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 (hcn.org). 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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]