Check out our new publication on the evolution of US environmental legislation in Research in Economic History:

A Century of Environmental Legislation

Abstract: At the beginning of the 20th century, three intertwined ambitions drove federal legislation over wildlife and biodiversity: establishment of multipleuse federal lands, the economic development of natural resources, and the maintenance of option values. We examine this federal intervention in natural resource use by analyzing roll call votes over the past century with a Random Utility Model (Manski, 1977) and conclude that economics mattered. So did ideology, but not uniformly. After World War II, the pro-environment vote which had been conservative shifted to being liberal. All these votes involved decisions regarding public land that reallocated the returns to users by changing the asset’s physical character or its usage rights. We suggest that long-term consequences affecting current resource allocations arose from disparities between broadly dispersed benefits and locally concentrated socioeconomic and geophysical (spatial) costs. We
show that a primary intent of public land management has become to preserve multiple-use option values and identify important factors in computing those option values. We do this by demonstrating how the willingness to forego current benefits for future ones depends on the community’s resource endowments. These endowments are defined not only in terms of users’ current wealth accumulation but also from their expected ability to extract utility from natural resources over time.

Louis P. Cain and Brooks A. Kaiser

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