Monday, January 19, 2004

The Nature Con...servancy

These two articles spell bad news for free-market environmentalists. For many years, I had considered the Nature Conservancy a fine example of how environmental goals could be sought by private means rather than government coercion. Unfortunately, it turns out the Conservancy is most likely guilty of various forms of malfeasance and unethical behavior. It also turns out, according to this report, that the Conservancy wasn’t that market-friendly, either: it received much government funding, and it frequently sold properties to the government despite the express wishes of those who sold or donated them to the Conservancy in the first place.

Of course, it’s good news that a seemingly corrupt and (as it turns out) anti-market organization will likely be brought to justice. But it’s bad news that what appeared to be a noble organization is not so noble after all.

Moreover, some of the organization’s laudable practices may be tarred with the same brush as its unsavory ones. For instance, both articles imply that it’s somehow unethical for the Conservancy to have engaged in “conservation buyer” sales and to have allowed for some development and resource extraction on its preserves.
[Earlier Washington Post] stories also reported that the Conservancy had repeatedly bought land, added some development restrictions, then resold the properties at reduced prices to its trustees and other supporters. The buyers made cash gifts to the Conservancy roughly equal to the difference in price, thereby qualifying for substantial tax deductions. [excerpt from first linked article above]

[The Nature Conservancy has now] [s]uspended all new logging and other "resource extraction activities" on its nature preserves. The Post articles detailed how in Texas City, Tex., the organization had drilled for oil and natural gas under the last native breeding ground of a highly endangered species of grouse known as the Attwater's prairie chicken. The suspension will not stop natural gas production on the Texas preserve, a spokesman said. [excerpt from second linked article above]
Although the sale of properties to the organization’s own trustees undoubtedly smells corrupt, there is nothing inherently wrong with the general approach described here The notion that land must remain pristine in order to achieve environmental goals is a myth perpetuated by other environmental groups. In reality, it’s possible to use land for various purposes with only negligible harm to the environment, as long as suitable development restrictions are in place. Even better, the proceeds from resource extractions can generate funds which can be used to preserve yet more sensitive properties from development. This strategy, which is both economically sensible and environmentally sound, may suffer unjustly as a result of the Nature Conservancy’s unethical actions. (Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.)

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