Posts tagged ‘Nature Conservancy’

A Vanishing Landscape

Here is a rare look at my native habitat, a micro-ecosystem that has mostly been extinguished in the heartless march of human progress.  Where was the Nature Conservancy when you needed them?

Cui Bono?

Here is something I didn't know:  Way back in the 1990's, Enron was lobbying hard for cap and trade legislation to create a lucrative new trading profit center for the company (HT Tom Nelson)

In the early 1990s Enron had helped establish the market for, and
became the major trader in, EPA's $20 billion-per-year sulphur dioxide
cap-and-trade program, the forerunner of today's proposed carbon credit
trade. This commodity exchange of emission allowances caused Enron's
stock to rapidly rise.

Then came the inevitable question, what
next? How about a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program? The problem was
that CO2 is not a pollutant, and therefore the EPA had no authority to
cap its emission. Al Gore took office in 1993 and almost immediately
became infatuated with the idea of an international environmental
regulatory regime. He led a U.S. initiative to review new projects
around the world and issue "˜credits' of so many tons of annual CO2
emission reduction. Under law a tradeable system was required, which
was exactly what Enron also wanted because they were already trading
pollutant credits.

Thence Enron vigorously lobbied Clinton and
Congress, seeking EPA regulatory authority over CO2. From 1994 to 1996,
the Enron Foundation contributed nearly $1 million dollars - $990,000 -
to the Nature Conservancy, whose Climate Change Project promotes global
warming theories. Enron philanthropists lavished almost $1.5 million on
environmental groups that support international energy controls to
"reduce" global warming. Executives at Enron worked closely with the
Clinton administration to help create a scaremongering climate science
environment because the company believed the treaty could provide it
with a monstrous financial windfall. The plan was that once the problem
was in place the solution would be trotted out.

With Enron out of the picture, the way is clear for new players to dominate this multi-billion dollar new business.  And look who is ready to take over from Enron:

The investment
vehicle headed by Al Gore has closed a new $683m fund to invest in
early-stage environmental companies and has mounted a robust defence of
green investing.

The Climate Solutions Fund will be one of the biggest in the growing market for investment funds with an environmental slant.

The fund
will be focused on equity investments in small companies in four
sectors: renewable energy; energy efficiency technologies; energy from
biofuels and biomass; and the carbon trading markets.

This is
the second fund from Generation Investment Management, chaired by the
former vice-president of the US and managed by David Blood, former head
of Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

The first, the Global Equity
Strategy Fund, has $2.2bn invested in large companies the company
judges have "sustainable" businesses, from an environmental, social and
economic viewpoint. Mr Blood said he expected that fund to be worth
$5bn within two years, based on commitments from interested investors.

Going green indeed.

Is the Global Warming Hysteria Killing Environmentalism?

Of late, I have been getting the strongest sense that the global warming hysteria is sucking all the oxygen out of the rest of the environmental movement.  Quick, what is the last environment-related article you read that didn't mention global warming?

Here is an example:  I give a lot of my charity money to groups like The Nature Conservancy, because I personally value preservation of unique areas and habitats and I don't sit around waiting for the government to do it for me.  But it has become almost impossible of late to drum up enthusiasm from contributors for such causes, unless the land can be labeled a carbon-sink or something.  In fact, the global warming hysteria has really been a disaster for private land conservation because it has caused politicians to subsidize ethanol.  This subsidy is bringing much more wild land into cultivation in this country and has been the single biggest driver for deforestation in the Amazon over the last decade. 

Or take China.  China's cities are an unhealthy mess.  But focus on global warming has led environmentalists to take the position with China they have to stop coal combustion and growth in auto-miles entirely.  This is a non-starter.  There is no WAY they are going to do this.  But it is much more achievable to start getting China focused on a Clean-Air-Act type of attack on vehicle and coal plant emissions of real pollutants like SO2.   China could be made much more healthy, as the US has done over the last 30-60 years, but instead of working with China to get healthier, the focus is on getting them to shut down their growth altogether.

