In the early 1990s, Idaho Republican Sens. Dirk Kempthorne and Larry Craig wanted to reform the powerful Endangered Species Act.
Kempthorne, in particular, sought an alternative to the onerous restrictions of the federal law. Instead of reducing the value of private property by imposing unyielding restrictions on land owners, Kempthorne wanted the federal government to provide landowners with incentives to voluntarily protect habitat for endangered species.
Protecting biological diversity is a national interest represented by the law, he said, so national taxpayers should share the burden. As Kempthorne and Craig often pointed out, private property owners already often provide conservation services at their own expense.
Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.
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Incentives and voluntary actions lie at the heart of the conservative and libertarian environmental approach, which has made great strides over the past 25 years to improve protection of wildlife habitat, open space and access to public lands. It’s an approach we use to protect open space in the Boise Foothills, thanks to taxpayer-approved levies.
This week I wrote about an effort to cut $7 million from the state budget provided by the Forest Service and other federal sources. The money would buy an easement, Stimson Timber Co. would keep 13,000 acres of forests and lakes undeveloped instead of building 1,200 homes, condos and a golf course. Several lawmakers and the Idaho Freedom Foundation objected to the Idaho Department of Lands and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game passing these federal funds through the Forest Legacy Program.
Stimson sought to develop Clagstone Meadows in Bonner County in 2006, and got county approval for a planned-use development. But neighbors, sportsmen and conservation groups objected, before the economy turned.
Stimson then sought a middle approach, working with the Trust for Public Lands, its neighbors and the departments of Lands and Fish and Game to sell an easement that would limit development, protect habitat and open up access to the public. The Trust for Public Lands agreed to raise $2 million; Fish and Game would add $2 million from federal sportsmen dollars; and the Department of Lands would use $5 million in Forest Legacy dollars from the Forest Service. Stimson itself threw in $3 million in foregone payment.
The small-government, libertarian-oriented Idaho Freedom Foundation suggested Stimson was getting some kind of nefarious deal because it would continue to harvest and manage timber on this land — as the Forest Legacy program requires.
“State bureaucrats, with the aid of timber interests who may stand to profit, are using federal and state money to advance the interests of green radicals — including funders of Greenpeace — in rural Idaho,” the Freedom Foundation said in its report.
Apparently protecting wildlife habitat and open space, providing access to hunters, horse riders and others, and managing the land for timber will “advance the interests of green radicals.”
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, went a step further.
“As most of you know I fully support the timber industry and private property rights,” Scott wrote in her newsletter. “What I do not support is using public dollars to reward a corporation for something they could do for free (set up a conservation easement on their own, allow public access and harvest timber).”
In short, Scott says Stimson should provide the conservation easement on its own, essentially provide the public services and lower the value of its land for nothing.
This turn of events brings me full circle back to the 1980s, when I began my environmental reporting career. In those days, environmentalists were the ones arguing that timber companies should protect wildlife habitat and public values at the companies’ expense. Now it’s people and groups who say they defend liberty who argue that private property owners should foot the bill for providing a public good.
Today, environmentalists are working with timber companies in a wide variety a partnerships seeking to protect the interests of both while restoring the health of forests and watersheds. Ranchers and farmers are doing the same, with conservationists and hunters and anglers all over Idaho using the Conservation Reserve Program and Natural Resources Conservation Services grants that are similar to the Forest Legacy Program.
So who today are the real conservatives and conservationists? Who is really defending private property?