Soaring High

Clear thinking and strategic environmental giving are making America more beautiful

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Philanthropy Magazine
January/February 2004

By Thomas J. Bray

The environmental movement has blossomed into one of the most powerful political, social, and economic forces of our time. As a result, environmental philanthropy had burgeoned to an estimated $3.5 billion a year by the late 1990s. More than 4,000 nonprofit environmental groups, ranging from the well-known Sierra Club to the relatively obscure Appalachian Mountain Club, pursue agendas ranging from saving the black rhino in Africa to dam removal in the American West.

Of course, although much progress has been made in cleaning up the air, water, and soil, much remains to be done. Thoughtful observers agree that the chief environmental strategies of the last 30 years or so—government regulation and large set-asides of public land—are growing less and less relevant. The next generation of environmentalism will require new approaches that could prove more effective, efficient, and long-lasting. A classic role for philanthropy is to help test and implement these new approaches. Much experimentation already is taking place at the grassroots level.

At the heart of the new thinking is the understanding that man is here to stay, that technology is the friend and not the enemy of the environment, and that freedom is an indispensable condition for reconciling human endeavor and Mother Nature. The new thinking also embraces an optimistic, can-do outlook, as opposed to the pessimism that seems to have enveloped much of the modern environmental movement in recent decades.

The best way to grasp the possibilities of the new environmental philanthropy is to explore some examples of how the new thinking is already getting results.

SAND COUNTY FOUNDATION

Aldo Leopold was a twentieth-century environmental icon. The ex-Forest Service employee's book A Sand County Almanac, a best-selling collection of essays penned over 40 years, is often cited as the most important contribution to environmental thought since Henry David Thoreau's Walden a century earlier.

Much of A Sand County Almanac was inspired by what Leopold experienced near his “shack” on 120 acres of played-out land on the Wisconsin River floodplain. Leopold purchased the property in 1935 after appointment as the nation's first professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. (A good deal of Leopold's essential research on game management, intended mainly for the use of private landowners, was funded through the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute at the specific request of leading philanthropist John Olin.) Leopold saw this as both a personal refuge and a place to try out some of his ideas about land management and wildlife.

At the center of those evolving ideas was Leopold's development of a “land ethic” that would motivate property owners to respect the importance of the environment, beginning with husbandry of their own land. Given government's limited resources and questionable managerial abilities, environmental protection would necessarily depend on “a conviction of individual responsibility to the land,” as Leopold put it.

A Sand County Almanac was published after Leopold's death in 1948. Beginning in 1965, Reed Coleman and Howard Mead—two men with land adjacent to Leopold's tract—formed what became the Sand County Foundation to conserve the integrity of private lands around Leopold's shack. The initial intent was to create and operate a living tribute to Leopold's legacy by private means. But at the urging of the foundation's chairman Reed Coleman, whose father had been a longtime friend and supporter of Leopold's, the group agreed to broaden Leopold's habitat work and extend its influence well beyond the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River.

Today the foundation uses a “voluntary reserve agreement” with neighboring landowners to coordinate the essential management of, and encourage scientific research on, the 1,800 acres of the Leopold Memorial Reserve and surrounding areas. The foundation has the right of first refusal to acquire neighboring private tracts if owners wish to sell outside of their family.

The Leopold Reserve has become a center of intensive research into such issues as control of non-native weedy plants, propagation of native wildflowers and grasses, prescribed burns and selective tree removal to encourage the oak savanna, and using natural flooding to improve water quality along the nearby Wisconsin River. Because the Leopold Memorial Reserve is being severely damaged by too many white-tailed deer, the foundation has developed an incentive approach to encourage better hunting. Through the “Quality Hunting Ecology” program, landowners provide hunters with incentives to kill does to reduce density and improve herd quality.

Sandhill cranes, otters, an occasional black bear, and bald eagles use the private lands of the reserve. A timber wolf was recently detected nearby. “They didn't exist around here in Leopold's time,” notes Brent Haglund, the foundation's president. He adds, “A lot of ecologists see public land as the laboratory for working with the environment, but in a country where 60 percent of the land is still privately owned, we think they're missing an important bet.”

With the backing of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has established a philanthropic partnership with Sand County Foundation rather than go to the time and expense of setting up its own environmental program, Sand County Foundation operates the Bradley Fund for the Environment. The Bradley Fund in turn launched the Leopold Stewardship Fund last year to provide tangible incentives to private landowners across the country who protect habitat for imperiled species ranging from the Karner blue butterfly to the ocelot.