The UPI published a survey of people's environmental priorities:

  1. drinking water
  2. pollution of rivers, lakes, and ecosystems
  3. smog
  4. forest preservation
  5. acid rain
  6. tropical rain forests
  7. national parks
  8. greenhouse emissions
  9. ozone layer
  10. nature around "my" home
  11. urban sprawl
  12. extinction.

I feel like #1 is overblown based on a lot of media scare stories, but most of the top 6 or 7 would all be things I would rank well above global warming fears as well.  There are still real issues to be dealt with in these areas which can have far more of a positive impact on health and quality of living than CO2 abatement, but they are being suffocated by global warming hype.

Why Is "Big Soybean" Getting A Pass?

Would an oil company get roasted for this or what:

Call it a soybean spat. The University of
Minnesota isn't going to receive any research funding from the state's
soybean growers council until the two parties have a heart-to-heart
talk next week.

The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council voted to
temporarily suspend its financial support after a study co-authored by
U researchers in the journal Science said increased use of biofuel
crops like corn and soybeans could worsen global warming, not lessen
it.

The council typically picks up the tab for $1 million to $2
million a year for research on such things as how to increase soybean
yields and how to improve marketing, said Jim Palmer, president of the
Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.

The funding relationship has gone on for decades and was good until now, both the growers and the university said.

The study, published Feb. 7 by the University of Minnesota and
the Nature Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, warned that
converting prairie or peatland to cropland for corn and soybeans would
release more carbon stored in plants and the ground as carbon dioxide,
the main greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

My dad is a University of Iowa grad and has tried for years to get them to demonstrate a higher quality of scholarship around the ethanol issue.  Good freaking luck.

An Environmental Plea

If the word "environmentalist" wasn't so corrupted, I would consider myself to be one.  For years, the main charity I have supported with my money and my advocacy has been private land trusts like The Nature Conservancy.  Just because I don't think that governments should quash individual rights to force people not to develop their own land does not mean that I don't think certain pieces of land are worth protecting from development.  But I do it the old-fashioned way -- I and others spend money to buy that land.  Here is more on why I (mostly) like  groups like the Nature Conservancy and here is a post wherein I lament the shift in charity from spending your money to achieve goals to spending money to lobby the government to force other people to achieve your goals.

Of course, my claim to be an environmentalist just because I, you know, spend my money and time on private conservation efforts would be laughed off because I take the wrong stand on certain litmus test environmental issues (e.g. global warming, of course).  In this world, someone who buys a silly and environmentally worthless $19.99 carbon offset has more environmental street-cred than I do.

So I guess it is nice, at least for once, to be in agreement with those "real" environmentalists:

The government's bid to make fuel consumption more environmentally
friendly will involve petrol and diesel being mandatory blended with
2.5pc biofuel from this April and the country's leading supermarket
chain is aiming to use twice this amount at over 300 of its petrol
stations.

But campaigners believe this is not the green alternative people think they are getting.

Jenn
Parkhouse from Norwich Friends of the Earth said: "From April, people
will have no choice but to contribute to the destruction of forests,
the eviction of small farmers and rising food prices which will mean
more hunger.

"More and more people now realise the need for a
strong movement to stop the destruction caused by the biofuel industry
and the legislation which encourages it."

The Kind of Philanthropy I Hate

I value many of the same things - open space, wilderness, wildlife - that environmental activists value.  The difference is that I do not wish to achieve my goals by force.  For years I have donated money to various environmental funds that focus on using private funds to buy land for preservation (the Nature Conservancy being the most famous of these, though it has had some problems of late).  I particularly eschewed donating to groups who used most of their funds for lobbying.  These groups are using their funds to try to buy government coercion to back whatever goals they are seeking, often including taking more money from me by force and limiting my rights to manage my own property as I see fit.  I hate that.

Which is why I am very disappointed in the recent actions of Bill Gates.  To date, Gates has dumped billions of his own money into trying to improve public schools.  I personally think that to be useless**, that the management and incentives of government monopoly schools are broken and no amount of money can fix them.  However, it was his money and God bless him for trying.

