Protecting the Earth Isn’t Just Government Work

This April will mark the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. Since 1970, countless people around the world have used the day to celebrate the beauty and majesty of the natural world and develop strategies for safeguarding those values.

For a long time, environmental protection policies in the United States have tended overwhelmingly in the direction of greater government involvement—more rules and restrictions, larger budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, and more land brought under federal control. As the mandate to control more and more of the nation’s forests, ranges, rivers, and lakes has expanded, the agencies responsible—and the taxpayers who foot the bill—have shown the strain.

Since the early 20th century, practically no land under federal control has passed into private hands. We can see the real-world consequences in the federal forests. For decades, some environmental groups have successfully fought the adoption of sound forest management policies, often opposing the harvesting of any timber—even dead or diseased trees. As a result, those lands have been plagued by insect infestation, disease, and catastrophic wildfires. Because of political pressure, federal land managers ignored risks that private forest owners have always understood.

Fortunately, we have other options for channeling the enthusiasm for environmental preservation we see at Earth Day celebrations each year. Increasing private stewardship of our natural resources is an excellent tool for addressing that challenge.

As more people are coming to realize, we do not have to direct all our conservation goals through the political process, where we can only hope that the politicians we elect will make the right choices. Rather, we can join together with other like-minded individuals to accomplish the same goals. No campaign contributions required!

Scores of private property owners and nonprofit groups across the country have proven committed and effective at preserving wildlife habitat and managing forests—most with a better track record than the federal government. If we really want something to celebrate when Earth Day turns 50, we should expand and support those efforts.

For those private efforts to work, we need to strengthen property rights protections for those who manage their own lands and resources. We also need to reform laws that perversely penalize property owners for playing an active role in preserving habitat. The Endangered Species Act, for example, discourages property owners from making their lands more wildlife-friendly by raising the risk that they will lose the use of that land, without compensation, if a listed species is found on it. 

There are plenty of examples of private ownership fostering creative stewardship. We see it at the Hawk Mountain Bird Sanctuary in Berks County, Pennsylvania; in the sustainable multi-use operations at Cypress Bay Plantation in Cummings, South Carolina; at Viansa, the Sonoma Winery with its own painstakingly cultivated wetland habitat; and in the local associations of fishermen turned reef builders in Alabama and Florida. Many nonprofit organizations also leap to mind – from large groups like the Audubon Society, which privately manages wildlife refuges across the country, to smaller voluntary efforts like the Oregon Water Trust.

As these private efforts show, protecting the environment is not just a job for government agencies. Centralized political control prevents the kind of diversity and experimentation that have made these private efforts so successful. No sector of the economy can grow and thrive if it is controlled by a single firm, and the serious business of environmental protection is no different. We need innovation and the opportunity for new leaders to refine and improve how they approach conservation goals. 

The Department of the Interior, for example, should allow private parties to “adopt” and manage certain resources – transferring assets requiring specialized expertise and resources to private groups with the requisite passion and interest. A private association of spelunking enthusiasts could manage an area’s caves with greater motivation, practical skill, and local knowledge than a federal land manager hundreds of miles away.

At the very least, Congress should begin to devolve federal lands back to state control, where studies have shown better conservation outcomes. Moving from federal control to private leadership overnight will no doubt seem radical to some, but bringing responsibility for a state’s land back to that state’s residents will be a strong first step in the right direction.

If we really care about the goals of Earth Day, it is our responsibility to explore every option available, and be ruthlessly honest with ourselves about which strategies are working and which are not. Having Washington, D.C., control the future of every bird, bug, bunny, and barrier island is not the path to maximizing the nation’s environmental quality. Some of us need to pitch in, too.