Maybe we should pay something for that open space


We take so many of the West’s open spaces for granted -- the private ranches and agricultural lands that provide invaluable resources for us all – from clean air and water, wildlife habitat and crop pollination, to scenic vistas, hunting opportunities, and so much more. But landowners are rarely compensated for the far-reaching benefits they provide, and they face intense pressure to sell out their land for development.

Yet, finally, some landowners are starting to get reimbursed for what they’ve freely provided for decades. “With scarcity comes value,” says Story Clark, author of A Field Guide to Conservation Finance. “A lot of work is going into figuring out the cost of natural capital, (defined loosely as intact ecosystems), and what will be lost if we lose it. On the reverse side, we need to be able to pay for it to keep it.”

So far, in most cases, the money to restore habitat or keep landscapes in a natural state has come from the government or from donations made by conservation-minded individuals and organizations. But as Clark sees it, this “system, fueled almost entirely by philanthropy … will never get ahead of the bulldozers.”

She urges landowners to look in a new direction, by turning their gaze to the world of for-profit financing, using the expertise of bankers, lawyers, accountants and financiers to protect their land. Such tools can connect people who benefit from conservation -- such as city dwellers who want to drink clean water from their taps -- with those who provide those benefits, including the ranchers who steward riparian areas.

Usually, when people think about paying to conserve a valuable quality that lies on someone else’s private land, they think in terms of conservation easements, where philanthropists and the government give landowners money or tax breaks in exchange for development rights to their land. Market-based conservation finance seeks ways to transfer money from the people who enjoy conservation benefits to those who actually provide the benefits.

Clark offers a couple of examples: Salt Lake City residents pay a dollar extra on their water bills each month to protect watersheds in the mountains above the city, saving money that would otherwise be spent transporting and cleaning water. Or a developer who paves over a wetland buys mitigation bank credits from a landowner who protects that type of wetland on private property.

“There are so many ways you can think about monetizing values on a piece of land,” Clark says. “I have found hundreds.”

That’s why Clark was invited to appear at an upcoming Forum on Conservation Finance, April 2, in Casper, Wyo. Local speakers from the Wyoming governor’s office, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, the University of Wyoming’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and others will put conservation finance into a regional context.

Experts –– including Clark –– will describe how market approaches can help finance conservation. Former World Bank Treasurer Kenneth G. Lay will describe large-scale conservation market ideas. Sara Brodnax of the Environmental Defense Fund will talk about “habitat exchanges” and “payment for ecosystem services,” two tools to bolster resources with conservation value like clean water and wildlife populations. Brian Hays, of the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Resources, will describe how mitigation is helping dune lizards in Texas.

“We’re looking for ways to connect to market-based, long-term, sustainable funding for landowners and communities involved in conservation,” says Andrea Erickson-Quiroz, Wyoming state director for The Nature Conservancy, a sponsor of the forum. “We want people to say, ‘Hmmm, maybe this is something we could try.’”

“This is really exciting stuff. This is world-changing,” Clark says. “If we can monetize natural capital, we won’t lose it. We’re already seeing it happen.”

Emilene Ostlind is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is communications coordinator at the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, one of the sponsors of the upcoming conference.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Julian Mazero
Julian Mazero
Apr 03, 2013 04:27 PM
The idea of "natural capital" is a slippery slope when it comes to environmental protection or conservation. The idea that we can monetize nature may be incredibly short sighted and a seemingly easy fix to rather difficult problems. Professor Michael Sandel has articulated the very idea that market values can appear neutral within the decision making realm, which subsequently prevents any discussion on an issue or issues (See, What Isn't For Sale - in The Atlantic Feb-2012). As with any of these schemes the devil is in the details. The monetization of nature or a piece of land, which sounds similar to Cost-Benefit Analysis in terms of arbitrarly assiging a value or price to some aspect of nature, is flawed because we do not know the price or value of nature to future generations let alone to present generations (See, Pricing the Priceless by Lisa Heinzerling and Frank Ackerman, also well worth the read). As an environmental engineer and currently in a regulatory position, everyday I deal with wastewater treatment plants that argue about the cost of treating to more stringent effluent numbers using the ideas of Cost-Benefit Analysis and monetization of nature. Although this is slightly different than conservation, market thinking tends to snowball; therefore, I would expect that some of the larger industries would take the very work of market conservation and begin to apply it to environmental protection. In fact, I already see this in terms of the federal and state governments that use credit trading schemes to reduce nutrient pollution. There may be a more fruitful, long term and sustainable way to conserve nature, but we may not get to have that discussion if the seemingly neutralily of market values are applied to every thing we do. If we cannot put a price on a human (despite the U.S. courts views) or love we share with another, why would we think we can put a price on a scenic vista, forest land or waterway?