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A Closer Look At Interior –

  • Lynn Scarlett

    Last winter PERC published its Mid-term Report Card on the Bush administration’s environmental policy. Gauging agency actions against criteria central to PERC’s vision of free market environmentalism, the Report Card gave the administration marks that ranged from fair to poor. Our performance record at Department of the Interior deserves another–and closer–look.

    PERC’s criteria–respect for property rights, enhancement of local decision making, use of market forces, and application of fees for service–lie at the foundation of many of our decisions. Secretary Gale Norton articulates a vision of “four C’s”– conservation through cooperation, communication and consultation. The language of the four C’s departs from the business school lingo of prices, contracts, and profits, but its philosophical vision builds upon principles of entrepreneurship, local action, and respect for private property. It centers on three-pronged results– healthy lands, thriving communities, and dynamic economies.

    The four C’s vision seeks to advance personal stewardship. Individuals, alone and together, on farms and in factories, in backyards and in neighborhoods, are restoring riverbank habitat, replanting native grasses, and innovating to prevent pollution. These citizen stewards predated our arrival in Washington. We are seeking to nurture their efforts through shifts in how the Department of the Interior spends money and through administrative, legal, and legislative actions.

    Consider our spending priorities. In 1998, land acquisition under the Land and Water Conservation Fund reached a peak of $900 million, falling to nearly a half billion dollars in the final budget of the Clinton administration. While we are committed to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million, our focus is away from land acquisition and toward private stewardship and cooperative conservation.

    Our proposed land acquisition budget under LWCF in fiscal year 2004 declined to around $140 million at Interior, of which $40 million was proposed as part of a legal settlement regarding an oil and gas lease. Instead of land acquisition, we proposed funds for a Landowner Incentive Program and Private Stewardship Grant program, each targeting landowner efforts to protect threatened and endangered species.

    Our Cooperative Conservation Initiative (CCI) cost-share grants and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program both provide federal land managers financial tools to join in conservation partnerships across a mosaic of land ownerships. In 2003, we issued over 250 of these CCI cost-share grants totaling around $13 million. We partnered with more than 700 individuals, organizations, tribes, and local governments who contributed $24 million in funds or in-kind efforts.

    The effect of these efforts is to help focus the nation’s attention on private stewardship and away from a long-standing presumption that conservation requires federal (or state) dominion over lands. These partnerships springing up across the nation depend upon individuals working together voluntarily across property boundaries, interests, and multiple challenges.

    What we have underway with these experiences in cooperative conservation is a discovery process–a spontaneous search for decision-making structures that foster innovation, tap local ideas and insights, and inspire private stewardship.

    • Along the Ducktrap River in Maine, for example, environmental entrepreneurs–who include farmers, conservationists, a local snowmobile association, and Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service–are engaged in a constant search for solutions tailored to the locale, using new tools to reduce erosion and restore grasses along the riverbank.
    • In Arizona, the Malpai Borderlands Group has created a grass bank that enhances prairie habitat while providing a sort of insurance to local ranchers by giving temporary respite for cattle during times of drought and fire.
    • In Alaska, scientists teamed with the fishing community, drawing on their experiential knowledge, to come up with new fishing techniques that would not jeopardize albatross.
    • Outside Pittsburgh, in Buffalo Creek, Pennsylvania, dozens of farmers engage in conservation as partners and participants as they fence off more than 100 miles of streams and riparian areas. They are planting native warm spring grasses and installing owl, wood duck, and even bat boxes.


    Accompanying this shift in spending are a number of administrative, legal, and legislative actions to advance environmental entrepreneurship; respect private property, contracts, and water rights; and strengthen local decision making.

    Among the most significant achievements is the agreement among the state of California and various irrigation districts and water districts on how to bring California’s consumption of Colorado River water within the 4.4 million acre-feet level established decades ago as part of a multistate water rights compact. The agreement emerged through delicate and lengthy negotiations centered on state water law, water contracting, and water rights. The final agreement relies upon a fundamental tool of markets–water transfers–as a key component.

    More broadly, through our proposed Water 2025 initiative, Interior is working with states, water districts, tribes, and other citizens to better meet the water needs of the West through conservation, water transfers, better collaboration among users, and new technologies. The entire approach builds upon a foundation of state water rights, existing contracts, and a competitive grant process.

    Entrepreneurship likewise plays a signal role in the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative. Decades of inadequate management of forests and rangelands, buildup of underbrush, intrusion of nonnative species, and tree densities 10 to 20 times what occurred in pre- European settlement times have created conditions that put lands at risk of catastrophic fires. The Healthy Forests Initiative proposes to use stewardship contracts through which private and nonprofit contractors can remove brush and trees that are unhealthy or too densely distributed to achieve healthy forest conditions. Under such contracts, taxpayer costs are offset by the value of the materials removed.

    Working, as the Interior Department does, at the confluence of people, land, and water, we face complex challenges, must accommodate citizens with competing goals, and operate within contexts of constrained resources. Along with challenges of water and fire have come challenges presented by burgeoning populations in the West, with more and more folks seeking recreation opportunities on public lands. In the 1990s, Congress provided the Interior Department with recreation fee demonstration authority, allowing our land management bureaus to charge recreation fees and retain most of the revenues on site to invest in visitor-serving infrastructure and activities.

    Over recent years, these fees have brought to the land management agencies some $170 million annually that has been reinvested in national parks, wildlife refuges, forests, and publicly managed rangelands to enhance recreation services. This demonstration fee authority is nearing the end of several extensions. Interior has testified repeatedly on the importance of permanently authorizing the program. In doing so, we have also highlighted innovative relationships with local governments in which Interior has partnered with them to collect fees and manage recreation sites. Entrepreneurship and enhancement of local decision making lie at the heart of these recreation fee programs.

    Conservation banking, greater protections for those participating in endangered species conservation agreements, guidance on implementing the National Environmental Policy Act in ways that promote local engagement in decisions– these administrative tools all reflect a commitment to entrepreneurship, respect for private property, and enhanced local decision making.

    At a recent conference here in Washington, one fellow participant –an influential member of the previous administration– stated that the test of commitment to an environmental ethic is how much punishment one is willing to mete out. This statement is a reflection of an “old environmentalism” that turned to Washington for answers, focusing on top-down prescriptions, paperwork, and process, and tended to view the “stick”–fees, fines, and punishment –as the primary tools with which to achieve environmental results.

    Our compass is different. We know that cooperation, innovation, and entrepreneurship–in the workplace, on the lands, in our forests–form a powerful foundation from which to advance healthy lands, thriving communities, and dynamic economies.

    Lynn Scarlett is Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget in the U. S. Department of the Interior. She was formerly president of the Reason Foundation. With Jane S. Shaw, she wrote “Environmental Progress: What Every Business Executive Should Know,” PERC Policy Series, PS-15.

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