Voluntary conservation in action


By Brent M. Haglund, Ph.D.

A decade and a half passed between completion of Aldo Leopold’s two most significant books.  In Game Management – released in 1933 – he stated that recovery of wildlife habitat and wildlife species dependent on such could often be accomplished with more skillful, careful use of the same tools which had created the losses.  In a frequently quoted series, “. . . axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun. . .”, Leopold laid out how humans as tool wielders effectively decide wildlife’s fate.

The emphasis on “tools” became a frequent topic for Leopold in A Sand County Almanac.

Now, a study from Finland concludes that voluntary conservation programs can be cheap and effective in certain circumstances when landowners decide where not to use tools.  This in itself should not come as a surprise.  Aldo Leopold was warning of the limits of “government conservation” in the 1930s and 1940s.  Public acquisition of habitat was impractical and insufficient.  Regulatory prohibitions and mandates cut against human nature and were unenforceable.  Thus, he identified the need to cultivate an ethical impulse, consistent with human nature, and reinforced with incentives where necessary.  The Finnish research shows that need and opportunity are consistent and can be merged.

There are a growing number of such examples in America in which conservation success, be it clean water, habitat protection, or species recovery, result from determined and passionate individuals who couple their knowledge of the land with an abiding interest in nature.  Many of them just need to be asked and encouraged.

In Louisiana, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition (BBCC) has been successful in recovering a federally threatened subspecies that suffered from habitat loss.  In the lower Mississippi floodplain, they turned the bears from a regulatory liability into an animal that private, as well as corporate landowners wanted on their land.  The BBCC found the right mix of science, education, ethics, and incentives in their drive for voluntary participation.  They even deal with nuisance bears so that neighbors will not object strenuously to the bears’ presence.

In Wisconsin, another federally listed species, the Karner blue butterfly, is seeing steady population gains because landowners welcome the beautiful, delicate creatures, which have a wingspread approximately the size of a quarter.  The habitat needed by the butterflies is entirely consistent with many private landowners’ other land uses.  Cost sharing incentives help them improve the landscape for both.

Texas rancher Bob Long figured out how he and his Bastrop County landowning neighbors could protect the diminishing Houston Toad.  With little outside help, they, with partners, developed management techniques that allowed the toads to thrive and are consistent with livestock grazing and forestry.

At about the same time, a northern Montana tribe, the Blackfeet Nation, decided to recover a bit of their cultural heritage by re-introducing a long-lost component to their prairie landscape.  In just a decade, the swift fox, the smallest North American canid, weighing in at only five pounds, is flourishing on the Blackfeet reservation.  More importantly, it is repopulating ranches from which it had been swept away by poisoning campaigns directed against coyotes. As a species, it has been removed from a list of those which might become included under the Endangered Species Act.

These and many other examples underscore what Aldo Leopold imagined and experienced 80 years ago.  Voluntary human conduct depends upon and emerges out of an ethic that motivates and guides it.  The lessons from countless examples of voluntary conservation point to a few basic conclusions:

  1. Society should avoid penalizing those who invest time and effort to enhance the environment
  2. Knowing what is the right thing to do requires that landowners are armed with an understanding of physical, chemical, and ecological processes
  3. Policy should attempt to align as closely as possible with human nature and economic reality
  4. Incentives, whether financial or regulatory, should help people and organizations do things that they already want to do

In light of these tenets of effective, meaningful, voluntary conservation, it is not surprising that forest landowners in Finland, when asked if they would like to save hawk and owl nests on their property, agreed in overwhelming numbers.  These landowners faced no regulatory costs for doing so.  They were asked, not told.  Most said “yes”and set aside the use of the axe on some small part of their timber lands.  Otherwise, they continue to utilize their forests in ways that are consistent with their needs and values.

We have approached the limits of government ownership of land. Public spending on regulation and enforcement is stretched to the breaking point. Inexpensive, voluntary conservation by private landholders will grow in importance and the means to achieve it will be greatly sought after.

As Leopold wrote, “The fallacy (of) the economic determinists…is the belief that economics determines all land-use.  This is simply not true.  An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land-users’ tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse.”

Or to put it more simply, whether in Finland or in the United States, many landowners just need to be asked to do their part.

Dr. Brent Haglund is president of Sand County Foundation.

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