However, it appears Gates is tired of the slow progress, and is taking the great second-rater escape clause, using his money now not to fund improvement programs but to lobby the government to spend more of my money:

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in
American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into
improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they
are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort
to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

** I have written several times about the dynamics of organizations and management, but it is my belief that there comes a time when certain managements and cultures are beyond saving, and the only solution is for the market to let them fail and have their assets and people be taken in by more dynamic organizations.  I wrote about this in the most depth in the context of GM, in a post on corporate DNA and value creation:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP or the Limited faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

Unintended Consequences at Work

A reader emailed me this article about the Endangered Species Act at work:

The sharp chirps of the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and the
whine of chain saws sound discordantly in this coastal community of old
pine forests....

The woodpecker's status as an endangered species requires special
measures to try to prevent its extinction and restore its population,
wildlife officials say. That's the law. Wildlife officials gave the
town maps pinpointing woodpecker nests. No building or tree cutting is
allowed within 200 feet of a nest tree without a federal permit. Some
restrictions on development also apply to 75-acre circles around each
nest site to provide foraging area for the birds....

Since word got around this spring that owners could
face problems selling land or building houses where the birds lived,
people have been rushing to clear undeveloped lots of pine trees and
yanking the woodpecker welcome mat.

More than anywhere else in
North Carolina, Boiling Spring Lakes is a place where the coastal
development boom and the federal Endangered Species Act have collided.

"People
are just afraid a bird might fly in and make a nest and their property
is worth nothing," said Joan Kinney, mayor of Boiling Spring Lakes in
Brunswick County. "It is causing a tremendous amount of clear-cutting."...

Bonner Stiller, a state lawmaker from Brunswick County, has owned a
pair of lots as an investment here for more than 20 years. He cleared
them recently. Stiller said he was sorry to lose the trees but wanted
to protect his investment.

"You had to get in line to get
somebody with a chain saw," Stiller said. "I have not a single pine
tree left. Folks around here are terrified of the prospect of losing
their property. That causes people to get out there and find out what
they can do to protect themselves."

In the past, I have divided environmental law into two categories:  emissions law, which is not only consistent with but a must for the maintenance of a strong property rights regime; and land use law, which tends to be an affront to property rights.  You can read more on this distinction here.  This situation is a great example of why land use environmental law is such a problem.

Take a step back.  Consider that some (but by no means all) people in this country value the continued existence of the red-cockaded woodpecker.  There are several ways they might pursue this goal, which I will put in order of decreasing attractiveness:

  • They can get together, voluntarily pool their money, and seek to purchase land that might be habitat for the woodpecker and voluntarily set aside what is now their land from development.  This is the best solution, and the only one that operates without resorting to the use of force against individuals.  Oranizations like the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts work this way.
  • They can get the government to tax everybody in the country a few extra cents, flow these cents together into big dollars, and have the government buy the land (or seize it via eminent domain) and set it aside as open space or parkland.  This takes money by government force from people who don't value the woodpecker's survival, but at least it spreads the cost wide and thin.
  • They can get the government to declare that the twenty-five or thirty people who have these birds on their land can no longer do anything, from development to tree-cutting, on their land.  This option is the worst, because it lands the entire cost of the woodpecker's survival on just a few individuals, and it costs these individuals inordinately high amounts of money in the form of reduced property values  (if you can't do anything to a piece of raw land, the resale value effectively drops to zero).  I personally hold a piece of raw land for future development of a vacation or retirement home.  A substantial portion of my net worth is in this land.  If it were to be suddenly made worthless, much of my life's savings would be gone.

