The Role of Working Lands in Providing Public Conservation Benefits

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Part II: Policy Challenges to Conservation

“Conservation means harmony between men and land,” Aldo Leopold noted in a 1939 address, The Farmer as a Conservationist. “When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.“ As Leopold described, it is in the best interest of owners of working lands to care for their land because they rely upon it for their livelihoods. Landowners’ bottom lines are tied to stewardship practices that balance land sustainability and economic viability. Their conservation efforts, therefore, benefit both the environment and their operations.

Privately owned farms, ranches, and forests, collectively known as working lands, are the cornerstones on which our nation was built. These lands not only produce much-needed food and fiber while sustaining rural economies, but they provide many conservation benefits as well, including clean water, wildlife habitat, and ecological diversity. These benefits often extend beyond property lines, serving the interests of both landowners and the public. Working lands can provide these benefits because environmental stewardship often goes hand-in-hand with the production of crops, livestock, and timber.

In this two-part report on private conservation on working lands, Part I: A Collection of Case Studies, celebrated examples of ranchers, farmers, and timber producers managing their properties with a conviction for conservation. While the case studies show conservation on working lands is possible, well-intentioned government policies sometimes make it very difficult for landowners to steward their property in an environmentally friendly way.

Part II, Policy Challenges to Conservation, examines several policies that counterproductively discourage environmental conservation on working lands. Too often, government policies that aim to conserve environmental resources are filled with complex regulations, unnecessary red tape, and burdensome taxes that undermine property rights and increase the cost of environmentally conscious business decisions. Part II also poses potential reforms that would make it easier for more landowners to engage in conservation efforts similar to those discussed in the case studies of Part I.

Policies that provide disincentives for conservation efforts should be reformed to promote property rights and private conservation. It is essential that landowners maintain authority over their working lands so that conservation efforts can prosper. Creating institutions that cultivate collaboration between landowners and bring parties together to contract for ecosystem services not only allows landowners to maintain authority over their property but also encourages conservation. Cutting red tape and reducing the tax burden on private lands would help turn environmental liabilities into assets.

Part II of this report specifically addresses five threats that can hinder conservation efforts on private working lands, and it proposes solutions for each:

The Endangered Species Act: The Endangered Species Act seeks to protect species that are at risk of going extinct. It also aims to protect the habitats of these species. However, when a species listed under the act is found on private property, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can require an owner to restrict his or her use of their land without compensation for the change in use. This risk can perversely spur landowners to try to prevent endangered species from taking up residence on their property in the first place. To encourage cooperation with more landowners when it comes to protecting endangered species, the Safe Harbor Agreement application process should be shortened and conservation-banking markets should be explored.

The Clean Water Act: The Clean Water Act was passed to clean up the rivers, lakes, and other “waters of the United States.” Under the act, anyone who discharges a pollutant—including “clean fill” material such as soil—into a waterway is required to get a permit, even when the purpose of the work is conservation. For working landowners who use a great deal of water, the permit requirement can make it difficult to engage in conservation activities such as stream-bank restoration. Water-trading markets are an alternative that would allow farmers who improve water quality to earn credits that they could then sell to polluters, leading to a net decrease in water pollution. 

Water-Trading Restrictions: In California, drought has left farmers and wildlife without essential water in recent years. Traditional regulatory solutions, including water-use restrictions, have not proven to be sustainable approaches to conserve water and allocate the scarce resource efficiently. Water-trading markets could help allocate water to high-valued uses, such as fallowing fields and dwindling trout streams, but California’s lengthy and complicated restrictions make it exceedingly difficult to make water trades. Streamlining the approval process for water transfers that have been approved in a previous year or serve environmental ends would promote water conservation and environmental health.

Prescribed Burning Liability Laws: Prescribed burning liability laws determine who is held responsible for damages caused by a prescribed burn. Though these controlled burns enrich soil health, reduce wildfire fuels, and create wildlife habitat, many landowners are reluctant to use them when strict liability laws are in place. Reducing the liability level of prescribed-burn laws, or creating insurance structures that help compensate for damages when a prescribed burn does cause harm, can promote the use of fire as a tool for fostering healthy ecosystems.

Estate Tax: Often referred to as a “death tax,” an estate tax is levied on an estate when its owner dies and it is passed down to the heirs. Working lands are often asset rich, but many have little cash flow and must be developed or sold off to pay the estate tax. Though many landowners are able to use careful estate planning to avoid paying the tax, the planning process can be extensive and expensive. Repealing the estate tax would allow landowners to avoid the hassle of estate planning and help keep working lands intact and undeveloped.


To view the endnotes and references, please view the case study (PDF).

Hannah Downey is the policy and partnerships coordinator and a research fellow at PERC, helping to move projects along from conception to completion. After being introduced to PERC her freshman year of college, she pursued the ideas of free market environmentalism and became a research assistant as a senior. She graduated from Montana State...
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