Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

December 19, 2005

Conservation — cooperation or coercion?

After the way the Bush Administration has been blitzed lately for its environmental policies, it was interesting to spend time last week with the new Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Lynn Scarlett, to get her point of view. And, since she has only just left her former position of Assistant Secretary for Policy, she is the horse’s mouth for the administration’s environmental policies.

We talked mostly about Interior’s new “cooperative conservation” policies, which emphasize cooperating with the private individuals, companies and institutions, together with state and local governments, as the most effective way of implementing environmental legislation.[i]

Examples of cooperation are:

  • Working closely with Chevron Hawaii to protect and manage a population of the endangered Hawaiian stilt and Hawaiian coot at the James Campbell Industrial Park refinery on the Ewa plain.[ii]
  • Working with California winegrowers to help fund the planting of elderberry plants around grape vines to provide habitat for the endangered elderberry beetle.[iii]
  • Helping Maui Coast Land Trust fund the purchase of 277 acres of undeveloped coastal dunes on the island with a $1 million grant. 

The present change is more one of emphasis than radical change. Earlier policies relied more on coercive regulation to conserve the environment rather than the current policy, termed “cooperative conservation,” where they rely more on willing cooperation among the various stakeholders.

The more virulent of the environmentalists have excoriated the new emphasis as being everything from a “conservation con game”[iv] to a “campaign ploy” to dismissing it "just another name for voluntary partnership .... It's not enough."[v] Which raises the question, if voluntary is not enough, will only coercion do?

Having just read Thomas Sowell’s recent and fascinating article, “Them or Us,”[vi] I felt that some of this criticism had a familiar ring to it. Sowell says that, “true believers don’t think in terms of trade-offs and cost-benefit analysis.” It is not about “which policy would produce what results. It was about personal identification with lofty goals and kindred souls.”

For example, no one ever suggested that Ronald Reagan get a Peace Prize for bringing the Soviet Union to its economic knees — even though that ended the Cold War.[vii] To be lauded by the peace lobby requires that one show a dovish approach to the subject — regardless of results.

Scarlett says results are what counts; getting the best environmental bang for the available government buck. If ranchers discover endangered plant species on their properties, it should be in their best economic interests to conserve them, rather than plough them under in order to retain full rights over their land.

One of the ways of dealing with such situations is the development of Safe Harbor Agreements. The Environmental Defense organization says, “The basic idea … is that people who do good deeds shouldn't be punished for doing them. And so, in a Safe Harbor agreement, a landowner commits to doing a "good deed" for endangered wildlife — usually by restoring or enhancing habitats for endangered species — and the government pledges not to "punish" the landowner for doing that good deed.”[viii]

Scarlett point out that voluntary private efforts, alone or in conjunction with federal and state assistance, have been largely overlooked. For example, in the year 2000 non-regulatory efforts preserved nearly two million acres of wetlands.[ix]

For those with the mindset that the only way to deal with private individuals and companies is through coercive legislation and regulation, this change of emphasis is going to be unsatisfactory. It would seem they would prefer to do battle with what they see as the “enemy,” rather than seek reasonable or even preferable solutions.

However, the only satisfactory and sustainable resolution to any dispute is when it is win-win rather than win-lose. The win-lose resolution invariably results in an outcome that leaves bitterness with the loser and a desire for revenge. Thus, often win-lose turns into lose-lose.

The win-win aspect of “cooperative conservation” may well turn out to be one of those extremely rare government policies that not only works, but has nearly all the participants satisfied with it.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are available at: www.cliffslater.com


[i] Scarlett pointed out that the Endangered Species Act originally called for incentives in its conservation efforts.

“ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT OF 1973. Sec. 2(a)(5) encouraging the States and other interested parties, through Federal financial assistance and a system of incentives, to develop and maintain conservation programs which meet national and international standards is a key to meeting the Nation’s international commitments and to better safeguarding, for the benefit of all citizens, the Nation’s heritage in fish, wildlife, and plants.”

[ii] http://www.fws.gov/pacificislands/wnews/chevron.pdf

[iii] Winegrape leaders honored for conservation efforts. Capital Press. 12/15/2005.

[iv] Conservation con game.  St. Louis Post-Dispatch. September 22, 2005.

[v] Natural Resources Defense Council

[vi] Sowell, Thomas. “Them or Us.”

[vii] Note that the Nobel Peace Prize for 1990 went to the U.S.S.R’s Mikhail Gorbachev.  

[viii] Environmental Defense describes Safe Harbor Agreements.

[ix] Gale Norton & Ann Veneman. There’s more than one way to protect wetlands. New York Times. March 12, 2003.