Fatally flawed

A few problems with Bush’s “ownership society”



“Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded.” —John Muir

The so-called “ownership society” being touted by President Bush in his bid to privatize Social Security accounts sounds good on the surface. In the Mobius strip logic of the Bush administration’s “ownership” theory, you’ll have a greater interest in protecting an asset because you own it. Although stymied in their attempts on Social Security, the Bush administration is now applying the “ownership society” theory to public lands, waters, wildlife and fisheries. But as we are seeing in Montana, when the all-too-real motives of greed and power come into play, the fatal flaws of the “ownership society” are exposed.

This “ownership” theory has long been touted by the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which calls it “Free Market Environmentalism.” In other words, “the market” can do a better job of ensuring our environmental future because—in theory—when public resources are owned by private interests, those interests will take better care of them than inefficient government bureaucracies or the grubby hands of the un-moneyed masses.

From National Parks to federal lands—and even including the employees who manage them—our national heritage is being divvied up among private interests for their gain and our loss. If you are a proponent of the private ownership of public resources, this initiative by the Bush administration is like a stairway to heaven. Simply put up the dough and take whatever you want—and if those pesky bureaucrats get in the way with their cost-benefit or environmental analyses, why, just privatize them, too.

This may sound absurd, but that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Interior Secretary Gale Norton recently launched a top-down effort to “competitively source” thousands of agency jobs, and even entire national parks, to private contractors. This gem of a memo can be read at Norton, a huge proponent of privatizing public resources, was previously a hired gun for the notorious Mountain States Legal Foundation, which unsuccessfully challenged Montana’s stream access law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those of you with good memories will recall that this is not the first time we have seen these Bush administration goons in action. Back in November of 2003, Norton decided it would be a lot easier to rape and scrape Montana’s resources if the people doing the analysis of public comments were private, not public, employees (see: “Command and control: Bush’s push to privatize resource decisions,” Nov. 20, 2003).

Unfortunately, when it came time to count up the chips, Norton’s corporate buddies, who were hired to do the “competitive sourcing” analysis, walked away with $5 million in taxpayer funds while failing to deliver even half that in agency “savings.” As a result, Congress blocked the effort, but the legislation that blocked it expired in October, and now Ms. Norton and her cohorts are once again free to gut the agency and sell off the resources she was supposedly hired to manage.

In the looney-tunes world of Washington, D.C., academic theories designed to provide cover for good old basic greed are everyday affairs. Sitting around a table with those who would, say, “competitively source” a National Park to a private contractor—especially one who has been generous to the Bush campaign—it’s probably easy to believe in the fairy tale of Free Market Environmentalism.

But then there’s reality.

Here in Montana, we are experiencing free market environmentalism in a couple of notable places. The Cox Foundation’s recent refusal to donate funds for the new UM Journalism building was based on exactly this theory. The Foundation’s vice-president, James. C. Kennedy, just happens to own a long stretch of land through which Montana’s Ruby River flows. Kennedy’s gripe is that Montana’s stream access law provides common citizens with the right to access what he and other wealthy landowners increasingly see as their “private water.” Until we decide to keep our grubby peasants off his waters, he’s refusing to donate money from the Cox media empire.

If you doubt this, go to the Ruby Springs Lodge website (, where you’ll find this little gem: “Ruby Springs Lodge is located on 500 acres just outside of Alder, Montana, and offers their guests exclusive access to 5 miles of private water on the Ruby river.” Be sure to note that the Ruby River, a trout stream belonging to all Montanans, is touted as “5 miles of private water.” If you’re willing to pay the fee to stay at the Lodge, you are allowed access to this “private water”—otherwise, you’d best keep a close eye on the electric fences that seem to have been placed to keep people, not livestock, out of the Ruby River.

The Bitterroot is experiencing its own bout of free market environmentalism in the case of the Mitchell Slough. Although shown on historic maps as a branch of the Bitterroot River, wealthy landowners like former rocker Huey Lewis and investment magnate Charles Schwab have decided the slough is their “private water.” As on the Ruby River, they are more than happy to erect barbed wire or electric fences to make sure the citizenry gets the point.

The failures of free market environmentalism or “ownership society” theory abound. Some of you may recall the mid-’80s “liquidation” of Plum Creek Timber’s forest lands. Those managing the corporate portfolio decided money was more valuable than sustainable forestry, so they mercilessly clearcut the lands. Now, they are subdividing them—blowing away the theory that if you own it, you will take better care of it.

Traditionally, the West has been fertile ground for mining, timber, railroad, and cattle barons who swept the Indians off their lands and “capitalized” the resources. In the New West, the effort by wealthy landowners to exclude the public from our own resources—and the battle against the fatal flaws of the “ownership society”—is just beginning.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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