Why Don’t Environmentalists Just Buy the Land They Want To Protect? Because It’s Against the Rules

WEG worked to retire a permit for 50 cows on the 8,454-acre Alamocita allotment.

This is a thoughtful piece by Shawn Reagan of PERC in Bozeman, Montana about some of the same NGO’s we see litigating on federal lands trying approaches of buying and retiring leases to stop activities they don’t like, say grazing or oil and gas. As he says, in many places environmental groups feel that they can’t just buy land (as the example yesterday) because the land of interest is owned by the feds or state.  He has examples from grazing, oil and gas and timber, so it’s too long for me to excerpt meaningfully. I’d recommend reading the whole thing. He also has a more in-depth journal article with a co-author, Bryan Leonard of Arizona State University in the Natural Resources Journal.

Disputes between environmental activists and developers often have a predictable result: litigation. Environmental activists have perfected a zero-sum game of suing, suing, and then suing some more to halt development projects or other land-use activities they don’t like. An alphabet soup of environmental laws—from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA)—gives groups ample opportunities to stall projects with legal challenges or to thwart them entirely.

But increasingly, environmentalists are testing the strategy of bidding for the rights to natural resources instead. In recent years, activists have attempted to acquire oil and gas rights in Utah, buy out ranchers’ public grazing permits in New Mexico, purchase hunting tags in Wyoming to stop grizzly bears from being killed, and bid against logging companies in Montana to keep trees standing.

“It’s a market-based approach,” says Judi Brawer of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group that has negotiated several grazing permit buyouts from ranchers in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. “And it’s way more effective at the end of the day.”

Environmentalists paying to protect landscapes isn’t itself new. Nonprofit organizations such as the Nature Conservancy do it all the time, raising millions of dollars in donations to buy land or easements to protect important landscapes from development. But the extent of these voluntary market-based exchanges is often limited to private lands. On federal and state property—which makes up most of the land in the American West—such deals are much more complicated, if not outright prohibited.

I’ll share some of my own perspectives on the topic:

1)  The oil and gas industry hires working-class (as well as other) people and pays them good wages, which leads to other purchases and taxes and so on, plus federal money goes to states which they use for education, etc.  So for the people, the county and the state, it’s not just the cost of the lease itself.  Example from this article: “The check, for $486,000,000, represents the portion the state receives from federal oil and gas lease sales. In total, the New Mexico has received revenues exceeding $1 billion in 2018 from BLM’s mandated quarterly lease sales.”  On the other hand, environmental groups might not pick the leases most likely to be developed, because of the cost.

2) This is a bit philosophical, but as Shawn points out, the original laws regarding federal land were to promote use of the land.  Are we that rich a country that we don’t need to use our own natural resources anymore? Would we feel the same way about buying out a ski area lease, or a wind or solar farm lease? It is a good thing to depend on international trade and the good will of other countries to provide energy and shelter? If we use things and don’t produce them ourselves, are we in effect exporting environmental damage to other countries, and is that the right thing to do? Do we trust those other countries or are there national security implications of not producing them here? Perhaps importing wood from Canada yes, perhaps oil from OPEC, no.

3) We could change from however flawed (as we at The Smokey Wire are very aware) planning decisions made by federal employees, with the input of the public, to planning decisions made by boards of some not-for-profit.  Some not-for-profits are sometimes funded by rich people from elsewhere (though again, not always).  Nevertheless, it’s clearly less transparent and less open to public opinion than the flawed federal decision-making process. Of course, they may be the same groups who tend to  “get their way” via litigation, as in Shawn’s piece.

4) I see grazing/ranching as a different situation due to the private and public land linkages (if groups bought the home ranch property and the federal permit, that would work better) , as he points out. There is also a difference in the people employed both in numbers and pay, and the fact that the US many other food sources. Still, ranchers provide financial and social capital bonuses to many struggling rural communities in a way that leaving it alone does not.

5) In the related realm of water rights NFWF (Nif-Wif) did an extensive review here.

Much for discussion here. Other thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Why Don’t Environmentalists Just Buy the Land They Want To Protect? Because It’s Against the Rules”

  1. Private property rights are royalty in this country and the owners largely determine what happens there, so conservationists have to play that game by its rules. While the “original” federal land laws may have been to promote use, more contemporary laws have made it clear that “uses” are not limited to those things that lead to products or profits. I think it’s fair for the public (not just the local financial beneficiaries) to question (and litigate) what happens on “their” lands and how much those lands should contribute to jobs and national wealth or security. There is a place in that process for addressing compelling national interests (though removing an official role for the Washington office in forest planning arguably diminishes that opportunity).

    Anther example here: https://forestpolicypub.com/2019/03/22/mt-state-land-timber-ransom-paid/

    • I think the right of the public to comment on public land use is a good point- it’s well and fine for private groups to manage private land to suit their interests, but public lands need to consider public interests. We are good at tabulating resource extraction values, but not so good with the less tangible stuff, like cultural, social, and recreational values, and which until recently included subsized carbon extraction vs keeping it in the ground and managing for carbon uptake. Grazing and mining leases are more complicated in their values than we used to consider. Much is made of groups that go thru the process to sue, suggesting they are the problem, but I think that’s because the powerful and corporate tend to get what they want in a different fashion (buying politicians, hiring lobbyists, using their financial speech more loudly).

      • But Roy, we are talking about land use decisions in a forest plan. I see no “bought politicians” lobbyists or even much “media speech” – from the timber folks anyway. It would be interesting to do a media study on this but my reading doesn’t show much presence by the oil and gas industry, even here in Colorado.
        We have the Center for Western Priorities (anti O&G very prolific with links and stories) versus Western Wire (not so much). or anti-public lands ranching versus pro- (is there even a pro outlet?).
        I’m just saying from this point on the map, it looks more complicated than oil and gas, timber, and ranchers controlling the media narrative due to financing.

  2. FYI, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

    Acres of Georgia coastline purchased for conservation

    “A 16,000 acre stretch of undeveloped Georgia coastline will soon become a new wildlife management area. Purchased for an undisclosed amount by the Conservation Fund and Open Space Institute, the property sits along the Satilla River in Southeast Georgia near the city of Woodbine.”



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