TCS Daily

Good Intentions Don't Mean Good Conservation

By Karl Hess - June 7, 2001 12:00 AM

Voluntary, incentive-based conservation is a sure bet in the 107th Congress. It's a landowner-friendly idea that fits well with President Bush's environmental agenda of local control voiced earlier this week while in the Everglades. It's a concept that is long overdue in the sculpting (and re-sculpting) of sound federal conservation policy, and one that greens can cautiously, if not enthusiastically, support.

But it is also an idea that is easily corrupted and too easily hitched to agendas that are not all that environmental.

A prime example is the Conservation Security Act (H.R. 1321) introduced in the House and now in committee. On the radar screen of the forthcoming farm bill, it's barely a blip. But measured against its intentions, it's a bill intended to have a sweeping impact on private land conservation. To the extent it's a barometer of policy direction in the upcoming farm bill, it speaks volumes about what Congress considers incentives and how it looks at conservation.

First the fundamentals. Any legislation that touts incentive-based conservation - as the Conservation Security Act does in its preamble - must be clear on four things. First, it must spell out what it wants to conserve. Without a clear goal, success is unlikely. Second, it must match the right incentives to the right conservation outcomes. Bad incentives won't produce good results. Third, it must be verifiable. Taxpayers need to know what they are getting for their dollars. Lastly, it must provide a continued flow of conservation benefits. If it doesn't, taxpayers get stuck with a big bill for nothing.

The Conservation Security Act fails on all four counts. It is offered as both an option and amendment to the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP, setup under the 1985 Food Security Act, pays farmers to retire marginal, erosion-prone lands from crop production and replant them in native grasses to conserve soil, improve water quality and provide critical habitat to wildlife. The CSA takes a different tack: it would give farmers and ranchers their cake and let them eat it too. In effect, farmers and ranchers would be paid to crop and graze otherwise marginal lands. Their only obligation would be to adopt approved management practices that provide "improved soil productivity, clean air and water, wildlife habitat, landscape and recreational amenities, and other natural resources and environmental benefits."

So the proposed act sounds good, but its goal is hardly conservation. It's true, as the bill's sponsors claim, that farmers and ranchers often provide the public with environmental extras - such as wildlife habitat, clean water, protected wetlands, open space, and shelter for endangered species - without getting paid. These benefits can be critical. In many areas of the West, for example, cattle ranches that no longer pay their bills are being subdivided and sold as 40-acre ranchettes. This spoils once wild and open spaces, alters the hydrology upon which wetlands depend, and fractures habitat needed by roaming wildlife.

Keeping rural lands intact should be the highest priority of public conservation policy. But paying farmers and ranchers to farm and ranch more wisely, as the CSA does, misses the point. Today, the public's demand for environmental amenities puts the onus on change. Western rangelands that once were the preserve of cows are no longer politically sustainable for cows. The public wants ranchers to raise more elk, fish, black-footed ferrets and provide untrammeled spaces. The same holds for marginal farmlands. These lands went into production largely because of federal farm payments that made low-yield lands - lands best suited for antelope, hawks and bison - profitable for cultivation. Policy rooted in incentive-based conservation should aim at enabling marginal farmlands to revert voluntarily to the wild, just as it should encourage western ranchers to give the public what it wants.

This brings us to incentives. Payments made under the pending CSA would go to compliance, not to environmental performance. Farmers and ranchers who produce more trout, less silt in streams, and more endangered willow fly-catchers would not receive a penny for doing so unless they also complied with the management practices prescribed in their conservation security contracts. Conversely, farmers and ranchers whose practices yield no environmental benefits would still be paid public dollars so long as they stuck to the letter of their contracts. What this means is that farmers and ranchers would have less reason than ever to innovate and adapt their management to the ecological demands of the land and the economic demands of the public for a quality environment. Why be a risk taker when taking no risk pays so well?

Monitoring simply reaffirms the legislation's embrace of conservation compliance over conservation performance. CSA participants would be encouraged to monitor their activities, but doing so is not required. Why monitor environmental outcomes when federal payments are not linked to performance? Federal monitoring, presumably by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, would be mandated, but mostly for assessing landowner compliance with the terms of their security contracts. It's a bit like public land grazing for the past 100 years. Federal land agencies have spent so much time micromanaging livestock operations that they have had little time and even fewer resources to focus on what is actually happening on the land. As a result, public-land ranchers have learned that complying with rules, not conserving public resources, is the best way to stay in business.

Finally, the CSA, and whatever conservation benefits it might yield, are not sustainable. There are no incentives in the CSA, apart from federal checks, to ensure that the flow of environmental goods and services to the public is sustained over the long haul. Stewardship founded on subsidies is not a very firm foundation for future-oriented conservation policy. Take away the payments and conservation will dry up as quickly as it blossomed. Something more lasting than federal goodwill is needed if farmers and ranchers are to quench the public's thirst for water, wildlife and wild places.

In lieu of the CSA, Congress should consider incentive-based conservation that is true to the conservation outcomes sought by the public. Most Americans want farmers and ranchers to remain on the land. They just prefer seeing them farm and ranch things other than corn and cows, especially on lands that have unique value for wildlife, scenery, wetlands, and recreation. Farmers and ranchers, in turn, need to think more like entrepreneurs and open their minds and management to provisioning the public with what it demands. Congress, in turn, should occupy itself less with how farmers and ranchers produce desired environmental outcomes, and more on making certain they are able to do so.

All of this means paying attention to the right incentives. Public policy should aim at changing laws, policies and regulations that penalize private conservation (like current federal and state tax laws that put conservation at a disadvantage). At the same, we should use the political process to enable conservation markets where none have existed before. A good example is Colorado's Ranching for Wildlife program. By changing state law to allow ranchers to better capitalize on big-game hunting, Colorado made it profitable and possible for outfits like the expansive Forbes' Ranch to trade subdivision for conservation. The same can happen for water flow and storage, recreation, and fisheries.

But markets cannot be created for all ecological services. Scenery and open space (for the bulk of threatened and endangered species that are all but invisible) yield public benefits that are not readily translated into private gain. Paying for these intangibles is a public responsibility - but not one that requires taxpayer subsidies.

Consider the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund that President Bush touted in Florida. In the past it has been used to acquire private lands for public conservation. LWCF funds could be better leveraged if both the federal and state shares (amounting to almost $1 billion annually) were spent on programs that pay landowners fair value for the ecological goods and services we demand of them. There is no reason why other similar trust funds could not be created to pay a fair price for the public's share of private conservation.

Monitoring of environmental performance by farmers and ranchers, backed-up by third-party assessment and independent verification when public dollars and resources are at stake, would crown a credible incentive-based conservation policy that is voluntary and national in scope. Examples of self-monitoring, third-party assessment and verification abound in agriculture and food processing. There is no reason the same principles cannot also be applied to wildland conservation.

Congress has a chance to get incentive-based conservation right before the die is cast with the farm bill later this summer. It owes it to a president who has promised the American people a new environmental policy for the 21st Century. Most of all, Congress owes it to the prairies, forests and rangelands that are America's native bounty but which have borne the environmental cost of good intentions that too often fall short of good conservation.


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