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To own land as private property, one has to "homestead" it - usually, this means cultivate it in one way or another. What if someone wanted to establish a nature reserve in untouched wilderness? Would this be possible? How would one go about acquring the land, given that cultivating it in any traditional sense would seem to be self-defeating given the purpose? Is there a way, or is "untouched wilderness" simply not protectable by private means under a proper political system?

asked Mar 20 '12 at 15:28

FCH's gravatar image

FCH
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edited Mar 20 '12 at 15:35


Ostensibly, the central topic of this question is how original ownership of previously unowned natural resources is established under capitalism. On a deeper level, the question also raises the issue of whether or not "untouched wilderness" is a significant value for man, which capitalism might undermine or destroy.

Regarding original ownership, the "homestead" idea ("cultivating" the land) isn't quite the whole story, in the Objectivist view. The main article where Ayn Rand discusses this is in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Chapter 10, "The Property Status of Airwaves." The article begins with the following general principle:

Any material element or resource which, in order to become of use or value to men, requires the aplication of human knowledge and effort, should be private property -- by the right of those who apply the knowledge and effort.

There are multiple possible ways to accomplish private ownership, depending on the context. In the case of broadcast frequencies ("airwaves"), the article explains:

The only way to do it now [after so many decades of development without ownership] is to sell radio and television frequencies to the highest bidders (by an objectively defined, open, impartial process)....

If one were to do that with land, anyone who could afford the cost could buy a plot of land and let it return to a state of nature, as long as it can be done without creating hazards or risks to neighboring landowners, such as from wild animals living on the property or a serious fire hazard, etc. Even land that has been paved over and built upon can have the buildings torn down and the pavement ripped up to reveal the bare ground underneath. Over time, vegetation would be likely to grow naturally, although there might not be enough naturally occurring rain to sustain a forest. "Untouched nature" includes deserts as well as jungles.

Ayn Rand's article also discusses the Homestead Act of 1862 as a model of how to establish original ownership in more primitive, sparsely populated areas, where the land is initially entirely undeveloped in any form:

The government offered a 160-acre farm to any adult citizen who would settle on it and cultivate it for five years, after which it would become his property.

Note the importance of recognizing "the application of human knowledge and effort" in establishing original ownership. Simply marking off 160 acres to remain in their original natural state (untouched by man) would not qualify, and rightly so, for without some kind of effort (or purchase from a prior owner), anyone could claim large plots of land and simply hold them for long periods of time as speculators, waiting for others to come along who would be interested in buying the land for development. Furthermore, land is of very little value to man unless he is allowed to develop it in some way, such as to live on, or to build office space or a factory or sports field or amusement park, etc. Even typical community parks usually require maintenance and basic development to make them more appealing and accessible to human visitors and campers. An entrepreneur could charge admission. (Governments frequently charge admission, too, to help defray the cost of maintaining government-run parks. But such parks don't qualify as "nature reserves in untouched wilderness.")

Environmentalists don't necessarily exclude man entirely from their "untouched wilderness" ideal. Man can be permitted to enter occaisionally, briefly, in very small numbers, with minimal equipment and vehicles (probably using pack animals if necessary instead of motorized vehicles), and making maximum effort to "leave it as they found it" and not disturb any native wildlife. (Even self-defense against attacking animals might not be allowed in the environmentalist "ideal.") That's not a very practical way to live for most people, although occasionally one finds committed "mountain people" who try to live that way, but usually with a constructed dwelling of some kind (maybe just a simple shack), even if it has no plumbing or electricity.

If some wealthy person just wants some open space to look at and enjoy adjoining his mansion and giant lot, he is free to buy it, if the existing owner is interested in selling. As the human population increases, however, land tends to become increasingly valuable for human development. Given a free choice, most people want developed land on which to live and work and enjoy recreational activities of all kinds (even just walking). Completely overgrown, undeveloped land tends to be far less attractive to humans who seek recreation and temporary respits from their main productive work, rather than enduring the self-torture of fighting against thick underbrush, poison oak, mosquitoes, ticks, and other nuisances for man, along with possibly steep hillsides without walkways or rainwater runoff control, and so on. Man inherently survives by adapting nature to his own purposes, not by trying passively to surrender to whatever nature "dishes out." Development is especially vital (and potentially more effective) as human societies become ever more populous. More minds (and more hands, intelligentlly directed) can greatly enhance each other's quality of life in a system of mutually voluntary trade for mutual benefit, where individual rights are consistently recognized, respected and protected.

On the question of what would happen to today's national parks and national forests under capitalism, I haven't seen specific discussion of it in the liternature of Objectivism, and there is virtually no chance of any change occurring in the current government-controlled arrangement anytime soon anyway. Other issues are far more pressing at present, such as upholding individual rights in so many other areas of our lives. If enough people want something in a capitalist system, and are willing to pay for it and/or work for it, they'll be able to get it, if their aspirations are realistic and their methods reasonable. And those who don't want it won't have to participate. Moreover, it very often happens that people don't know what they want, or what is possible, until some visionary entrepreneur shows them.

answered Mar 22 '12 at 22:53

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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Note that a private park where people can go to enjoy "nature" and recreation does not have to be a wilderness area--i.e., unaltered by human hands. Thus, one could aquire an unowned plot of land through homestead as a private park, as long as it is developed productively and not left strictly to nature. For example, you could "develop" the park by: grooming the vegitation; planting new vegitation; cutting walking trails; installing benches, horsehoe pits, campsites, barbeques, restrooms, etc.; building a lodge; paving a parking lot; fenching the plot of land off; charging for admission.

(Mar 24 '12 at 10:30) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Interesting question and one I have wondered about. Undeveloped land does have value. Many people really enjoy unplugging from Blackberries, iphones etc. and living "off the land" for a few days in a tent. I, myself, find nature very restorative. However it is nice to have some modicum of trails etc. so there is some level of safety. Totally untouched wilderness is pretty from afar but hard to actually be in and enjoy (except for experts). Having seen what rampant human development has done to China makes me want to keep the USA's land as pristine as possible. Winderness is useful.

(Apr 01 '12 at 17:01) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

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Asked: Mar 20 '12 at 15:28

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Last updated: Apr 01 '12 at 17:01