December, 2015

Anticommons and Public Lands in the West

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In this paper, I examine significant policy issues raised by the checkerboarded nature of land ownership, particularly of public lands, in the western United States. Economic theory predicts that this situation can lead to significant barriers to the economical use of land and natural resources residing on that land. In particular, theory suggests that the tragedy of the anticommons will arise. The tragedy of the anticommons, as the name implies, is closely related to—but the opposite of—the more well-known tragedy of the commons. In an anticommons situation, resources are under- rather than overutilized. I test this theoretical prediction using data from timber auctions managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. I find evidence of checkerboardedness leading to anticommons outcomes, though I do not find as much evidence of anticommons from several other predicted sources. Having established on both theoretical and empirical grounds that the checkerboarded lands of the west present economic barriers, I discuss ways to evaluate land transaction mechanisms. After examining several possible criteria for success, I outline a framework for analyzing and evaluating land transaction mechanisms, provide an example of how that framework might be applied, and conclude with suggestions for future research and application.