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Conservation Through Private Initiative

Harnessing American Ingenuity to Preserve Our Nation's Resources

Michael De Alessi
January 1, 2005

Executive Summary

In the polarizing world of environmental policy, the popular press is replete with stories on the incompatibility of conservation and commerce. From loggers pitted against owls to developers fighting wetlands regulations, the rhetoric in politics and in the media all too often gives a false impression that there must be a choice between one or the other. But conservation is out there. It’s happening. And it’s going on amidst commercial activities, especially on private lands.

So why don’t we hear more about private conservation? One reason is that success doesn’t sell newspapers nearly as well as controversy. Another reason is surely that private conservation efforts, especially habitat protection, are difficult to quantify under any circumstances, but the regulatory restrictions that often accompany habitats such as wetlands mean that private landowners are downright reticent to scrutiny.

Why have private conservation efforts been successful? Largely because they concentrate on the end result of environmental protection, rather than the bureaucracy of environmental protection, which doesn’t guarantee a result. One of the great shortcomings of many command and control regulations is that they are more process-oriented than output-oriented. In many cases, success has been measured by permits issued or violations cited, rather than by specific, targeted improvement in environmental quality. Indeed, conservation efforts should be measured against a set of well-defined performance metrics to recover endangered species, protect habitat types, and so on. To prove their contribution to environmental quality, and for private conservation efforts to be more widely recognized (and less onerously regulated), landowners are going to have to agree on and measure such a set of well-defined performance metrics.

Measuring performance, as well as benchmarking and setting annual performance goals, may be the only way to cut across the partisan lines that have been drawn over environmental protection. Agreeing on how to define success often unites those who are genuinely interested in improving environmental quality. Of course, many measurements are site-specific, but striving to empirically compare different approaches is a vast improvement over rhetorical arguments.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one such example. Proponents of the act believe that the restrictions it imposes have kept many species from going extinct. Critics of the act point out that it has failed to recover more than a handful of species over the last thirty years, and that those same restrictions may do more harm than good to endangered species, especially on private land. This difference of opinion has hindered reform efforts that might otherwise have improved the performance of endangered species recovery efforts.

One of the most promising environmental policy reform efforts in recent years is known as Enlibra, a madeup word that originated with an effort by the Western Governor’s association to deal with the declining effectiveness of many federal environmental regulations. The idea behind Enlibra is that the low-hanging regulatory fruit has been picked, which means that stricter regulations often result in very little or even no improvement in environmental quality, while imposing much higher costs and regulatory burdens. Water pollution regulations, for example, initially targeted point sources of pollution. Cleaning up these large, single outfalls of industrial or municipal pollution greatly improved environmental quality. Now, however, most water pollution problems result from non-point sources, that is, a multitude of small inputs that add up to problems in a watershed. Because these sources are difficult to pinpoint or even measure effectively, regulatory approaches have been cumbersome, expensive, and far less effective.

Of course, government regulation has had its successes, but command and control approaches to environmental protection have essentially run aground. Unless state and federal governments start using more innovative approaches to solving environmental problems, we will just spend more and more, yet achieve less and less. Perhaps conservation has come as far as it can through government regulation. A new, more effective approach is needed, and private conservation has shown itself a capable and viable alternative.

National parks are overgrazed and overcrowded, fisheries are depleted, nutrient runoff is a problem in many watersheds, catastrophic forest fires routinely rage through the southwest, fresh water wars continue in the west, and endangered species issues continue to set landowners against environmentalists. Government oversight of these problems rests with such organizations as the U.S. EPA, the Interior Department, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of the Commerce Department). Each has over thirty years of experience trying to deal with these problems, and none has an enviable track record. The reason for this is that to date, most environmental regulations and restrictions generally get the incentives all wrong.

Perverse regulations encourage everything from overfishing to pollution, to habitat destruction on both private and public lands. And they have also suffered from a lack of any realistic performance review. For example, the ESA has not been substantially reformed since its passage thirty years ago, despite the fact that as many species have gone extinct as have been officially recovered in that time.

Despite the dismal track record of such restrictive efforts at the esa, for every one of these problems there is an environmental lobby that insists on an increased role for federal and state government regulation and oversight. These environmental problems, however, have been around for decades, and are not going to get solved by using similar decades-old approaches.

One problem is that unlike the marketplace, where by definition voluntary trade makes everyone involved better off, politics is a zero-sum game, where gains to one group are made at the expense of another. Turning public lands into wilderness areas, for example, can only be done by taking land away from those who might want to use it as pasture or timber land, and vice versa.

Oil and gas exploration is another classic example. Whether to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or not has been a wedge political issue for environmentalists since the start of the George W. Bush administration. Yet a number of local chapters of the National Audubon Society, a particularly vocal opponent of drilling in ANWR, have drilling operations on their own properties. Why? Because they understand the tradeoffs involved (increased revenues weighed against the risk of environmental damage), and the decision is an internal one. It would be interesting to see just what the Audubon Society would do with the deed to ANWR.

The need to search for more viable alternatives is clear, and the purpose of this study is to show that commerce and conservation have been, and continue to be, inextricably linked, especially when tradeoffs and risks can be internalized by private groups, individuals, or non-profits.

For every spotted owl controversy, there are thousands of cases where conservation and commerce happily get along, from ranchers protecting stream beds to the Louisiana Audubon Society operating oil and gas drills in one of their bird sanctuaries. In fact, it is because these lands are privately owned that the controversy is minimized. On public lands, land-use decisions inevitably wind up in the court of politics, where rhetoric and extremism trump substance and tradeoffs.

Human ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit underlie most conservation success stories. Under private ownership and stewardship, problem-solvers become remarkably resourceful at protecting and enhancing the value of what they own, for reasons as broad as profit and aesthetics, and ranging from fisheries and forests to backyard gardens. No one questions the impetus for a cleaner, healthier, species-rich environment. How we get there, however, is another question. The most promising efforts to address the perverse incentives typically created by command and control regulation are the use of market mechanisms and performance measures, both of which rely on getting the incentives more inline with the desired results, and on tapping into the same human ingenuity that drives commercial activity. Using performance indicators to measure and acknowledge conservation success, especially in the context of using the land is the next logical step.


Michael De Alessi is Fellow

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