What in the world is a ZEC?

Written by Dylan Brewer, PERC Summer Intern

Québec’s zones d'exploitation contrôlée (ZECs) are one of the best kept secrets of conservation. Created in 1978 with the Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune’s (MRNF) launch of “Opération gestion faune,” ZECs are non-profit organizations in charge of managing wildlife resources. Each zone is headed by supervisors elected by paying members. In 1991, Terry Anderson and Donald Leal’s book Free Market Environmentalism looked at ZECs, praising their pricing system as “instrumental in maintaining high quality recreation.” Today, as the program nears its 35th year, ZECs are thriving and now serve more than 250,000 visitors per year.

When ZECs were started in 1978, each zone was charged with managing hunting and fishing within a certain domain. Prior to ZECs, public lands were managed by private clubs. The main criticism of the club system was that it was too restrictive on community involvement -- many of the clubs were controlled by non-Canadians and non-residents, and poaching was widespread. The ZEC program began with the instrumental requirement that each ZEC obtain the necessary resources to cover their costs. Because the ZECs must be self-sustaining, there is an incentive to charge a reasonable and profitable price to users. Further, managers are incentivized to protect the flora and fauna of the area as a future revenue stream.

In 1982, the Fédération Québécoise des Gestionnaires de Zecs (FQGZ) was created to represent the ZECs before Québec’s provincial government. With this structure in place, the program grew without major change until 1999 when the FQGZ proposed to the MRNF that ZECs be given the opportunity to manage recreation beyond fishing and hunting. Following the MRNF’s approval of the proposal, activities offered by ZECs have expanded to include camping, hiking, and other activities. This expansion can be attributed to the requirement that ZECs generate their own funds. Recognizing demand for new goods, managers are able to change their business model rather than remain “frozen in time” like other government programs.

Over the course of 35 years, ZECs have been able to both make a profit as well as preserve wildlife. The question now is how to implement this system outside of Québec. While ZECs do not rely heavily on cultural norms unique to Quebec, the Québécios have had a history of paying to access recreational land. In the United States, new fees would be a barrier to the program at the local level, but giving locals the ultimate control of pricing and services may sidestep the problem.