Private Efforts in the Public Interest

One of the most cherished modern myths is that environmental problems can best be solved by government. Conventional wisdom argues that to protect the quality of air, water, and natural habitats, we must create regulations and bureaucracies to control economic life.

A quiet revolution, however, is underway within the environmental movement. It is challenging the dominance of government by demonstrating that nature is often best served by private efforts and, most revolutionary of all, by the concept of private property.

Some effects of this revolution can be seen in Michigan through the work of the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation, headquartered in Lansing. Since 1982, MWHF has been working to restore wetlands, stream beds, and upland areas which were once home to a wide variety of wildlife species but which had been lost to farming, development, or the destructive side effects of logging, mining, and other activity. The organization is responsible for more than 200 restoration projects around the state-undertaken entirely with private funds and in ways that not only meet sound environmental objectives, but also protect the rights of property owners without encouraging the growth of government.

MWHF contracts with landowners to manage restoration projects. Each landowner pays only $200 at the most; MWHF picks up the rest of the tab. The owner retains all rights to the property- including the right to post it against trespassers-but agrees to leave the restored area undisturbed as a wildlife habitat for a period of ten years. Work is done by MWHF staff members and volunteers who have undergone the foundation's training process. They handle everything, from the initial survey of the site to follow-up studies of wildlife rehabitation after the work is complete.

The MWHF, in about half of its projects, has worked to improve wetlands or land that was once water-covered, breaking up drainage systems and cleaning out fill material to reclaim natural habitat for waterfowl. This reflects the particular interest of the group's founder and principal benefactor, the late Russell H. Bengel of Jackson.

Bengel was a businessman and politician (he served two terms as mayor of Jackson) who had a passionate love of the outdoors. He stipulated that MWHF should not depend on government funds, and that it was to concentrate on capital improvement projects that would "provide a net increase in wildlife habitat restoration" throughout the state. Bengel set up the foundation and endowed it with $1 million. The yield from that endowment plus earnings from sales of wildlife art and related items support the group's activities.

MWHF's projects are typical of numerous non-government environmental programs sponsored all over America by many national and local organizations. These private initiatives don't add to our tax burden and they help to minimize the intrusion of government into our lives. They enlist landowners in the cause of protecting the environment by supporting ownership rights rather than diverting land into the public sector. Moreover, they are often more effective than efforts conducted in the public sector.

Government agencies, being creatures of politics, are limited in the ways they can act. They are often forced to behave in ways that reduce the effectiveness of even the most well-intentioned programs. Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of MWHF, offers a small illustration: the efforts of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources to repopulate certain wild bird species. The DNR, responding to widespread concern about the loss of pheasants, has been trying to find new species that can thrive in Michigan.

But Fijalkowski maintains that the problem is not in finding the right pheasants. The problem is the loss of pheasant habitat. Michigan's pheasants were getting along quite nicely, he told the Detroit Free Press, "until farmers started plowing from roadside to roadside and tearing out shelter belts." What's needed, he insists, is "to educate farmers as to why they should leave some habitat for pheasants and other critters."

Private groups like the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation are growing in importance and proving that private, dedicated individuals can act in the public interest more effectively than government bureaucracies. No endless research studies that never come to a conclusion. No subsidies of public money. No new rules or regulations or other intrusive decrees. Just people seeing problems and taking the initiative to solve them.

It's a very old idea, but it's a departure from the conventional environmental movement that captures headlines. And, it's nice to know, it's catching on.