A Convenient Truce

Conservationists tap private landowners for mutual support

Preserving public land is an admirable cause for many of us who support protecting our environment. Yet private land is increasingly coming into the spotlight as a tool for conservationists. If you once imagined KEEP OUT signs representing a dead end to participation in a public agenda, times have changed.

Reed Watson is a free-market conservationist and Executive Director of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a think tank in Bozeman, Montana, that began decades ago from talent at Montana State University.

“We try to harness markets and voluntary exchange to actually improve environmental quality rather than degrade it,” he said. “Incentives matter to the extent you can reward, not punish (private landowners)— We think we would see more conservation investments.”

While the Endangered Species Act has saved animals from extinction, Drew Bennett, who leads the Private Lands Conservation Initiative at Colorado State University, points to the damage it has caused to government’s relationship with private property owners.

“There’s an expression, ‘Shoot, Shovel and Shut up.’ Endangered species is the last thing these landowners want on their property. But over half of the endangered species in the United States have 80% or more of their habitat on private land,” Bennett said.

Efficiency is another upside, according to Bennett. It’s easier to get things done.

“There’s not nearly the amount of red tape that we have to go through on our public lands; we can actually be more efficient and more effective with private landowners,” according to Bennett.

The Gunnison Sage Grouse is an example.

“There was a decision not to list that as an endangered species because landowners stepped up and said we can manage it and maintain it going into the future,” Bennett said.

What is being learned in the U.S. is already being translated for the developing world. Reed Watson explained, “We’re looking at ways that markets, innovative contracts and property rights are improving water quality in Bolivia, and predator conservation in Namibia. “

We’re also learning from other countries. Bennett described a recent project to learn from people in Kenya, who live with lions. They’re using cell phones to notify one another when a lion is sighted so they can protect their livestock. It could apply to wolves.

“There might be some people who absolutely don’t want to see wolves no matter what, and some people absolutely want to see wolves and will do whatever they can to get them back. Somewhere in there is common ground where you can figure out a middle path,” said Bennett.

Today more than ever, we’re hopeful for the success of this intersection between public and private property.

“I think private property is always going to be one of those cornerstones of our values in America. I don’t think we’re ever going to change that,” Bennett admitted. But some ecologists are helping to prove that limitations can be turned into assets.


PERC’s Summer Colloquium is June 12–17 in Bozeman, MT. Apply by March 13. Successful applicants receive full scholarship and travel stipend of $500.

RadioBANG brings news of good works from schools leading to a sustainable future. Learn more and let us know what you think by commenting at our Facebook fan page, Solutions in Sustainability. Spread good ideas by recommending our news to your friends.