An “Old” Blueprint For 21st Century Conservation

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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On America’s privately owned farms, ranches and forests, hidden in plain sight, is an “old” blueprint for a 21st century approach for conserving this country’s land, water and wildlife. A modern approach is badly needed because it is increasingly clear the old approach, which has grown increasingly powerful since the 1960s and is based on command-and-control, primarily from Washington, D.C. but also state capitals, is outmoded and unsustainable due to ignoring or working against six realities.

First, 60% of the U.S. is privately owned and also contains most of the land and water with the highest value for biodiversity and endangered species. Second, conservation is, by definition, a human endeavor that requires active, hand-on management, not letting nature take its course. For example, about 11% of the U.S. is federal forestland, but over the past several decades the federal government’s hand-off management has lead to declining forest health and an increase in the size and frequency of catastrophic wildfires. People, first Native Americans and then waves of colonists, have fundamentally shaped America’s landscapes for millennia and will continue to do so. Third, conservation often takes many years if not decades to show results. Fourth, conservation needs to be flexible to respond to ever-changing, site-specific biophysical data and social information—a practice known as adaptive management.

Fifth, private landowners are by far the largest “installed base” of conservationists because there are millions of them, and they are by profession land and resource managers, live on the land 24/7, 356 day a year, have detailed knowledge of their land, possess a strong attachment to their property and are deeply committed to its conservation, and have strong ties to the local community and in-depth information about local social networks—two often-overlooked factors crucial to successful conservation. These dynamics also apply to the landowners who have rights to graze and use water on federal land, which constitutes about 10% of the U.S. land area, adjacent to their property.

Sixth, over the past decade a significant body of scholarly surveys, covering landowners in 19 states, reveal factors that encourage and discourage participation in efforts to conserve endangered species, including that landowners: strongly prefer conservation programs based on incentives and cooperation, instead of penalties and compulsion; possess a strong stewardship ethic; have significant concerns about risks to their property values and livelihoods associated with protecting endangered species; believe they should be compensated for conserving species; and very much prefer to have significant management and decision-making authority if they are involved in a conservation program.

There are two takeaway points from these realities. One, the linchpin for effective conservation is hand-on management by people, especially America’s private landowners and resource users. Two, command-and-control conservation is counterproductive. So it is imperative that those, from public agencies and private organizations, interested in conserving this country’s land, water and wildlife form productive, long-term, sustainable relationships with landowners and owners of rights to resources on federal land.

Yet command-and-control conservation destroys such relationships because it works against and ignores these six realities. Command-and-control conservation—which relies on severe penalties, locking up property and forcing unlucky landowners to bear the costs of providing what is often regarded as a public good—fosters mistrust, resentment and hard feelings.

America’s landowners are increasingly fearful and resentful of government, especially at the federal level, and groups that support command-and-control conservation. “Disgruntled landowners make poor conservationists,” observed law professor David Farrier in an article on U.S. approaches to conservation. As command-and-control conservation has grown more powerful over the past several decades, through laws like the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, its bitter harvest is readily apparent to anyone who visits “flyover” country and talks with owners of working lands. In order to protect their livelihoods and property values from command-and-control conservation, landowners are taking a number of actions with growing frequency, including: refusing to become involved in conservation efforts, especially for endangered species; denying researchers access their property; and in some cases destroying wildlife habitat, through active management or passive neglect. The realities faced by America’s landowners, and the sad results of command-and-control conservation, are largely hidden from, and unknown to, the urban majority.

Fortunately, there is a successful alternative to the failure of command-and-control conservation, which has a proven, 100-year-plus track record of success and is very popular with America’s landowners. Cooperative extension is the practice of government specialists, primarily through the land grant universities that are in all 50 states, providing technical assistance and cost sharing to help landowners improve the productivity of their land and conserve its natural resources, such as soil, water and wildlife. Cooperative extension is a remarkably successful approach to conservation because it is 180-degrees away from command-and-control and is based on radically commonsense idea of gaining landowners’ willing cooperation through the open hand of friendship, not the closed fist of regulation. Cooperative extension is very popular with landowners because it fosters healthy, productive relationships with extension personnel, and it provides them with valuable services, education and often small amounts of funding to implement conservation projects.

Those involved with tangible, boots-on-the-ground conservation, as opposed to the type of armchair conservation advocated by environmental pressure groups and some in government, are well aware of cooperative extension’s superiority. “Cooperative extension is an ideal facilitator for volatile wildlife issues such as endangered species management on private lands,” observes Dwayne Elmore, professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Wildlife Management at Oklahoma State University. “Often, lack of trust in government agencies or fear of Endangered Species Act regulations hinders conservation efforts on these private lands. Extension personnel have close ties to local affected communities and thus can be instrumental in educating landowners regarding options that may be available to them.” Cooperative extension is the model for Utah State University’s innovative Community-Based Conservation Program because it is “a non-regulatory entity”, “has strong ties to the local community and economy”, and “has established solid working relationships with local landowners and agricultural producers,” according to the program’s website.

Unfortunately, the newer, more aggressive and highly invasive type of conservation known as command-and-control is increasingly displacing cooperative extension. If this trend is to be reversed, America needs to realize that its landowners are the key to successful conservation, remove the biggest barrier to effective conservation by abandoning command-and-control, and chart a new course for conservation in the 21st century based on the successful old blueprint called cooperative extension.