makes the fishing tougher. Not many fish in the river yet, and the ones there are taking it easy on the bottom, where there are all sorts of things to hook besides salmon. Caught a few, put the largest “native” (20lbs) back to spawn, and as usual Clarice out-fished the guys by a long shot.


  3. Just wanted to share another view regarding “the commons,” that hadn’t occurred to me before a friend brought it to my attention relatively recently. In the US, our “commons” once belonged to sovereign nations – the original people of the Americas. So the history of public lands and wilderness itself has a fraught history. I heartily recommend Steven Newcomb’s book “Pagans in the Promised Land.” Steven is Shawnee/Lenape now living in CA and has spent his adult life studying the Papal Bulls, which constitute the basis of US property law. All property law in our country is grounded in Indian law. He has some very prescient insights about language and word spells, and I think his ideas about the California Mission System writ large is very much applicable to the coming cybernetic smart city program. I appreciate the intent of the post, but just wanted to posit that if we zoom back and out in history – this tendency towards privatization extends back many hundreds of years.


      Thanks for your comment. Since writing the piece above, I’ve gained some limited knowledge about the history to which you are specifically referring. The book looks like a great read.

      I agree with the legal analysis generally from what I can read without having read the book, but must also accept the current social/cultural condition and the unreliability of “the law, ” especially now that an “emergency” can be declared at the drop of a hat, it seems. Emergency status suspends indefinitely whatever law(s) the administration deems necessary to “protect health, safety and welfare.” Medical Marshall Law is still in effect. For what?

      And as a practical matter, as long as sovereign man (man and woman), tribes, nations, etc. accept terms, conditions, and “benefits” from government (the state), and accept “citizen” status, all so-called natural rights, treaty rights, and individual freedom is forfeited in man-made law to the master doling out the “benefits.” A “sovereign” cannot also be a dependent of the state. One can only serve one master, God/Nature, or the state. This is my understanding at the moment, subject to change upon new information/experience.

      So happy you dropped in on us today.


  4. In the spirit of Steve Newcomb (thanks to Alison); and in gratitude to you, Steve K, for reviving your impassioned prose (from 2005); and in remembrance and honor of my Cherokee ancestors (I am 1/32 1/16 Cherokee; I knew my paternal great-grandmother, Violet, who was 1/2 Cherokee – her mother was full Cherokee, and known only by her initials, C.E. – I saw her photo just the other day) . . . May we fully unmask colonization, and correct the paradox represented by civilization/domination. When will we all learn to be proper, compassionate guests of Mother Earth? She gives and gives and gives, and all we do is take and take and take (and, of course, exploit, exploit, exploit).

    Steven Newcomb: “Decolonization starts with our minds and our words”

    For more than two centuries, the imperial enterprise of the United States has colonized the territories and resources of the original nations of this continent while pretending to have a “providentially assigned” or “God-given” destiny.

    Our Native ancestors were standing at the ocean shoreline, centuries ago, looking out at the first invading ships from Christendom coming toward them. Now imagine us as present-day Native people standing next to them with 500 years of hindsight.

    The massive wealth accumulated by Western civilization is the result of patterns of genocide, expropriation of resources, and colonization, all maintained under the rubric of “globalization” and the “global economy.”

    The Western mindset continues to be a primary source of domination, and a little-noticed paradox makes replacing a colonized mentality easier said than done: The English language I am using to write this article has been designed to reinforce and maintain the domination I want to end. We cannot end colonizing patterns by continuing to think and act in ways that maintain those patterns.

    Clearly, we must not stay within the mental and behavioral limits of the system we say we want to replace.

    We n’ de ya ho / Morning Song
    We n’ de ya ho, We n’ de ya ho,
    We n’ de ya, We n’ de ya, Ho ho ho ho,
    He ya ho, He ya ho, Ya ya ya. (Repeat as many times as desired)
    Translation: A we n’ de Yuan ho (I am of the Great Spirit, Ho!). Freely translated: “A we n'” (I am), “de” (of), “Yauh” –the– (Great Spirit), “Ho” (it is so).


  5. Ever heard of a 1968 essay called called The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin? Here’s a scathing review from Scientific American in 2019: Its opening subtitle is “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong.

    I don’t know about all the other stuff, but I do agree the argument is all wrong. The “commons” that I knew about anyway were in much better shape than privately held land in Montana. The reason is simple – privately held land has to produce a return, and so must be exploited at a stress level to feed enough livestock and harvest enough timber and produce enough crops to keep its owner(s) on good footing. The commons, on the other hand, the Wilderness, National Forests and Parks, while stressed from the outside by mega-corporations, have remained in far better shape.

    What is it made Hardin’s initial glum summary so influential? He was heavily promoted by the usual suspects, I suppose. And not enough people get out of their cars and look around.


    1. I do remember Hardin’s thesis. I had an economics class at Univ. of Denver that spent some time pushing these ideas. Seemed to me at the time as excessively moralistic, overly intellectual, and agenda driven, although I had no idea what to make of it, or who was behind the curtain pushing.

      Looking back, it was a time when human overpopulation was a hot topic, with strong U.N. influence with a distasteful eugenics flavor. A forerunner to neo-liberalism’s anti-welfare-state claims that (“free market”) private capital and machine-made corporate production was favorable over the quality craftsmanship and creativity of small proprietorship sold in small, local shops.

      Hardin’s ideas may have been made popular as a way to redefine man’s relationship to Nature. It’s been so long that we have largely forgotten — true estrangement — the reality that Mother Earth is THE SOURCE of all that we need to survive. Now, the idea of source has been replaced with the creation of a new word (“resource”) for the purpose of trickery and deceit (mind control). Man can never create Nature (source). “Natural resource” is a man-made fiction created to protect the creators and posterity of the federal pirates/parasites that treat Nature as property, including “human resources,” which exist in name only.

      Now the U.N. agenda has “matured,” as particulars expressed in Agenda 2030 as (17) “sustainable development goals.” Hardin’s 1968 manifesto was just the camel’s nose under the tent. More words, more elaborate fiction.


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