The New York-based nonprofit Environmental Defense (formerly known as the Environmental Defense Fund) is a partner in the Leopold Stewardship Fund. Environmental Defense is perhaps best known for launching lawsuits on environmental issues, and it strongly favors government action in many areas, but it has come to agree that property rights and market mechanisms can often be effective tools for improving things. The “safe harbor” concept, developed by Michael Bean of Environmental Defense, is an effort to create confidence among private landowners that the Endangered Species Act will not unduly impinge on use of their land. Safe harbors are agreements under which landowners who provide a certain level of habitat for endangered species will be left free to manage the rest of their land as they see fit, even if more endangered species move in. “While regulation is important, it's not great at inspiring people to do the right thing,” says Environmental Defense's Fred Krupp. “Besides, government can't afford to buy enough land to knit together an ecosystem. We think we are at the beginning of a whole new approach to conservation.”

PEREGRINE FUND

From the Boise airport, one can make out a cluster of buildings on a bluff several miles to the south. They constitute the World Center for Birds of Prey operated by The Peregrine Fund, founded in 1970 by ornithologist Tom Cade at Cornell University. The Peregrine Fund was a direct response to the issue raised eight years earlier by environmental icon Rachel Carson in her best-selling book Silent Spring.

Carson's book crystallized public fears about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals. Though Carson may have overstated the threat, legislation to regulate chemical use and protect endangered species quickly followed, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created by President Nixon in 1970.

Passing laws was one thing, however. Actually restoring endangered species proved far tougher. A government effort to restore the peregrine falcon, which had been all but wiped out in the East and whose nationwide population was estimated at only 39 nesting pairs in 1970, was a flop. Enter Tom Cade, a young scholar who had written his doctoral dissertation on the peregrine, which cruises at up to 80 miles an hour and dives on its prey at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour (enduring up to 9 Gs's in the process). When Cornell offered him a job on its famed ornithological faculty, he agreed—on condition that Cornell provide him with the lab facilities needed to test some of his own ideas about restoring the peregrine.

Cornell obliged, pledging $125,000 from an IBM grant. After some early publicity, other money began pouring in, much of it from individuals who, like Cade, had taken up the sport of falconry. Cade was convinced that trying to breed adult birds, as the government had tried to do, just wouldn't work. “Anybody who has been around falcons very much knows they are very nervous birds,” says Cade. “We decided to raise birds from hatchlings and then breed them in surroundings to which they were already accustomed.”

The strategy worked. And by switching the eggs from their mothers to artificial incubators, which stimulates the birds to mate again, egg production was sharply increased. Within a few years the Cornell group was releasing scores of young birds into the wild, and that led to a whole new round of experimentation. Volunteers were enlisted to monitor nests and surreptitiously provide food while juveniles learned to hunt on their own.

Losses to other predators such as golden eagles and great horned owls were initially discouraging. But Cade and his colleagues quickly figured out that one of the best “environments” in which to release the peregrines was downtown areas of major cities. Skyscrapers, bridges, and other tall structures make ideal roosting places, mimicking the cliffside nesting places of falcons, while large populations of pigeons provided easy meals. By the late 1990s more than 4,000 peregrines had been released to the wild, where they appear to be thriving.

As a result of the efforts of the Peregrine Fund and affiliated groups, the peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species roster in 1999, one of only a handful of creatures ever to make it off the list. Bill Burnham, who has succeeded Cade as president of the Peregrine Fund, attributes the success to “a highly focused objective and highly motivated people. For us, extinction wasn't an option. The government research was good, but government isn't well-suited for endangered species work. For them it was more of a 9-to-5 job.”

The Peregrine Fund consolidated its rapidly growing operations in Boise in 1984 and has since grown to an organization of 70 full-time staffers with an annual budget of about $5 million. An endowment, much of it provided by a board that includes Lee Bass, Roy Disney, and Julie Wrigley, pays all administrative costs, allowing the fund to spend 100 percent of the money it raises on conservation. In addition to continuing work on the peregrine, the fund is working to restore the California Condor to the Grand Canyon, the Aplomado Falcon to the Southwest, and the Harpy Eagle to Central America, among other projects.

OREGON WATER TRUST

In the West, water has long been a fighting issue—literally, as the country was reminded by the donnybrook in Oregon's Klamath River basin in 2001, when armed ranchers tried to prevent federal agents from shutting off irrigation sluices in order to maintain water flows in the Klamath River during a time of severe drought.