As an interesting note, I have ranked these options in descending order with an eye to fairness and individual rights.  However, if we instead rank these options from the perspective of the average Congressman and his/her political calculations, we actually get the reverse order!  The first option of private action is the worst from your average Congressman's point of view, because then there is nothing they can take credit for in their next election campaign.  The second option is better, but would involve a tax or deficit increase he might conceivably be dinged for.  The third is the best for our average politically-calculating Congress critter, since it results in an outcome he can take credit for with important interest groups, and the costs are almost totally hidden, and born by just a few people who don't have many votes and may not even be in his district.  Not surprisingly, this is the approach Congress has taken, via the Endangered Species Act.

There is some hope that this problem may eventually get worked out the right way, at least in Boiling Springs Lake:

The Nature Conservancy hopes to help. Since 1999, it has acquired about
6,500 acres that form a horseshoe around the center of town. The land,
much of which is wetlands, has two groups of woodpeckers. Woodpeckers
typically nest in clusters of 3 or more birds with one breeding pair
and helpers. In time, the land could support six or eight clusters as
the conservancy adds more land for a nature preserve.

More Free Market Environmentalism

My support for the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts who buy land for preservation rather than just expropriate the current holder through changed use regulations in this post garnered more comments than any of my other recent posts.  Presuming this is an indicator of interest in the topic, I point your attention to this article in the NY Times about environmentalists and grazing in southern Utah.  I no longer have much trust in the NY Times to portray such stories correctly, but from what they write, it looks like another great example of environmental activism using markets and consensual agreements rather than public coercion:

Mr. LeFevre wants the ranchers to win this range war against the lawyers and
politicians trying to restrict grazing on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon.
He fought unsuccessfully to stop the Clinton administration from declaring it
the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument because he knew the designation
would mean more regulations, more hikers and fewer cows....

But he is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an
environmentalist named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon
Trust. Mr. Hedden's group doesn't use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive
out ranchers. These environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy
it.

To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that
entitle Mr. LeFevre's cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He
figures it was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses
are reappearing, now that cows aren't eating and trampling the vegetation.

I love to see this.  The alternative Mr. LeFevre faced was steady expropriation of his grazing permits via creeping regulation and legal action:

Mr. LeFevre likes the deal because it enabled him to buy grazing permits for
higher ground that's easier for him and his cows to reach than the canyon. (He
was once almost killed there when his horse fell). He's also relieved to be on
land where hikers aren't pressuring the Bureau of Land Management to restrict
grazing, as they did for the canyon.

"I was afraid the B.L.M. would add so many restrictions that I wouldn't be
able to use the land anyway, and I'd be out the $100,000 I spent for the
permits," he said. "The B.L.M. just shuts you down. Bill said, 'Let's try to
resolve this peacefully and make you whole.' I respect that."

Ironically, this win-win environmentalism is being opposed by the Bush administration. 

The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer
simply buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law - not
wholly shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration - land currently
being used by ranchers has already been determined to be "chiefly valuable for
grazing" and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.'s "land use
planning process" deems it necessary.

But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a
piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a "land use planning
process" of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If an environmentalist
offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that's the best indication the land
is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.

I have no idea why a grazing permit can't be retired - certainly that's legal and proper with emissions permits.  I never, ever thought I would find the NY Times writing something like "why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a
piece of land", but I love it. And raspberries to the Bush Administration, who yet again are demonstrating that their lack of dedication to markets and private action.  Its time to admit that the republicans have returned to the bad old days of their 1970's support for big government crony capitalism.

The new policy may make short-term political sense for the Bush
administration by pleasing its Republican allies in Utah and lobbyists for the
ranching industry. But it's not good for individual ranchers, and it ensures
more bitter range wars in the future. If environmentalists can't spend their
money on land, they'll just spend it on lawyers.

Here is Mr. Hedden's site at the Grand Canyon Trust, which unfortunately seems to support lobbying for government coercion at least as much as market-based solutions.

Hat tip to Nature Noted, a great blog on land trusts.

Problems at the Nature Conservancy

I tend to divide up environmental regulations into two buckets:

  1. Regulations aimed at curbing emissions that spill out of one person's property (e.g by air or water) to others
  2. Regulations mainly aimed at land use restrictions that affect how someone may use their own land

The first type of law is essential to rational functioning of strong property rights in the modern world.  Otherwise, we would all be suing each other over molecules of pollution that cross our property lines.

