The United States loses about 6,000 acres of open space every day to development. Land that previously served agricultural or ecological balance purposes is bought up and converted into new homes or shopping centers.
In order to safeguard our natural environment, it is essential that this phenomenon be slowed by making land conservation an economically viable option for all landowners.
The time to focus on conserving land and preserving our natural resources for future generations is now. Recently, the land conservation community has been engaged in a debate about what should motivate land conservation and the preservation of natural resources. Concurrently, the vast majority of scientists warn us that climate change, the decline in pollinator populations, and other environmental stressors are threatening our planet and the future existence of the human race.
As a conservation community, are we failing to see the forest for the trees?
On one side of the debate are those who posit that true conservation isn’t about profit. They believe that the psychological utility and other “feel-good” rewards derived from conserving valuable land resources for future generations should be sufficient motivation for landowners to voluntarily sacrifice their own economic self-interests for the good of society. On the other side are those who feel that land conservation must offer an economically viable option to motivate the landowner to forego short-term economic benefits to conserve the land for public interest.
For the most part, our actions to conserve land and preserve our natural resources in the U.S. have historically been driven via agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency that employ public funds to achieve environmental objectives. Unfortunately, funding for environmental matters often fluctuates from administration to administration. Public agencies simply can’t shoulder the entire responsibility for conserving land and preserving our natural resources – private citizens must take on greater responsibility in maintaining a healthy balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
Augmenting public support for conservation are the many private efforts advanced by The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and other great organizations that promote environmental awareness, conservation and environmental responsibility. These organizations do wonderful work to promote responsible use of our nation’s most valuable land resources; however, despite these groups’ work, private landowners often make the final decisions regarding the use of their land.
As much as I’d like to believe that land conservation needn’t be profitable for landowners to act in a way that’s in the best interest of the environment and the public, it’s just not a realistic expectation. Self-interest is a driving force in human action, and conservation is rarely a landowner’s most profitable option.
I wish the general public was more worried about climate change, pollinator loss and other environmental consequences associated with the loss of our open spaces, and I also wish more people would put aside their own self-interests to help contribute to a larger societal good. But that simply isn’t reality, and we can’t allow more lands to fall to development while we hope for human nature to change.
That is why financial incentives are so important and should be encouraged. It is also why the conservation community should spend its efforts on improving and protecting those incentives, not further restricting them.
Aldo Leopold, a founding father of modern conservation, said: “to build a better motor we tap the uttermost powers of the human brain; to build a better countryside we throw dice.” I’m not willing to gamble — I want to make conservation an economically viable choice for all Americans. Our future depends upon it.
Drew D. Troyer is the co-founder, chairman of the board, and director of strategy for the Compatible Lands Foundation.
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