A Texas rancher has a big problem because of a tiny insect.
Where are we going? To pubic trust and private property.
Our story starts in 1996 on Rattlesnake Road in central Texas. Surveying the adjacent property before starting some roadwork, the authorities discovered caves where the Bone Cave harvestman might live. A tiny, blind spider-like bug, the Bone Cave harvestman is on the endangered species list. Since activity that affects its reproduction, food or shelter is illegal, the construction stopped.
For John Yearwood, though, the problems had just begun. Because the Bone Cave harvestman probably lives in 11 of those caves on his land, they are pretty much untouchable. As a result, no one wants to buy the land and he cannot develop it.
The federal government says that it is carrying out a fiduciary duty through the Endangered Species Act. Responsible for conserving species and ecosystems, it makes sure that future generations will have creatures like the Bone Cave harvestman. One law professor explains that they are acting as an environmental trustee.
Concerned with his responsibility, Mr. Yearwood said, “It’s the government telling me that I, at my own expense, have to have a preserve for everyone in America…” He told journalists that he has lost millions of dollars.
Our Bottom Line: Public Trust or Private Property
You can see that once again we have a tradeoff.
On the one hand we have a federal government protecting our natural resources. When they are owned by no one, there is less of an incentive to conserve them. Called the tragedy of the commons, that vulnerability has resulted in government protection.
But we also have the private property rights that are basic to our market economy.
My sources and more: I first discovered the Bone Cave harvestmen story in WSJ. A search for more facts about the bug took me to a Texas newspaper. But the key to grasping the bigger public v. private issue was this law professor’s article.