Western water law revolves around the doctrine of First in Use, First in Right. That is, the first settler along a river who used its waters beneficially earned the right to use as much of the water as he needed. In times of low water, later settlers would have to give way to those holding senior rights. Conversely, those who failed to use their water for beneficial purposes—usually defined as farming or ranching—risked having their water rights reassigned. “Use it or lose it” became the operating rule throughout the West.

All of this gave ranchers, farmers, and others little incentive to conserve water. The problem was compounded by the tendency of state agencies to authorize more withdrawals of river water than could be reasonably guaranteed. And because leaving the water in the stream was not usually defined as a beneficial use, there was no way for fishermen, hunters, and environmentalists to augment stream flows.

As demand for water from the recreation industry and environmental groups has grown, however, things have begun to change. Oregon led the way in 1987. Recreation and environmental interests persuaded the legislature to reform the state's water laws to define instream flows as a beneficial use. This would allow, say, fishermen to buy a water right and leave the water in the river. In 1993, an organization known as the Oregon Water Trust (OWT) became the first to facilitate the transfer of water rights for the purpose of maintaining instream flows.

OWT, founded with private backing from the Northwest Area Foundation, now operates in six of Oregon's major watersheds. (It backed away from the volatile Klamath River situation, says executive director Fritz Paulus, because historic water rights had never been clearly adjudicated in that area and the politics had grown too heated.) The founder of OWT, Andrew Purkey, has since gone on to head a project by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to encourage similar ventures in the West funded largely by the Bonneville Power Administration, which is under pressure to improve salmon migration in the Columbia River system.

“We've done a pretty good job of showing farmers that the benefits they get from leaving water in the stream can be higher than using it on marginal land,” says OWT's Paulus. In 2002 alone, OWT completed more than 80 projects, adding to flows in 59 streams, many of them funded by individuals, foundations, and recreation interests, such as the Orvis Company. Paulus cites one example to illustrate the flexibility of a market approach to water problems: A Rogue River rancher receives a lease payment, worth more than the value of a second cutting of hay, to leave water in the stream in the low-water months of late summer.

Washington, Idaho, and Montana now have water trusts, and other states are working to reform their water laws so that similar ventures can be formed. The market approach, it's hoped, will reduce tensions and produce practical solutions to the problem of water supply in America's “arid regions.”

MONTANA LAND RELIANCE

Water trusts, of course, are a variation of the hugely successful land trust movement. There are an estimated 1,200 land trusts across the country, up from almost zero a half-century ago, before tax rulings made donations of land for conservation purposes tax deductible. Indeed, the Nature Conservancy, which says its mission is to protect “the last great places,” is the biggest single environmental organization in existence, with assets approaching $3 billion and annual revenue of more than $900 million.

An example of a particularly effective land trust is the Montana Land Reliance, formed in 1978 by Barbara Rusmore and Christine Torgrimson who worried that development pressures were beginning to change the face of the lovely Bitterroot Valley in southwestern Montana. Initial funding came from the John Hay Whitney Foundation, but Montana Land Reliance has since established a wide donor base and become the biggest state-based land trust in the country, accumulating 515 easements on 500,000 acres of property through donations and purchases.

Because easements, which legally restrict development on a parcel of land, can often reduce the property's market value, the seller can claim federal (and sometimes state) tax deductions equal to the value of the charitable contribution. In order to qualify, however, the easements must be perpetual under federal tax rules (and states must authorize such perpetuities). In return, the owners typically agree to restrict development, maintain habitat, and allow the trust to monitor for compliance.

“The tax deduction is important,” says Montana Land Reliance managing director Bill Long, “but the common thread in our land trusts is the desire on the part of the landowners to make sure that what they have created stays intact. It's also a ‘neighborhood thing.' They don't want to be the ones who busted up the neighborhood by selling out to a developer.”

Some of the largest land trusts, such as the Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Lands, often quickly sell the land they acquire to government and then use the proceeds to buy up more land or purchase easements. In essence, they are acting as agents for the government, which may lack the funds to acquire the land when it comes on the market. Montana Land Reliance, however, focuses exclusively on keeping the land in private hands. “We believe private landowners make the best decisions for their land, given the right incentives,” says Long. And, he notes, landowners tend to have a high degree of mistrust about what government might do to the “neighborhood,” and that distrust discourages owners from protecting some of the best land.

