TBT: Private vs. Government Conservation

Published: 
Thursday, January 21, 2016
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Throwback Thursday: From the Archives


Photo from Wajahat Mahmood courtesy of Flickr.com. Image of the border between Kenya and Tanzania, Masai Mara National Reserve.

In 1992, the United Nations gathered delegates from 172 governments at the Earth Summit to rethink how government policies can be applied to halt the pollution of the planet. 10,000 journalists were invited to broadcast the message around the world.

Back on the ranch, PERC hosted its then-annual conference for journalists to discuss the ideas of free market environmentalism in light of the recent Earth Summit.

Journalist Heather MacDonald posed the following challenge to free market environmentalism:

You persuaded me that good arguments can be made for why private landowners are the best protectors of natural resources. But you did not definitively refute the counter-argument that government is better able to take a long-range view of resource conservation, nor explain why the examples of private environmental devastation and overdevelopment don’t belie your thesis…. You have started me thinking about private vs. public conservatorship, however.

MacDonald concluded by suggesting that the party best suited to conserve our valuable resources “depends on which private owner and which government is in charge.”

Jane Shaw, director of the conference, replied:

While mistakes can be made by both government and private organizations, government is very slow to correct its mistakes. But the financial pain that comes from poor stewardship forces private organizations to change their approaches.

Agreeing with MacDonald that there are examples of private environmental devastation, Shaw added:

When we investigate an example that people consider egregious, we find that the facts are different than they seem at first…. Often, government regulation has caused the problem.

Nearly 25 years later, the debate continues. Many still assume government does a better job handling environmental problems. However, as Shaw describes, government falls short of private entities when it comes to taking care of our natural resources.

This is well demonstrated by two wildlife preserves, one federally run while the other is privately operated, in Kenya. The Maasai Mara National Reserve was set aside by the Kenyan government to protect wildlife. However, the government largely profits off of tourism and development in the area, and the once open land has been filled with hotels, safari vehicles, and visitors to raise immediate revenues. Human-wildlife conflict, the result of the government’s mismanagement, has caused wildlife populations in the national reserve to plummet.

Right next door is the privately owned Ol Kinyei Conservancy. Where the National Reserve seeks to maximize immediate tourist revenues, Ol Kinyei has a long-range view that understands that there will be no lasting tourism profits if there are no animals for visitors to see. They operate on an incentive structure that prioritizes wildlife preservation and limits the number of visitors allowed on the conservancy at a time. As a result, Ol Kinyei is experiencing a substantial increase in wildlife populations.

As the comparison between the public and private preserves shows, incentives matter. Government regulation is a slow process, lacking the proper motivation or flexibility to efficiently protect our resources. On the other hand, because of their investments in private property, private landowners have the incentive to adopt a long-range view of resource conservation.  

The original correspondence was published in the December 1992 edition of PERC Reports. Read the article in full here.

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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