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How Conservationists Could Have Prevented the Oregon Standoff

7 minute read
Dr. Edward M. Warner is the author of Running with Rhinos

It didn’t have to happen. One dead, eight in jail, hundreds of thousands of dollars gone to waste—and the root of the problem in Oregon, and indeed the entire West, has not been addressed. The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was a consequence of the recent history of environmental lawsuits. Rather than setting up adversarial relationships by punishing landowners, we must engage them and establish incentives for their good stewardship of the land.

I have worked in both Africa and the United States to foster public-private partnerships that save endangered species and add value for landowners. If more of these relationships were established, we could say goodbye to the rancor which brought rural landowners in eastern Oregon and Washington into bitter conflict with environmentalists and the government.

Fifteen years ago, working in Africa I discovered there were practices that could and should be exported to the United States, rather than the usual other way around. One of their primary efforts was to make wildlife pay for itself. Private land conservancies like those in Zimbabwe created an economic model which reestablished populations of “valuable”wildlife with the remarkably quick recovery of biodiversity – economically valuable or not. The approach is called “community based natural resource management.” As long as you could control the wildlife, like within a game fence, you could buy and sell live animals, hunt them for meat or trophies, or photograph them as in a photo safari business.

Returning to the United States, I soon found a use for the concepts of community, cooperation and alternative management tools. In 2003, the Institute for Wildlife Protection filed a 992 page petition to force listing of the Greater Sage Grouse with the Department of Interior under the Endangered Species Act. This ground nesting bird’s original range covered more than two hundred million acres.

The impact of the listing might have had catastrophic consequences in nine western states. Consider what happened when the Northern Spotted Owl was listed. Rural, eastern Washington and Oregon lost six billion dollars of private wealth. Many of the counties affected lost so much in tax revenues that they couldn’t fund their schools. The same thing could have happened to Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and other states if the Greater Sage Grouse had been listed.

One day in 2006, Karl Hess, Jr., of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sat down with me over coffee to create “The Cooperative Sagebrush Initiative.” We beat the doors down at energy companies, utilities, mining companies, state and federal agencies, and environmental groups and succeeded to create the largest voluntary cooperative conservation program in history. Companies like Encana USA and British Petroleum and the Bradley Fund for the Environment, put up 2 million dollars as a match for the largest “Conservation Innovation Grant” with the Dept. of Agriculture of that particular year. Our initial work was so successful that the governor of Wyoming and the Bureau of Land Management took it over after initially working to suppress it.

We established new conservation tools. Instead of lawsuits, we developed the “Ecosystem Services Model.” Suppose that ranchers are essentially grassland ecologists whose job is to grow grass. Cattle eat the grass and landowners make money off the herd which they ‘plow’ back into the health of the prairie. Why not get paid to grow sagebrush instead of grass? More sagebrush, more Sage Grouse.

We had to convince businesspeople to make this investment. So we flew them down to the Hill Country of central Texas to visit the successful Leon River Project.

This endeavor was located around Fort Hood, where the military faced a serious environmental problem. Live artillery shells were being shot into hillsides that were also the habitats of two endangered birds – the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black Capped Vireo. The alternatives were to ignore the Endangered Species Act, shut down Fort Hood in the middle of a war or do something revolutionary.

Instead of running for cover, the military joined together with environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas A&M biologists and private landowners who lived on degraded bird habitat. They established a system of competitive sealed bids where ranchers offered to restore the prairie and improve the birds’ habitat by cutting down an invasive juniper, replanting perennial grasses and developing proscribed burn districts to promote healthy fire ecology on the land. The ranchers had to put up some of the money and a time period of stewardship. The first bids were for ten percent of the proposed cash payment to be paid by the landowner with in-kind improvements over ten years. Within just three years, the landowner bids were averaging 20 per cent cash and in-kind with 20 years’ duration.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists were allowed to go on the private lands as part of the agreement. They started counting birds. Within five years they discovered that there were no less than ten times as many nesting pairs of these endangered birds than their original surveys had estimated.

The crowning success came when we discovered that this recovery plan had an unintended positive consequence. The invasive juniper (called red cedar) had prevented rainfall from re-entering the limestone aquifers. The springs had dried up a hundred years ago. Within five years the springs started flowing where the juniper had been removed and the prairie grasses were re-established. The Sand County Foundation (of which I am a Director), established a program where the water district of Dallas-Ft. Worth would pay ranchers to expand the removal of red cedar and the restoration of prairie. More and cleaner water would flow into the Trinity River to the cities, providing another unexpected ecosystem service payment to landowners.

We took this experience back north to Wyoming and other states, and today private ranchers are working with the State Game and Fish Departments along with private organizations like the Sand County Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund to support and steward greater Sage Grouse habitat. So much conservation has been done on private land, including isolated populations in northeastern California, that Sage Grouse populations are rebounding. All this has been accomplished without any restrictions imposed under the Endangered Species Act.

When the Secretary of Interior announced that the Greater Sage Grouse would never be listed, due to the great work done on private lands in public-private partnerships, the bird populations were well on the way to recovery.

Instead of buying more private land to protect wildlife habitat, let’s fund Ecosystem Services Payments. As climate changes and ecology shifts from south to north, we will have the tools to steward the land in a geographic and ecologic way. Ecosystem services payments will cost less than land acquisition and be more flexible to boot.

In the southeast, the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers of the southeast Loblolly pine forests are being given economic value; Payments to improve riparian areas along streams are giving the Greenback Cutthroat Trout of the Rockies another chance; and Black Tail Prairie Dogs of NE Wyoming are being protected by ranchers, as are lesser Prairie Chickens and Mountain Plovers in SE Colorado – all recovered on private lands. Across our nation, people from diverse walks of life are coming together to save wildlife and their habitats by valuing them in a real, economic way.

Dr. Edward M. Warner is the author of Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist, coming in March. He is Honorary Professor at Colorado State University, a Director of the Sand County Foundation and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and a Trustee of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.







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