A classic example is a deal that the Reliance is working on to stitch together easements on private land that historically has provided an important corridor for elk, deer, and bear through the Madison River Valley between Yellowstone National Park and the Spanish Peaks in the Gallatin Range.

“We're already starting to see elk moving out of Yellowstone Park,” says Long. It's a sign that the privately protected habitat will support large animals—and the predators who cull their herds. The wolves that have been reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park are beginning to move into surrounding areas, a prospect that once raised ranchers' hackles because of the wolves' habit of feeding on sheep and calves. But tempers were calmed when Defenders of Wildlife, another environmental organization, came forward with a private fund to compensate farmers for any losses.

Montana Land Reliance maintains a staff of experienced experts to work with ranchers who want to improve habitat. “As a result, compliance is rarely a problem,” says Long. “And as other ranchers see they can trust us, they come to us asking about easements on their own property. It's a myth that ranchers don't care about wildlife. They love it.”

RUFFED GROUSE SOCIETY

Scott Galloway is an Akron photographer with a passion for hunting ruffed grouse. During the last decade he has managed to accumulate 210 acres of worked-over land in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio that he has been steadily transforming into prime wildlife habitat.

Galloway knew little about habitat restoration when he started the project, but he belongs to the 24,000-member Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS). Based in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, the RGS is one of scores of sportsmen's organizations that offer support for habitat restoration and wildlife protection. With guidance from RGS field biologists who are paid through charitable contributions, Galloway has gradually nurtured his property back to health. And through selective timbering, he has helped pay for the project while creating the “edge” areas preferred by grouse and other wildlife native to the area. Galloway was named Ohio Tree Farmer of the Year in 2003.

“Long-term timber production and good wildlife habitat can be synonymous,” he points out. Each year now, Galloway himself holds “field days,” sponsored by the Ruffed Grouse Society, on his reclaimed land to show others how to do it themselves. “We had 50 people this year,” he says proudly, “and it just made my day that some Audubon Society members came up to me later and said that although they had been skeptical, they were ‘in a different place' now.”

Organizations like the Ruffed Grouse Society are frequently derided as part of the “hook and bullet” crowd by environmental purists. But sportsmen once formed the vanguard of conservationism, going back to the nineteenth century, and they still get results.

The National Wild Turkey Federation, for example, has brought the American turkey back from the brink of extinction through a decades-long program of transplanting turkeys from areas where they still exist to their historic areas—and then working with farmers, hunters, and others to maintain them. The federation, based in Edgefield, South Carolina, estimates that turkey populations now total 5.6 million birds, compared to a mere 30,000 in the early 1900s—even as turkey hunting has soared in popularity. The federation boasts 450,000 members, up from 73,000 three decades ago.

This underlines an important point: as scarcity drives up the cost of environmental amenities, individuals will usually find a way to capitalize on the opportunity—assuming their efforts aren't crowded out by government programs and regulations.

One of the most famous examples of private conservation is Hawk Mountain in the eastern Appalachians of Pennsylvania. The mountain, really one of a series of ridges whose thermal currents funnel migrating birds north and south, was long a favorite spot for gun owners seeking cheap thrills by gunning down the passing hawks and other raptors. (The state government encouraged the slaughter by paying a bounty for each hawk downed on the theory that hawks posed a threat to chicken farmers.) A New York philanthropist, Rosalie Edge, at first pressed the Audubon Society, which already had an extensive network of wildlife sanctuaries, to take action. When she was rebuffed, she simply bought the mountain herself in 1934 (for $3,500 down) and placed it off limits to hunters. Today it's a self-supporting sanctuary that is hugely popular with bird watchers. A businessman recently donated $1 million for a new research facility that includes one of the world's most important raptor databases.

“A lot of visitors assume we're some sort of national park,” says Nancy Keeler, development director of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. “In fact, we're a sterling example of how a private organization can be open to the public.

PERC and CEI

Some of the most innovative thinking behind the next generation of environmentalism has been done at two relatively small think tanks: The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), based in Bozeman, Montana (full disclosure: the author currently serves as the unpaid chairman of PERC's board of directors); and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in Washington, D.C.

As a Washington Post profile of PERC executive director Terry Anderson noted in 2001, organizations like PERC once “operated on the fringes” of the environmental policy debate. PERC is a center of what has come to be called free-market environmentalism. The environmental establishment had long dismissed this term as oxymoronic. But, concluded the Post reporter, “two decades after the first Reagan administration, they are in the vanguard of a land management movement that is gaining acceptance in the West and is being used as a model by Bush administration officials looking for ways to shift power and regulatory responsibilities back to the states.”

