Property Rights Protect the Environment Better Than Politics

As various interests battle it out to establish whether we need more stringent environmental regulations and whether government ownership of land is good idea, a quiet revolution has taken place in land conservation. This revolution is good news for all who are tired of the old good-guys-versus-bad-guys environmental debate and who believe that people interested in protecting the environment should put their money where their mouth is.

This innovative revolution in conservation is actually based upon a very old, practical concept: If you want to have control over something, own it. Hundreds of organizations referred to as land conservancies or land trusts have come into existence over the past dozen or so years, and most of them practice a refreshingly different kind of conservation. These groups identify land which they believe is important for conservation—land with scenic views, wetlands, habitat for rare species, and so on—and they buy it.

In cases where a land owner agrees with the organization that preservation is good for the property, the group may acquire the land by donation. In still other cases, the group may purchase or accept donation of a "conservation easement" which is a restrictive covenant agreed to by both the organization and the land owner.

In all these cases, the transaction is between willing buyers and willing sellers, or between an organization and a willing donor. There is no regulatory involvement, no government mandates, and no political pressure.

The Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs, Michigan, is a case in point. Formed in 1972 by a group of people who became fed up with environmental litigation and advocacy as a means of protecting land, the Conservancy has become a major player in promoting balance between development and preservation in fast-growing northwestern lower Michigan. The group has helped secure conservation protection for over 10,000 acres in the northern Lower Peninsula and the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, every acre of it acquired from a willing seller or donor.

Examples of completed projects range from a small but scenic parcel close to town to a large tract with over two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and 600 acres of forest. Some properties are owned by the Conservancy, while others are being turned over to local government and park agencies which agree to make the land available for greater public recreational use. Still more of this protected land remains in private hands—with voluntarily applied (and contractually enforced) development limits restricting future uses to those which protect its scenic features and conservation values.

The Conservancy has no political agenda, and it makes no effort to bind its members to any ideological orthodoxy. Members are encouraged to form their own conclusions about regulatory programs and other environmental issues that appear on the front pages. The Conservancy’s board includes a wide range of citizens from developers to environmentalists, all of whom agree that the Conservancy is on the right track by pursuing conservation through private means and without all the political baggage that other environmental organizations often entail.

While donors to the Conservancy may receive tax benefits for their contributions, the Conservancy operates under the same rules as any other nonprofit organization—rules which were around long before the Conservancy came on the scene. If Congress should decide to change the system, they won’t hear a word from the Conservancy, which does not lobby.

The Conservancy’s board and staff believe that their nonpolitical approach to land conservation fills an important need for private-sector conservation. In the region where the Conservancy is active, rapid growth is taking place in the housing, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy. This is good for these sectors of the economy, but in a resort and tourist-based region, the Conservancy’s backers see a real need for a corresponding level of private investment in maintaining key portions of the forests, beaches and scenic drives that attract all the business. "If we didn’t have the Conservancy," stated a letter sent by one area businessman to colleagues on the group’s behalf, "we’d have to invent one in order to protect the goose that lays the golden eggs in our area—the beautiful scenery."

Private land conservation organizations will not erase the need for a vigorous public debate on other environmental and government regulatory issues. But it is comforting for many people to know that above the din of the public policy debate over the environment, concerned citizens and private property owners are busy putting their money where their mouth is to protect the land they care about.