The second category, including wetlands and open space and habitat protection, are a threat to property rights (something one could infer just from the fact that many anti-capitalist anti-technology leftists have jumped on the environmental bandwagon, mainly focusing on this second category of limitations).

Here is one of those situations that make me a true minority in this country:  I greatly value wide-open undeveloped spaces and ranges for wild animals, but I don't expect the government to provide them for me nor do I ask other citizens to provide them to me against their will.  Unfortunately, most of the other people in this country who value these things do in fact accept, and even demand, that government provide them.  Every day, landholders are told by various government bodies that they cannot do what they like with their land, because other people who do not own the land like the land the way it is.  These landholders are effectively expropriated of their land, in these cases without even the payment the New London Kelo victims received

This is why I have always supported the private land trust movement, of which the Nature Conservancy is the most well-known example.  These land trusts use private donations to buy out property owners and set aside property for various conservation purposes.  This way, the people who value the conservation of the land pay the price for it, not the person who happens to be owning the targeted land.

I was sad to see, therefore, the Nature Conservancy revealed in Senate hearings as having a number of ethical lapses.  Nature Noted, a blog dedicated to land trusts, was all over this story.  They describe the problems found as follows:

*A pattern of dealings with insiders that gave preferential treatment on land deals.

*A pattern of dealings with the companies of board members

*Selling emissions credits, including a $10 million deal with General
Motors while GM's chairman John Smith served on TNC's board.

*Selling emissions credits that it may or may not have even owned,
essentially furthering its own environmental goals (buying land) at the
expense of another environmental goal (reducing greenhouse gases)

*Allowing oil and gas drilling on one of three known habitats of the
Attwater Prairie chicken, bumbling its way through the deal so that it
ended up in court, accused of cheating one of its partners, all while
pocketing over $8 million in royalties.

The report paints a picture
of an organization that had gotten so big, and so successful, that it
lost sight of why it was formed in the first place.

There is a lot of discussion about what reforms will help prevent this problem, and a lot of discussion about eliminating the tax deduction for conservation easements:

It has become clear that some people have been abusing the law that
allows tax deductions for conservation easements. The easement
deduction allows me to sell the development rights to my property to a
land trust. I keep the property the way it is, and everyone who buys it
from me agrees to keep it that way too. If it's wilderness, it stays
wilderness. If it's a ranch, it stays a ranch. In areas with lots of
development, that can be worth a ton of money. The big question, how
much? It's a subjective appraisal, and if both parties want to unfairly
jack up the value, the hearings have shown the IRS doesn't have the
manpower to catch it. And it's led to a cottage industry in easement
tax shelters, including millions of exemptions for golf courses,
driving ranges and backyards. Phony trusts were set up not to protect
land, but to act as tax shelters for the wealthy. As the facts come
out, it's outraging critics, and depressing supporters.

In these deals, one party keeps the land while another party. like TNC, buys the "development rights" and pays the legal bills over time to defend these rights.  Personally, I have not been a big fan of conservation easements.  "Forever" is a very long time, and there are always going to be incentives to cheat -- if not in this generation, then in the next.  Also, such "conditional" property makes me nervous, somehow splitting property rights into two pieces, like a treasury strip.  I can't say I can make a firm philosophic argument against it, but it makes me uneasy. 

I would much prefer land trusts like TNC to forget about being enablers for conservation easements and get back to their original mission - buying land outright for conservation purposes.  By buying it outright, you get away from all the problems of policing private land use of the easements an organization has taken on.

I have decided to continue to donate to the Nature Conservancy.  They do a lot of cool stuff, and philosophically I much rather spend my money to have property purchased for conservation rather than to lobby Congress to force someone to conserve at the point of a gun.  I just hope TNC can get its act together so it can continue to provide a viable private alternative to government coercion.

