Environmental Luddites

Published: 
Sunday, April 1, 2012

Entrepreneurs are my heroes because of their optimism. Instead of seeing problems, they see opportunities. In the case of the environment, entrepreneurs—enviropreneurs—give us cause to celebrate the future of our planet by finding ways that work. Lest we celebrate too soon, however, beware of environmental Luddites who can thwart even the best enviropreneurs. Like their 19th-century counterparts who opposed industrialization by destroying machines, they see solutions as problems.

To understand the negative effect of environmental Luddites, consider the recent story on CBS’s 60 Minutes showing the proliferation of exotic and, in some cases, endangered African wildlife on Texas ranches. Some Texas ranchers have switched from using their land, water, and capital for cattle to using it for wildlife. As a result, Texas now has more than a quarter-million exotic species, of which three—the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, and the Dama gazelle—have been brought back from the brink of extinction.

Early on, ranchers made the switch because they liked having the wildlife around, but if wildlife ranching was to be sustainable, ranchers had to find a way to make it profitable. They have done so by marketing hunts which can costs as much as $50,000 for scarce species such as the Cape buffalo. Though they are called “wildlife ranches,” hunting is not like “shooting fish in a barrel.” The bush is thick and the ranches large enough so that not every hunter goes home with the trophy he or she is after.

A similar business model is at work in Africa where landowners who could barely eke out a living with livestock grazing are sustaining wild game populations on their land for a profit. They market the wildlife to hunters, to photo safaris, and to other ranchers wanting wild stock for their land. As Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes points out in “Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story” (PERC Case Study), “Strong property rights and market incentives have provided a successful model for rhino conservation, despite the negative impact of command-and-control approaches that rely on regulations and bans that restrict wildlife use.”

Who could be opposed to environmental entrepreneurship, which has successfully propagated endangered species, even if a few animals are hunted so that the populations will be sustained? The answer: environmental Luddites. As CBS told the upbeat story of how Texas ranchers have saved species, Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, decried hunting and condemned having African animals on U.S. soil. Despite the fact that the scimitar-horned oryx went extinct in Africa, Ms. Feral believes the species found on Texas ranches should only live on African reserves which are neither natural (many of them are also fenced) nor sustainable.

Unfortunately, the environmental Luddites often win at the expense of enviropreneurs and the environment by using politics and governmental tal regulations. For years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lauded Texas ranchers for their conservation efforts, saying that “[h]unting . . . provides an economic incentive for . . . ranchers to continue to breed these species” and that “hunting . . . reduces the threat of the species’ extinction.”

Now, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must require hunters to obtain a permit to hunt three endangered antelope species. Although the Service recognizes that these animals are thriving because of hunting, it must wrap the ranchers in red tape because environmental Luddites led by Feral won a procedural law suit using the Endangered Species Act, which requires such permitting. Everyone agrees that obtaining permits will be virtually impossible. As a result, Charly Seale, a fourth generation rancher and the executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, speculates that there will be half as many of these species in five years and that there will be none in ten years.

A similar result occurred in Montana when the Bitterroot River Protective Association won a court case opening access to a privately created fishing stream. In this case a few wealthy landowners had spent millions of dollars converting an irrigation ditch into trout habitat (see “On Target,” PERC Reports, Spring 2009). When the court forced the landowners to open access to everyone for fishing and hunting on the “unnatural” stream, their response was to shut off the water to the ditch except for when it was needed for irrigation. In the name of protecting the stream, the environmental Luddites in this case have left dry gravel where trout used to thrive.

If enviropreneurs are thwarted at every turn by environmental Luddites, we all have reason to be pessimistic about our environmental future. Instead of being able to celebrate the environmental fruits of human ingenuity, we will have to watch wildlife and its habitat suffer. In this season of politics, let us hope that some political entrepreneurs emerge who are willing to support free enterprise by unshackling entrepreneurs from the red tape of governmental regulation, not just for the sake of the economy, but for the sake of nature, too.

In “On Target,” PERC’s executive director Terry L. Anderson confronts issues surrounding free market environmentalism. He can be reached at perc@perc.org.

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Terry Anderson is the William A. Dunn Distinguished Senior Fellow and former President and Executive Director of PERC as well as the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He believes that market approaches can be both economically sound and environmentally sensitive. His research helped launch the...
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