R.J. Smith, champion of private conservation

April 26, 2024 | By NICOLE W.C. YEATMAN

In 1981, scholar R.J. Smith argued private property rights were key to preserving natural resources and wildlife. 

“The problems of environmental degradation, overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all derive from their existence as common property resources,” he wrote in “Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife.” 

R.J., a longtime scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, passed away earlier this month. I was lucky to work with him for several years, and on a personal level, no one was funnier or a better storyteller. He stood out in a crowd, both for his towering height and the wacky chili-pepper tie he seemed to wear everywhere, even to black-tie events. 

On a deeper level, R.J. made a serious impact: He coined the term “free market environmentalism,” founded the Center for Private Conservation, and advanced the idea that private property owners were the best stewards of natural resources.  

“Self-interest drives the private property owners to careful management and protection of their resource,” he wrote.  

That’s a crucial point that underlies several current legal battles. Pacific Legal Foundation clients often butt heads with the government over their environmental stewardship of their own land. Cameron Edwards, for example, is a Kansas farmer whose family has carefully maintained 3,000 acres of grassland they use for cattle grazing. It’s in the Edwards family’s interest to maintain their land as a high-quality grassland habitat—their cattle depend on the grass. But the federal government says that to preserve the land as a habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken, the Edwardses need to be strictly regulated in how they use their land. 

The legacy of R.J.’s work is showing that property owners, not government agencies, are best at taking care of the environment.

“[I]f we are to resolve the tragedy of the commons and preserve our natural resources and wildlife, we must create a new paradigm for the environmental movement: private property rights in natural resources and wildlife,” he wrote. 

The Competitive Enterprise Institute honored R.J. with the Julian Simon Award at their 2011 gala. In his speech, R.J. said,  

You cannot maintain a free society if the government owns all the land and all the resources. We are returning to the age of the King’s Forests, the King’s Lands, the King’s Wildlife. And we soon may have to become Robin Hoods in order to survive. For those of you who will carry the Torch of Liberty on the next lap, our great unfinished task must be to halt and reverse this tide and begin a massive privatization of America’s lands and natural resources. We must do that if we are to have a free and prosperous society and a sound and healthy environment—and if America is to remain a Shining City on a Hill. 

Through his work, R.J. befriended many property rights advocates, including PLF attorney Jim Burling. Jim says, 

R.J. was a wonderful and inspiring champion of liberty in everything he did. He not only believed that the free market could aid conservation; he proved it with example after example where landowners proved to be far better stewards of the environment than government. For many years we both spoke at various property rights conferences in the Northeast, where I got to know him well. He was generous of spirit, a true lover of fine food, wine, and conversation. I will miss him.