The tragedy of the commons

How do we preserve the lands that make Colorado so remarkable?

I arrived in Colorado just more than 40 years ago. Like so many of us, I was awed by the beauty and loved the accessibility of the mountains. For me, it was a decision to attend college in paradise. Little did I know this would become my permanent home.

At that time, off-road mountain access meant you either hiked, skied or entered the backcountry via horseback. There were about 2.5 million residents – less than half of today’s population. Exploring the outdoors was 20 minutes away and the Continental Divide was 90 minutes from home.

In the mid-1980s, mountain bikes were introduced and off-road-vehicles became popular – replacing the horse for longer excursions and adding thrills to short rides.  My preference was the mountain bike, and later I purchased a motorized dirt bike. Until about 1995 everything was either single track or forest roads.

Then it all changed. The single tracks eroded and grew in width, and forest roads increasingly became an entry point into a maze of trails throughout national forests.

The change was a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons,” where a resource open to everyone becomes so overused that its quality becomes minimalized over time. The textbook case of this tragedy is ocean fisheries, where more and more people get into commercial fishing when the resource is abundant, but later find the fisheries unproductive thanks to over fishing. Without intervention or cooperative effort, a valuable resource is lost for a long time.

This is where we are today with the playgrounds of Colorado. The state’s population is forecast to double by 2050, and while most of us appreciate the “low impact” ethic associated with our wilderness areas, it is largely dismissed for our outdoor recreation. I recall someone once saying,“We are all environmentalists until we have to personally sacrifice.” Unfortunately, this appears to be true. There are many “greenies” widening single track and cutting new trails in every direction.   

 So what are the solutions? How do we preserve what makes Colorado so remarkable? Typical solutions for addressing the tragedy of the commons include: 1) privatization; 2) regulation; and 3) developing an ethic for the commons. Heavy doses of restoration and perpetual maintenance or conservation will be required.

Privatization is an effective option whereby private interests either acquire the land or receive a charter to provide care while continuing to make it accessible to the public. This involves user fees where there are none. Of course, government agencies could theoretically achieve similar outcomes as private interests.

Under a private model there is risk of profit maximization at the expense of the land and/or public. However, under a public model the risk is siphoned funding needed for maintenance to cover other public needs, as well as bureaucratization and inefficiency. Regulation can be effective, but it requires enforcement, which needs funding and political will to take the heat that comes with rule-making in the commons. Developing an ethic to protect the commons is a long process of cultural change, which can also be rife with conflict.

The bottom line is that if we do not aggressively set out to restore and preserve the Colorado paradise, the tragedy will increasingly unfold. While many of us are aware of the problems we observe when wandering outdoors, only conservation groups are working to change the dynamic.

The solution requires all of the above approaches from a Colorado ethics class, to education, to selected privatization and public agency accountability, to pinpointed regulation and enforcement where behavior can be changed quickly.  The use of emerging technology, like Radio Frequency Identification (RDIF) can also assist.

Starting this effort requires a “can do” attitude. It was common for everyone to toss trash and cigarette butts out the window many years ago, while today, it is far less prevalent. The change started with a commitment to modify unacceptable behavior in the commons.

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