How Much Is This Land Worth?

Standing Rock shows the limits of environmental economics.

Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline, near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River nearby, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Native Americans march near the encampment where people protest the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sept. 4.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

In 2005, a British energy company proposed building the world’s largest onshore wind farm on the Isle of Lewis, a huge, sparsely populated mass off the coast of Scotland. It would have been an enormous project: 234 wind turbines, each 40 stories high and rooted in 700 cubic meters of concrete. Power lines, concrete plants, quarries, and electrical substations would follow, along with enough new roads to double the island’s total. The project would create hundreds of permanent jobs, bring in millions of dollars a year to the region, and provide enough (clean) power for more than a million homes.

It seemed like a win-win. Wind power has obvious appeal. The moor did not. Outsiders saw it as an absence, a bleak land; “a vast, dead place.”

But the moor was never so empty, provided you knew what to look for. As Robert Macfarlane recounts in his book Landmarks, locals rallied in opposition to the project with a campaign to elegize their landscape culture in art, photography, stories, maps, song and language. What was needed, Macfarlane’s friend Finlay MacLeod wrote, was a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook: a rejuvenated way of talking, and thinking, about the splendor of the land, even land that seemed vast and dead to those who did not appreciate it.

It worked: In 2008, Edinburgh cancelled the project. A wind farm was eventually built, but it is much, much smaller than what had been originally envisioned. By conveying the land’s spiritual value, the locals were able to keep some of it as it had been.

Macfarlane imagines that compiling such a phrasebook for the world might supplement and rebuke the utilitarianism that has propelled, and limited, the environmental movement. As is, cost-benefit preservation analyses (CBAs) are often dependent only on the economic promise of tourism—or even more dubiously, the projected dollar value of an undiscovered drug in the rainforest, or that of clean water, or of a bald eagle.

As a result, even forward-looking preservation assessments tend to fall short of measuring what value the land has to the people who live there, the people who will never be tourists, the people who will never put its resources to the maximum profitable use.

The Standing Rock Sioux, fighting against the construction of the 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, find themselves in such a situation. “This demolition is devastating,” Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said in a statement in September. “These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.”

The tribe is also worried about the potentially irreparable damage to their land and water from an accident. “An oil spill at this site would constitute an existential threat to the Tribe’s culture and way of life,” the tribe’s lawyers have argued.

The problem is that their land is considered economically worthless relative to its value as a conduit for fossil fuels.

The standoff has recently earned national attention and outrage. President Obama has said he will explore alternate routes. No doubt some of the interest is due to the contrast between the police response to Standing Rock—dogs, mace, mass arrests—and the treatment the now-acquitted, militant Bundy clan received for their occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge last winter. It’s a case study in white privilege.

As Aaron Bady observed in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, the other difference is in the perceived value of the land, and the projects proposed on each: “The Bundys’ campaign is farcical, a protest against an imaginary threat conducted in symbolic terms. The Standing Rock protest is concrete; it seeks to stop a real pipeline and a real environmental threat,” he wrote. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion project. The people supporting it believe it will bring money, jobs, and even a kind of purpose to otherwise underused prairie.

That the pipeline goes just north of Standing Rock is the result of a long review that determined this as an area of comparably low impact. One early route had the pipeline running just north of Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital, which has a population of about 70,000 people. That route, the Army Corps argued in an environmental assessment (note: not an environmental impact statement), was rejected in part because it “crossed through or in close proximity to several wellhead source water protection areas” that contributed to the municipal water supply. Of course, the current pipeline plan has it running near Standing Rock’s water supply, but fewer people live on the Standing Rock reservation. (Though of course, the protesters argue the risks to them and other residents downstream of the pipeline are just as severe.)

That Standing Rock is considered a low-impact site is not an accident. It is the result of a long and painful history. The Great Sioux Reservation once encompassed about half of South Dakota. Various valuable sections have since been reclaimed by illegal and questionable methods, including the vast Black Hills area, which the U.S. took from the Sioux after the discovery of gold, breaking a 10-year-old treaty. The reservation policy often left Indian tribes confined to the parts of the country thought useless for anything else—at least, until now. “Those areas—ironically enough—now turn out to be essential for the production or transportation of the last great stocks of hydrocarbons,” wrote Bill McKibben in August.

Any conventional analysis would probably agree with the Army Corps’ assessment. A pipeline would improve, in an immediate way, on the current system of shipping crude oil in trucks and trains. Forcing oil into more risky forms of transport is hardly the environmentally responsible path.

What’s more, there’s essentially no accepted higher-value use for rural land than the fossil fuel industry. Consider this case: Earlier this year, environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams tried to lease 1,100 acres of federal land in Utah from a chunk of land being offered for oil exploration. Tempest Williams’ bid on the land was an attempt to protect it from short-term oil and gas extraction. The Bureau of Land Management rejected it on the grounds that she was not sufficiently interested in looking for oil.

This case, and the situation in Standing Rock, show the difficulty of fighting for a right to use land in a way that does not yield short-term profits. There is no clear way to quantify the historic, cultural, or environmental value of a small piece of prairie. Not against the economic argument for an oil infrastructure project of national importance. Conservationists often complain that this is simply the result of the short time frame used to evaluate development projects: Sure, a rubber plantation is money now, but we’d rather have the rainforest later. Beachfront houses may get high rents now; in 30 years, we’ll wish we had thicketed mounds of dunegrass. In Utah, Terry Tempest Williams argued she would consider hunting for oil “when science supports a sustainable use of the oil and gas at an increased value given the costs of climate change to future generations.” That is McKibben’s framing of the Dakota Access Pipeline: The hundred-year impact of cheap oil transportation on the Earth would vastly outweigh any immediate benefits.

All these arguments are mounted in the framework of cost-benefit analysis. It’s a handy way to defray critiques of the environmental movement as unrealistic tree-huggers. Proponents concede the practice has an anti-regulatory bias. But, they say, activists’ scorn for CBAs has left them competing on unequal footing with energy companies and developers. This is how federal regulatory decisions are made, and environmentalists should learn to play the game. “By using economics to show just how wasteful under-regulation can be,” Richard Revesz, who served on an Environmental Protection Agency committee on CBAs, wrote in 2008, “cost-benefit environmentalism can be the key to creating the political coalition necessary to make America richer by regulating more wisely.” Climate change in particular has made environmentalists the rational allies of mainstream economists, in no small part thanks to the apocalyptic projections of the cost-benefit analysis—if nothing else, climate change will certainly cost us.

It is also fraught. You can’t put a dollar value on preservation’s moral mandate. Take a couple of nonenvironmental examples of CBAs: A Czech Republic study concluded smoking was good, because early deaths reduced government spending on pensions and housing. A study of putting seat belts on children weighed the wage of their mothers in forming its analysis. CBAs lack morals because that’s the point. Those shortcomings are more evident in the hard-to-price realm of environmental preservation. They are particularly pronounced when dealing with small populations who may disproportionately bear costs. And the process is even more likely to fail when the landscape in question does not easily transmit affection or value to those who do not live there.

Standing Rock isn’t a battle to prove the land has more value than the barrels of oil that will move through it. It’s a rejection of the very premise.

“The duty that tribes are claiming to their sacred sites, to ancestral homelands, places to hunt, fish and provide for themselves, those things are being ignored by the American government,” Chase Iron Eyes, a tribal attorney and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, told NPR last week. It’s talk like this—the language of cultural land use—that builds towards Macfarlane’s idea of a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook.

To paraphrase Yi Fu Tuan, the American geographer, those rights constitute what is “invisible in the land,” what makes one man’s empty space another’s sacred ground.