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New in PERC Reports: The Accidental Environmentalist

by Holly Fretwell

“That is spectacular!” “Who owns this?” “Check out the wide-open space!” These were comments made this summer by participants of the PERC/Liberty Fund cosponsored colloquium on Free Market Environmentalism. The annual program offers 25 undergraduate students the opportunity to explore how property rights and markets can help improve environmental quality. To bring theory outside of the classroom and into the real world, the group spends a day exploring on-the-ground examples of free market environmentalism.

One destination for 2010 was the Granger Ranches owned by Jeff Laszlo. A native of New York, Laszlo came to manage the family ranch just a decade ago. That Laszlo became a rancher was no accident; childhood visits to the ranch pumped the desire to work the Montana range into his blood. But it was by accident that he became an environmentalist.

The 13,000-acre ranch sits in the middle of the Madison Valley amidst a one million-acre corridor that runs from the small town of Ennis, Montana, south to Yellowstone National Park. The valley is channeled by the Madison River and framed by the Madison and Gravelly mountain ranges. Most of the valley is privately owned, skirted by federal lands and an occasional state allotment. This area is famous for having the greatest ecological abundance in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Change may be at the cusp, however, as properties like the Granger face the ever increasing pressures of rising operational costs, low returns on investment, encroaching development, wildlife, and inheritance issues. These hurdles often force the sale of large land holdings that can have dire environmental consequences by disrupting the wildlife corridors that run through the valley.

Laszlo is responding to these challenges with a push for conservation and a diversification of the values his land represents. In Laszlo’s words, “Some only see value in the forage that can be raised on the land as crops or native pasture, but I now see a new set of values that include biodiversity, habitat, water quality, and open space. As these things become rarer, the value they represent will become more precious in many ways.” In this way, Laszlo sees managing the Granger Ranches as a “balancing act between consumptive practices and preserving the land for the important biological and economic values it represents.”

Yet, the very ecological abundance that makes the Madison Valley a treasured place can also present complications to livestock producers. Vast herds of elk compete for the same forage needed to raise cattle. And the number of wolves in the region now exceeds a “sustainable” population according to the original reintroduction plan. While wolves help keep the elk numbers in check, they occasionally feed on the cattle that ranchers depend on to make ends meet. Just the presence of predators like wolves can stress livestock enough to reduce weight gain, which translates into decreased cattle revenues.

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