Property rights are key to protecting Maine’s rockweed ecosystem

November 14, 2017 | By JONATHAN WOOD

Today, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral argument in a case that, befitting the season, is a cornucopia of PLF issues. Ross v. Acadian Seaplants, Ltd. asks the court to uphold the rights of property owners against claims that strangers can remove rockweed from their land without their permission. If the court goes the right way, it will be a significant victory for property rights, the environment, and free markets. [Update: If you missed the oral argument, the recording is available here.]


Photo courtesy of Appalachian Dreamer.

PLF, joined by PERC, filed an amicus brief urging the court to side with property owners. Property rights are an essential tool for conservation. They give owners an incentive to steward resources under their control, encourage the development of less damaging methods of using the resources, and enable environmentalists to purchase sensitive areas or work with property owners to conserve them. Subjecting rockweed to the public trust, which would allow anyone to harvest it without the land owner’s permission, would jeopardize the ecosystems that depend on it.

Suppose you were an environmental group who highly valued conserving rockweed in a particularly sensitive area. If the rockweed belongs to the property owner, your way forward is obvious: buy the rights to the rockweed and conserve it. But, if rockweed is within the public trust, it would be much harder to protect it. Rather than negotiating with an individual property owner, you would have to negotiate with everyone who might harvest the rockweed, a large and uncertain share of the public.

An underappreciated benefit of protecting the environment through property rights is that it encourages collaboration and cooperation, rather than the conflict that is endemic to government regulation. Many environmental groups recognize the vital role of property rights in achieving their aims. The Conservation Law Foundation, for instance, echoed our property rights arguments in its brief for the case.

[P]rivate ownership of rockweed growing in the intertidal zone will provide the upland property owners with a vested interest in the long-term viability and sustainability of this critical habitat resource. These landowners will therefore have an incentive to ensure that rockweed is sustainably harvested. To that end, rockweed harvesters will be motivated to develop relationships and trust with landowners to ensure the continued harvesting of the resource. As a result, landowners will be able to supplement, not detract from, DMR’s current efforts to regulate rockweed harvesting, which are consistently hampered by budget constraints limiting the DMR’s ability to inspect and ensure sustainable harvesting requirements are being satisfied.