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To Make Conservation Leasing Work, BLM Must Respect Current Lease Holders and Embrace Markets

PERC submitted this public comment to the Bureau of Land Management on its proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule.

Main Points
  • Allowing markets for voluntary conservation on public lands could reduce conflict, empower third parties to perform restorative work, and reward existing users for their role in improving conservation outcomes.
  • For conservation leasing to produce these desirable results, existing rights, privileges, and leases must be honored.
  • Markets, not politics, must set the price for conservation leases.
  • Market mechanisms and voluntary negotiations should be used to resolve any conflicts between conservation leases and other uses.

On both public and private lands, conservation and land management issues involve balancing a variety of competing uses of scarce natural resources. Should a parcel of land be developed for energy production, grazed by livestock, actively managed to enhance wildlife habitat, or passively set aside for conservation or other environmental values? In each case, decision-makers inevitably confront the question of how to resolve competing uses of public and private lands.

On private lands, landowners, conservation organizations, and others have developed innovative tools to resolve conflicts between environmental and other values while also encouraging and rewarding voluntary conservation. Unfortunately, these revenue-generating tools have largely been absent from federal lands due to “use it or lose it” policies with narrow definitions of “use” that reclude markets for voluntary conservation and stoke controversy over public land management decisions. Consequently, conservation advocates and users of federal lands often have no option other than to resort to legal and political conflict.

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule could help to mitigate this conflict and facilitate voluntary conservation. The proposed rule would identify conservation as a valid “use” of federal land, put conservation on an equal footing with other uses, and authorize “conservation leases” as a tool to facilitate voluntary conservation on federal land. In a recent congressional hearing, Principal Deputy Director Nada Culver explained that the “key to the success” of the conservation proposal would be to unlock opportunities for conservation organizations to finance voluntary conservation performed by ranchers and other federal-land users and to generate a source of additional income for these existing users.

To ensure the proposal achieves BLM’s goals and reaches its potential, we encourage the agency to make sure that its final rule is consistent with three principles:

  1. Existing rights and privileges will be honored
  2. Conservation leases will be available at a fair market price that reflects the value of potential future uses that the lease may preempt
  3. Conflicts between a conservation lease and other uses will be resolved through voluntary negotiation rather than political edict

A letter to the Bureau of Land Management

In 2020, PERC convened a group of leading scholars to explore how federal and state governments discourage voluntary conservation through “use it or lose it” policies. The result of that workshop was an article published in the journal Science advocating the recognition of conservation as a valid use of public lands and resources, elimination of “use it or lose it” policies, and expanded opportunities for market mechanisms to allocate resources between conservation and competing uses.

We appreciate the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to recognize conservation as a valid use of public lands, to put that use on an equal footing with other uses, and to establish an innovative conservation leasing program to facilitate conservation uses.

If properly amended and implemented, the BLM’s conservation leasing proposal could substantially reduce conflict while empowering states, conservation organizations, and others to create incentives for voluntary conservation on federal lands. This would benefit wildlife, watersheds, and other environmental values on public land while providing conservationists, ranchers, and other users with greater options and flexibility. As the BLM revises its proposed rule, we urge it to keep three key principles in mind.

First, the BLM must honor valid existing rights and privileges. If conservation leasing is perceived as a political or administrative tool for imposing costs on existing rights-holders without their consent, it will simply provoke more conflict. Moreover, any erosion in the security of grazing privileges and other existing rights may provoke future efforts to erode any rights or privileges created by conservation leases.

Second, markets, not politics, must set the price for conservation leases. In our research, we’ve identified auctions in which different users directly bid against each other as the best means to set the price for conservation and other uses. We recognize that the BLM could not do that for many of the resources it manages because federal statutes allocate rights to those resources through different mechanisms. However, in setting prices for conservation leases, the BLM should seek to mimic the results that would occur under a fair auction as closely as possible. If conservation is a valid “use” of federal lands, and we agree with the BLM that it is, then the Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires the BLM to secure “fair market value” to the United States for that use. Operating under a similar duty in managing trust lands, states price conservation leases at least equal to the revenue that would have been generated by any other uses the conservation lease would preempt. The BLM should administer any conservation leasing program under the same principle.

Third, the BLM should establish mechanisms for the voluntary, market-based resolution of conflicts between conservation leases and other uses. Conservation lessees should be allowed to compensate existing rights-holders who perform voluntary conservation. A conservation group might, for instance, negotiate with a rancher to graze fewer animals, change the location, duration, or timing of grazing, or otherwise alter grazing practices to benefit migratory wildlife, reduce predator conflicts, or restore riparian areas. Such win-win agreements between ranchers and conservation groups occur routinely on private land and hold tremendous potential if expanded to public land. Indeed, in a recent congressional hearing, Principal Deputy Director Nada Culver referred to conservation organizations “providing funding” for the voluntary conservation work ranchers are already doing on federal lands and generating “a source of additional income” for those ranchers as “key to the success” of conservation leasing.

We agree. Conservation leases should be a mechanism for formalizing agreements and shielding ranchers and other existing users from “use it or lose it” rules that would otherwise penalize voluntary conservation efforts. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on the BLM’s proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule. We hope the principles described here, and in the accompanying public comment, will guide the BLM to finalize a conservation leasing rule that reduces conflict, puts conservation on par with other uses, and facilitates markets for voluntary conservation on public land.

Learn more about our work on this topic:

Allow “Nonuse Rights” to Conserve Natural Resources

Are Conservation Leases the Key to Resolving Competing Demands on Public Lands?

Conservation Groups Should Be Able to Lease Land to Protect It

Written By
  • Jonathan Wood
    • Vice President of Law & Policy

    Jonathan Wood is vice president of law and policy at PERC, leading PERC’s Conservation Law and Policy Center.

  • Shawn Regan
    Shawn Regan
    • Vice President of Research

    Shawn Regan is a research fellow and vice president of research at PERC.  He is the executive editor of PERC Reports.

  • Bryan Leonard
    • Fellowship Director,
    • Senior Fellow

    Bryan Leonard is an associate professor of environmental and natural resource economics in the School of Sustainability and a faculty affiliate in the Economics Department and the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment at Arizona State University. He is also a senior fellow at PERC, a PERC fellowship director, and a 2017 and 2018 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow. 

  • Temple Stoellinger
    Temple Stoellinger
    • Senior Fellow

    Temple Stoellinger is a PERC senior fellow and an assistant professor at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming as well as co-director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources in the Rockies.

  • Christopher Costello
    • Board Member,
    • Senior Fellow

    Christopher Costello is a professor of Environmental and Resource Economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is research director of the Environmental Markets Lab and a Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is also on the board of Environmental Defense Fund and Global Fishing Watch and serves on the Council of Economic Advisors for California’s Governor.

  • Dominic Parker
    Dominic Parker
    • Senior Fellow

    Dominic (Nick) Parker, is a PERC senior fellow as well as director of PERC’s summer fellowship program. Nick is also a professor of applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he serves in editorial roles for three leading academic journals in environmental and resource economics.

  • Andrew Plantinga
    • Lone Mountain Fellow

    Andrew Plantinga is a Professor of Resource Economics and Land Use Economics in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California Santa Barbara.

  • James Salzman

    James Salzman holds joint appointments at Duke University as the Nicholas Institute Professor of Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School and as the Samuel F. Mordecai Professor at the Law School.

  • V. Kerry Smith
    • Julian Simon Fellow

    Kerry Smith is an Emeritus Regents Professor and University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Economics at the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.

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