Give Conservationists a Seat at the Natural Resources Table

Opening up the bidding processes for resource management on public lands would promote conservation where it is valued higher than other uses.

In the American West, the institutions that developed to manage natural resources centered around the assumption that the resources would be put to productive uses. By using water to irrigate crops, for example, a homesteader could make land productive and “prove up” a claim. Extracting oil and gas deposits or harvesting timber would similarly put land to use, and rights to natural resources were generally defined and maintained based on such “uses.” For a rancher to secure grazing privileges on public land adjacent to his property, for instance, he had to commit to run a livestock operation on the pasture.

A lot has changed since the continent was settled westward in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, natural resources are often valued more for other types of “non-consumptive” uses—namely, conservation. Leaving water instream so that salmon can spawn up a river, keeping minerals in the ground on a particular landscape, or leaving timber standing in a tract of forestland are examples of where conservation ends might be the highest-valued uses for natural resources. Unfortunately, conservationists are generally excluded from obtaining rights or leases for such resources—or can only do so at high cost due to legal and regulatory barriers. 

Technically, any U.S. citizen can bid for and hold leases for energy, grazing, or timber resources on public lands. But legal requirements usually prevent conservationists from participating in such markets, because federal and state rules typically require leaseholders to graze, harvest, extract, or otherwise develop the resources. The upshot is that disputes between developers and conservationists often end in zero-sum litigation or political lobbying to try to influence the way public lands are managed. Years of legal or political acrimony usually just leave everyone frustrated. 

In short, if a conservationist wants to purchase rights to natural resources with the expressed purpose of not developing them, they are generally out of luck.


PERC’s approach to conservation relies on voluntary exchange that results in positive environmental outcomes for both private and public resources.

PERC believes that opening bidding processes for resource management on public lands would promote a better balance between conservation and development of natural resources. Open markets that give everyone a seat at the table would be a cooperative way to make trade-offs in land use decisions and generate higher returns for taxpayers and other public beneficiaries of leasing revenues. Letting any interested party participate in auctions for pasture, minerals, or timber would allow resources to be managed for their highest-valued uses, whether that means consumption or conservation. 


PERC is working to promote bidding processes for public resources that provide the option for conservation leasing. PERC scholars have done foundational research on various ways to incorporate conservation-minded bidders when it comes to grazing, energy, and timber leases on public lands.

In 2019, PERC supported the open format of a Montana state timber auction in the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman that permitted a bid for a “conservation license” that would result in forestland left intact for the duration of the lease. A conservation group outbid a logging company, meaning that the timber will remain standing. Shortly after the auction, however, the state legislature passed a bill to end the practice of using conservation licenses in the future, showing that more work is needed to change perceptions about the benefits of non-consumptive uses. 

In the end, PERC believes the relevant question over natural resource leases is a simple one: Shouldn’t conservationists be allowed to put their money where their mouths are and bid just like anyone else?

Research on This Topic

Managing Conflicts over Western Rangelands: A PERC Policy Series on the underlying issues fueling grazing conflicts in the West, as well as what might be done to resolve them.

Legal and Institutional Barriers to Establishing Non-Use Rights to Natural Resources: A paper in the Natural Resources Journal exploring how if rights can only be established once a resource is used, then the institutions that govern natural resources will be unable to resolve conflicting use and non-use demands.

Conservation Groups Should Be Able to Lease Land to Protect It: An article in High Country News on why conservation should be considered a legitimate “use” of natural resource rights.

The Case for Conservation Leasing: An op-ed in Grist that explores how extending bidding rights to conservationists can more accurately put public land to its most valued use.

Why Don’t Environmentalists Just Buy the Land They Want To Protect? Because It’s Against the Rules: An article in Reason on how regulation and litigation rule the day, but conservationists should be allowed to bid.

Let Conservationists Compete for Use of Federal Lands: A podcast with the Cato Daily Podcast on the potential to open public land bidding to environmentalists.

Opponents to Timber Sale Have an Option: Buy It: An op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on how opponents to a timber sale on state trust land in Montana should come together and bid to stop a potential logging project.