Conservation Easments

Currently, Congress is considering scaling back on tax breaks for conservation easements.  As habitat protection and open space have become larger environmental issues, conservation easements have gone way up in use.  As with most government programs, the laws of unintended consequences have taken over, and many have found ways to get tax breaks some feel are undeserved.  Nature Noted has a long series of posts on the debate. 

I have mixed feelings on the change.  To understand this, lets take a step back and look at government environmental policy.  As I have written in the past, I think of government environmental legislation in 2 parts:

  1. Regulation of pollution and emissions that affect other people's property.  These regulations are essential to the maintenance of a system of strong private property rights.  Without them, we would all be in court every day suing each other for damage to our property or water or air on our land from neighboring lands. Of course, we can all argue about whether set limits are reasonable, and we do.
  2. Regulations of land use that effects only your own land.  This is a relatively new area of environmental law, ushered in by the Endangered Species act and various wetlands regulations.  These regulations say that even if your proposed land use doesn't create any emisions that affect anyone else, the government may still ban your land use for some other environmentally related goal (habitat, watershed, anti-sprawl, the list is endless). 

These land-use laws constitute by far the most distressing area to me in environmental law.  In the worst cases, these laws can result in what are effectively 100% takings of a person's land without any compensation. (Example:  you buy a lot on the ocean for $500,000 to build a beach house.  Before you can build it, new regulations are passed making it illegal for you to build a house on that land.  Yes, you still own the land, but it is now worthless to you since you cannot use or develop it).  Good article on this here (pdf) and a listing of Cato Institute articles on this topic here.

I have for a long time been a supporter of the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts (see Nature Noted site linked above for lots of links and info).  These trusts works to reach the goals in #2 above but with private money instead of government regulation and takings. 

Back to the issue of conservation easements.  It is becoming clear to me that while deals made by the Nature Conservancy rely on private money, they also rely on government subsidy through conservation easement tax breaks.  Their actions are not as private as I thought the were.  And therefore my mixed feelings.  I still think that their activities, even with the tax breaks, is more fair and probably much more efficient than the government takings approach.

Private Land Trusts and the Environment

I have written that many forms of environmental regulation, such as pollution limits, are not in conflict with property rights, but are in fact essential to their preservation.

However, one area where statist environmentalism and property rights do conflict is over "preservations".  Whether it be preserving species or habitat or forests or open space or wilderness or whatever, preservation is often used as an excuse for raping property owners.

Which is a shame, since there are very viable free market alternatives open to environmentalists as a substitute for state coercion.  I have supported the Nature Conservancy for years, because it (generally) works to bring together private funds to purchase lands for various preservation goals.  This organization and other sets up private land trusts, generally using private money but sometimes with a public contribution to buy out landowners.  The blog Nature Noted focused on the activities of these trusts, including this recent deal in Michigan.  This deal in particular is cool, because we run most of the public campgrounds in this area.  Thanks to the Commons for the link to this site.

Is Global Warming Advocacy Killing Science?

I worry that global warming advocacy has crossed the line from science to religion, such that data counter to the basic mantra is considered heresy rather than scientific discourse. 

In my review of Michael Crichton's new book, I said I was sympathetic to his global warming skepticism but that I thought his characters and plot were over the top and he was too heavy handed with the polemic, which hurts any action novel.  Maybe I was wrong:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

- National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider

More here from Arizona Watch.  I do disagree a bit with using the Nature Conservancy as a proxy for all environmental groups.  Though they advocate things I don't agree with, the vast majority of their funds go to actual preservation rather than political advocacy (unlike Sierra Club or others).  They are actually one of the better examples of trying to use private voluntary action rather than the government to reach some environmental goals.

I have written more on Kyoto here.  A good recent article in TCS by George Taylor talking about the panic around arctic temperatures is here.

Libertarianism, the Environment, and Kyoto: Part 1

As a libertarian and strong believer of individual rights and free markets, I often get "accosted" by folks saying that I must want the environment just to go to hell. Actually, no. Beyond my personal enjoyment of the outdoors, having "the environment go to hell" would be a disaster for my business, which depends on outdoor recreation.

