The Tragedy of Fragmentation

November 2002
ELR 11321
Eric T. Freyfogle

Among certain academic circles, it has become common to assert that owners of private land take care of what they own. One encounters the claim most often in discussions about land-related environmental problems. Unowned lands, resources shared by many: these are the ones that are degraded, it is said, not lands that have a single owner vested with clear, secure rights. Private owners take care of what they own.

For people worried about the health of the overall land community, this claim tolls a comforting tone. It is a hope-filled assertion, particularly for those who live in states where nearly all land is private. If private owners take care of what they own, then the challenge of land stewardship is not nearly as vast as one might fear. Conservationists only need to worry about parcels not in private hands—public lands or undivided lands—a more manageable job. And the best way to deal with such lands, or at least one way to deal with them, is to turn them over to private owners, whenever and as quickly as possible.

The author is the Max L. Rowe Professor of Law, University of Illinois. He thanks Chris Elmendorf, Richard McAdams, Julianne Newton, and Todd Wildermuth for their comments on an earlier draft.

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