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Nonuse Rights: An Innovative Way to Conserve Natural Resources


Published September 21, 2022

Noneuse rights allow environmental groups to buy and conserve land or resources that otherwise would have been sold to companies for development. As it currently stands, environmental groups are at a disadvantage when they attempt to conserve land and resources. Implementing nonuse rights would level the playing field and help build a flourishing conservation market.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are “use it or lose it” rules on natural resource development impediments to property rights?
  2. Why are companies blamed for not conserving the environment when the government forbids environmental groups from competing with them?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Allow ‘Nonuse Rights’ to Conserve Natural Resources,” by Bryan Leonard, Shawn Regan, Christopher Costello, Suzi Kerr, Andrew J. Plantinga, James Salzman, V. Kerry Smith, and Temple Stoellinger via Science. Available here.
  • Read “Un-American Reservations,” by Terry Anderson and Dominic Parker via Defining Ideas. Available here.
  • Watch “Free Market Environmentalism,” with Terry Anderson on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

Efforts to conserve the environment and natural resources have traditionally relied on the government to prevent their purchase, sale, or development.

But a new and innovative method from environmental groups is to buy or lease the rights to resources like coal, oil, timber, and water…but then never use them.

This market-based approach is called acquiring “nonuse rights” and it is successfully applied on private lands across the world. Shockingly, it is often illegal or blocked by federal or state governments on public lands.

Long-standing “use-it-or-lose-it” rules dating back to the late 1800s stipulate that there must be “diligent development” of leases for public natural resources.

These rules made sense back then to discourage waste and prevent speculation. But today they prevent healthy bidding competition between companies focused on resource extraction and environmental groups focused on conservation. 

State and federal policy should be reformed to include conservation as a legally valid form of “use.” Authorizing nonuse would enable environmental groups to compete against mining, logging, and livestock businesses in a market setting. It would also reveal information about which public lands are best suited for extraction, and which are best left for conservation.

This elegant solution would enable markets to advance environmental goals, leading to more stable and less contentious outcomes than currently realized through politics and courtroom battles.