This confusion about libertarianism and the environment falls in the category of what I call being pro-property-rights-and-markets and being pro-business. Many politicians, particularly traditional conservatives, who say they are the former and are in fact the latter. "Pro-business" politicians often support many things (subsidies, using eminent domain to help developers, building publicly funded stadiums) that bear little resemblance to libertarianism or truly free markets. This confusion also stems from differences in how much people trust individual action and incentives rather than command and control government programs. The Commons is a good site dedicated to market solutions to environmental issues, as is the environment section at Cato Institute. Virginia Postrel frequantly writes on the more general topic, beyond just the environment, of bottom up systems driven by individual choices vs. top down command and control.

In fact, environmental laws are as critical to a nation with strong property rights as is contract law. Why? Imagine a world without any environmental legislation but with strong property rights. What happens when the first molecule of smoke from my iron furnace or from my farm tractor crosses over on to your land. I have violated your property rights, have I not, by sending unwanted substances onto your land, into your water, or into your airspace. To stop me, you might sue me. And so might the next guy downwind, etc. We would end up in an economic gridlock with everyone slapping injunctions on each other. Since economic activity is almost impossible without impacting surrounding property owners, at least in small ways, we need a framework for setting out maximums for this impact - e.g., environmental legislation.

But I do disagree with a lot of environmentalists today. The conflict between free market supporters and environmentalists usually come in four flavors:

1. Disagreement over standards. The discussion above implies that environmental laws create a framework for setting out the maximum impact one property owner can have on others. But what is that maximum? Rational people can disagree, and do. This is a normal part of the political process and won't go away, as different people value different things. I generally don't have any problem with people who disagree with me on these standards, except perhaps for folks that want to argue for "zero" -- these people usually have anti-technology and anti-capitalism goals that go way beyond concern for the environment.

2. Disagreement over methods. Consistent with the framework I presented above, I believe that the government should as much as possible set overall emission standards, and allow individuals to make choices as to how those standards are reached. A good example of this are emissions trading schemes. Statists are uncomfortable with these approaches, and prefer to micro-manage compliance, down to the government making detailed choices about technologies used.

3. Use of One's Own Property. By the reasoning for environmental regulation above, the regulation is to limit the impact of one property owner on others. But the flip side is that property owners should be able to do whatever they damn well please with their own property if it does not affect others. Environmentalists will disagree with this vociferously. I have had literally twenty different people give me the exact same response to this: "If you let people do whatever they want, they would all trash their own land and dump toxic waste all over it". Huh? I swear I get this response constantly and it makes no sense. Why would they do this? We have no regulations that people should keep their house looking nice and shouldn't trash it, but most people keep their house up anyway. Why? Because it is in their own obvious self-interest to do so. If other people don't want you building on a piece of property or want it saved for some specific use (or non-use), then they should buy it. That's why I support the Nature Conservancy -- I personally value having some wide open pristine lands and preserving some habitats, but unlike others, I don't expect other people to pay for my wishes, usually in the form of some luckless landholder who suddenly can't use his property the way he wants. Through the Nature Conservancy, private donors who value having certain lands set aside from development pay to achieve that goal privately. This is similar to environmental groups buying up emisions credits. If all the money spent on whining about and lobbying over the Brazilian rainforest had instead been spent buying tracts of it, it would probably be a big park by now.

4. Priority of Man. This is the up and comer in the world of environmentalism. In its extreme form, proponents argue that animals have the same rights as man (though in practice it seems it is just the cute animals like dolphins and harp seals that get the attention). I don't buy it. While there is no defensible reason to allow cruelty when it can easily be avoided, taking the step to put animals on the same level as man, if followed to its logical extreme, will not bring animals up to our level (how could they?) but will knock man back down to the level of animals (see Rush song here).

In my second post on this topic, I will move on to a more specific topic, with a brief roundup on Global Warming and the Kyoto treaty.