Out of Control Policy Blog

Advice to Enviros: Make peace with Western landowners

I think that this article presents an overly gloomy view of private conservation in the West, but the prescription is on the right track:

    "By any yardstick -- watershed acres, animal species, ecological processes -- conservation success on private land [in the American West] has been small. While many environmentalists correctly note that half of the West is publicly owned and thus held in trust for the public good, they rarely mention the other part of that equation: Half of the West is in private hands.

    This is significant because, as many researchers have written, private lands contain the most productive soils, are located at lower elevations and often include key riparian areas. Wildlife biologist Rick Knight, who teaches at Colorado State University, put it this way: "We will not be able to sustain native biodiversity in the Mountain West by relying merely on protected areas. Future conservation efforts to protect this region's natural heritage will require closer attention being paid to the role of private lands."

    But how? The tactics of demonization, litigation, regulation and pressure politics may be effective on public lands -- though to a diminishing degree these days -- but they're essentially useless on private land.

    They won't work because they're tools of coercion. They're useful to right a wrong or quick-fix a crisis, but ineffective for chronic afflictions, such as the slow decline of biological diversity. Our ecological crisis is really a social crisis, and you don't change human behavior with a hammer.

    . . . .

    Many land-buying organizations have recently turned to collaborative, community-based projects to widen the conservation impact across threatened landscapes. At the same time, other conservation organizations, such as Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Defense, offer incentive programs and other tools to encourage better land use among private landowners.

    But more than anything, environmentalists need to make peace with ranchers and other landowners. And everyone needs to begin a dialogue about the health of the land and economic opportunity, regardless of where the fences may go."

It's nice to hear from voices in the environmental community calling for collaboration, not coersion, with regard to private conservation and land management. The author is correct that familiar "hammer" approaches to environmental policy in the context of private lands would be divisive and counterproductive. In contrast, innovations like market-based incentive systems open the door for significant progress towards the goals of environmentally-responsible land stewardship and ecosystem improvement.

PERC's recent book, "Incentives and Conservation: The Next Generation of Environmentalists," explores these ideas in further detail. Also, be sure to check out Reason's Private Conservation Resource Center for more resources on private conservation.

(Hat Tip: Nature Noted)

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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