In cases where property rights can be clearly defined, PERC believes, incentives for acting responsibly towards the environment can be greatly improved. In cases where government ownership is deemed necessary, greater efforts should be made to align managerial incentives with environmental goals.

PERC's Terry Anderson, an economist who studied under Nobel Prize winner Douglass North, built his reputation in part on work involving water markets. His theoretical work helped pave the way for the water rights reforms that have allowed Oregon Water Trust and others to devise practical solutions to a seemingly intractable problem. PERC also was an early advocate of a “fee demonstration program,” authorized by Congress in 1996 in response to revelations that national parks were faced with billions of dollars in deferred maintenance. The program allows National Park System managers to set entrance charges at a level more commensurate with maintenance needs—and then to spend the money as they see fit, rather than sending it to Washington for the politicians to spend according to their political priorities.

Anderson, who teaches a business school course on “Environmental Entrepreneurship” at Stanford University where he is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is also working on ideas for improved accounting systems that would encourage corporate executives to pay more attention to their natural resource assets. It has become faddish in corporate America to tout pollution-reduction efforts. But many executives, Anderson argues, haven't quite caught up with the fact that there is real money to be made from the rising value of environmental amenities; for example, by selling hunting rights on well-managed timberland.

PERC accepts no government money for its work and receives little corporate funding. It depends mainly on foundations and individuals for its $2.3 million annual budget. Its priorities include reform of schools' environmental curricula, which often consist more of crude indoctrination than serious study of an extremely complex subject; an annual conference for journalists to alert them to interesting new ideas in the environmental arena; and a month-long environmental leadership program, financed by a grant from the Kinship Foundation, for mid-career professionals working on specific environmental projects.

CEI is headed by Fred Smith, a voluble, energetic former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staffer who later came to question the value of much government regulation. When it comes to the environment, Smith argues, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century interrupted an emerging ethic of private conservation. Progressives cited evidence of “market failure” says Smith, but reckoned without the reality of “government failure”; for example, a Superfund clean-up effort that has proven absurdly expensive and ineffective. CEI has become an often-quoted watchdog on government regulation.

One of CEI's more intriguing ventures was the creation of a Center for Private Conservation, headed by R. J. Smith (no relation to Fred Smith), a former member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Ronald Reagan. The center has since been spun off as an independent entity and is attempting to raise money for a research and outreach program that would publicize examples of how private action—ranging from the creation of wetlands on a Sonoma County vineyard to salmon conservation in Scotland—can lead to favorable environmental outcomes.

Smith is enthusiastic about finding ways to keep as much land as possible in private hands. He urges eliminating or sharply reducing inheritance taxes, which often force landowners to break up their properties for development. “It's something a lot of environmentalists don't like to talk about because of the fear of offending their friends on the left,” he notes.

THE ULTIMATE RESOURCE

The new wave of environmentalists stress that America's tradition of democratic capitalism, far from being the enemy of the environment, is a highly practical system for dealing with complex environmental issues. Natural resources may be finite, but as the late economist Julian Simon pointed out, human ingenuity is the “ultimate resource.” Freedom and properly structured incentives help to unleash the creativity and energy needed to improve environmental quality in the long run. Democratic capitalism also is the best means known for creating wealth, and recent scholarship has clearly shown that rising wealth correlates closely with the desire for environmental progress—and with the economic capacity required to clean up polluted areas, set land aside as protected wilderness, and so on.

In short, there is plenty of room for serious philanthropists with open minds who want to help the environment. The need for grants that help produce a more balanced approach to the environment (and to the science needed to manage it well, though that's a subject for another day) are almost endless. But ask PERC's Terry Anderson what advice he would give an environmental philanthropist, and he responds: “First, look for organizations that understand the importance of property rights. Second, make sure they have a clear understanding of what it is they're trying to do. The most efficient land trusts don't just want to conserve land, for example, but to conserve habitat for a specific purpose.”

That kind of clear thinking, combined with hope and strategic giving, is already making America more beautiful.

Thomas J. Bray (brayt@comcast.net) is a columnist for the Detroit News who writes frequently on environmental issues.

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Thomas J. Bray (brayt@comcast.net) is a columnist for the Detroit News who writes frequently on environmental issues.
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