Taking Ostrom to Indiana forests

October 13, 2009
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How rich that Elinor Ostrom, the Indiana University professor who won a Nobel prize for economics yesterday, got her nails dirty researching how people in pockets of forests in undeveloped nations allocate their natural resources.

Indiana of course has some of the world’s best hardwood forests. So, how would her theory work here?

Ostrom’s research focuses not on traditional free-market economics or the other extreme of centralized planning, but on how people manage resources when they share the resources in common and make their own rules at the local level.

The rap on common resources—“the tragedy of commons”—is that resources become overused. However, Ostrom found that people who use common property tend to think in terms of making the resources last. They develop rules and acceptable behaviors resulting in more sustainable forests, or water or other resources.

Most Indiana forests have been managed for maximum production of oak, cherry, walnut and other prized species. But environmental groups complain of logging equipment churning up fragile soil and landowners cutting down the best specimens, thus removing their ability to produce seeds.

Timber operators and landowners counter that they care for the land as well as possible in order to maximize their investments, not to mention maintaining a great way of life. Ray Moistner, who leads the Indiana Hardwood Lumberman’s Association, a trade group of sawyers and others in the industry, says forests in the state overwhelming are managed for long-term growth.

In fact, Moistner maintains, the loose-knit network of landowners could be compared to the local groups Ostrom discovered.

“Our lands are sustainable here when left to themselves and to this common group of owners managing their forest land,” Moistner says.

What do you think? Which economic system is best for managing natural resources?

Anyone want to try on Ostrom’s work at a practical level here in Indiana?

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