Our million-acre backyard commons

By Chris Bolgiano

There’s no grill in my big backyard, no swing set and no swimming pool, unless you count the rock-bottomed bowls along Reedy Run as it cascades to the Shenandoah River. They’re mainly trees here in the George Washington National Forest (GWNF) along the Virginia-West Virginia line.  Just trees, creeks and 100,000 species of wildlife.

My home borders the forest, so my back yard grows to 1.1 million acres of forested mountainsides. It is mine, but also yours. It belongs to the people in a way that no other property does.

Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, analyzed the global heritage of commonly owned resources to identify the forms of governance that have sustained those resources over centuries. Her work refuted the prevailing market ideology that only privatization could prevent the tragedy of resource overuse, as every individual sought maximum personal gain.

Land for the GWNF, like all Eastern national forests, was purchased by the federal government in the early 1900s, largely from hundreds of private timber companies that had destructively logged and burned the land. In this way, national forests reversed the usual historical succession for commons that Ostrom described in which well-regulated pasture, forest or water sources used by many individuals over long periods of time became enclosed, privatized and unsustainably exploited resources.

The Age of Enlightenment, which coincided with the enclosure of many of Europe’s commons, should be renamed the Age of Enclosure to reflect the real tragedy of the commons — privatization by aristocrats of ancient common holdings that drove suddenly landless peasants into factories in newly industrialized cities.

National forests have several characteristics that Ostrom identified for a sustainably managed commons. The Forest Service is required to solicit public opinion before making management decisions, creating the opportunity for community engagement. Local adaptations can be crafted, and procedures exist for enforcement and conflict resolution.

The success of the GWNF governed as a commons was demonstrated in 2014, as more than 50,000 comments persuaded the Forest Service to stop gas leasing and avoid fracking.

Reedy Run is loudly splashing now, thanks to recent rains. It joins hundreds of other streams from the forest that form the Potomac and James rivers and supply water to millions of people. Fracking would also have jeopardized that common resource while privatizing the profits.

These rivers flow into the watery commons of the Chesapeake Bay. Six states plus the District of Columbia make a cumbersome community in terms of management, as witnessed by the repeated failures to meet nitrogen, phosphorous and nutrient reduction goals.

Part of the problem is a lack of accurate baseline data. Using the knowledge commons of the Internet, ChesapeakeCommons.org compiles data collected in various jurisdictions into a centralized pool of information.

“We believe that by providing access to open source software to all Bay restoration stakeholders, like nonprofit organizations, foundations and local governments, we can unite hundreds of volunteer monitoring programs and catalyze citizen-driven restoration,” said John Dawes, co-founder of ChesapeakeCommons.org.

“For example, we recently worked with Blue Water Baltimore to make thousands of water quality readings on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Non Tidal Patapsco available to the public,” he said. “And we plan to centralize decades of baseline monitoring efforts by multiple Virginia-based programs.”

As complex as the Bay is to manage as a commons, it at least has distinct boundaries and governance structures. The global commons of oceans and atmosphere are bounded only by the deepest and highest limits of the planet, and lack comprehensive management mechanisms.

The biodiversity commons — the 100,000 species in my backyard and the hundred million others around the world that produce oxygen, filter water, pollinate crops, sequester carbon and otherwise make the planet habitable — is perhaps the most difficult of all to manage sustainably. Yet human society cannot exist without their services. Commons surround us. We all drink from the waters of Reedy Run, because we are all commoners.

Chris Bolgiano recently won several awards for her columns distributed by the Bay Journal News Service. She takes pride in being a commoner. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.


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