Congress holds private conservation hearings

Published March 1, 2001

We expect “firsts” to occur at the beginning of a new legislative session. But in the heat of campaigns and last-minute political wrangling, they rarely happen at a session’s close.

Remarkably, then, the 106th Congress concluded with the first hearing in Congressional history devoted to the examination of private conservation. Last Fall the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health conducted an “Oversight Hearing on Private Conservation Efforts: Lessons for National Forests.”

In the wake of a summer of catastrophic forest fires, Chairman Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) opened the hearing saying, “The news lately has been depressingly full of stories about federal mismanagement of our federal lands. So, in search of happier news, today we will look at some of the examples of land and resource conservation which come from the private sector.

“Today we will hear from some of the true heirs of the Leopold philosophy,” Chenoweth continued, “not public employees of land management organizations, but private individuals who invest themselves, heart and soul, in managing and conserving natural resources.”

Dr. A.G. “Skeet” Burris, who testified at the hearing, invested hands and soul into the soil to transform an abandoned farm, overgrown with dense thickets, into a healthy forest with thriving wildlife. Burris, owner of Cypress Bay Plantation in Cummings, South Carolina and the American Tree Farm System’s Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year, testified that while federal forests are unhealthy and fire-prone, his land is healthy and productive.

“We have to generate income from our tree farm to keep our property viable. We can’t risk letting our forest burn, or be attacked by insects and disease. Lack of management is not a way for us to take care of our land. It is active management that has made our forest the showcase it is today,” Burris testified.

“Habitat is the result of private ownership and trying to make a living,” Billie Jean Redemeyer-Roney, co-owner of Roney Land and Cattle Company in California, told the committee. In the 150 years it has owned the land, the Roney family has developed careful grazing methods and a selective breeding program to balance their cattle and the land. The ranchland is home to hundreds of cattle, but it also teems with vernal pools, habitat for a multitude of endangered wildflowers, grasses, and invertebrates.   As old as America itself

Private conservation dates back to the Founding Fathers, testified Paul Anthony, co-owner of Virginia’s Natural Bridge. When Thomas Jefferson saw the towering arch of solid limestone, he wanted to protect it for future generations. So he did it the old fashioned way: Jefferson paid King George III 20 shillings for the property in 1774.

“I view it in some form as a public trust and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view,” Jefferson wrote. The current owners concur. Jefferson trusted himself over public ownership to protect this natural wonder, and it has remained a splendid example of private conservation ever since.

Congressman John Duncan (R-Tennessee) noted the poor incentives brought about by public ownership. “I’ve long thought that people take far better care of their own land than they do land that’s in some kind of public ownership. People who would never throw out trash, for instance, on their own yard will sometimes do it on the highway, or at a state park or in the mountains.”

Albro Cowperthwaite Jr., executive director of North Maine Woods, testified that managing the 3.5 million acres of forests in northern Maine was difficult until landowners formed The North Maine Woods organization. Representing more than 24 different groups, the association maintains luxuriant forests with prescribed burns, timber sales, and reforestation. Charging minimal user fees, the association provides camping, hunting, canoeing, and fishing for thousands of visitors.

A complex group of landowners and users came together to create North Maine Woods. But sometimes a lone activist works for conservation, as was the case with Rosalie Edge and Hawk Mountain.

At the turn of the century, people would flock to this high promontory in the Appalachians of Eastern Pennsylvania. They were not there to admire the hawks in their autumnal migration, but to shoot down the birds for “sport” and government bounty.

Rosalie Edge was aghast. In 1934 she purchased the mountaintop to protect the majestic hawks. At the time, her purchase outraged those who had participated in the hawk slaughter, but now more than 70,000 annual visitors who watch the antics of thousands of birds are grateful for her vision and action.

“As entrepreneurs who believe in the power of ideas, in the ability of each individual to make a difference to our environment, to our economy, and to our country, we applaud the work of private conservationists whose motives are to conserve habitat for the bounty it can provide, for the peace that it brings, and for the joy it evokes,” testified Andrew Thompson, publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest and board member of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. “Perhaps to the uninitiated, the property that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary comprises would seem worthless–but to bird watchers it provides a bonanza,” Thompson continued.

Representative Don Sherwood (R-Pennsylvania) agreed, smiling as he said, “Hawk Mountain is a story which I have read and watched for many, many years.”

“The preservation of our heritage and our beautiful wild places and our resources is not, obviously, always best left to some bureaucrat who’s given the job. It’s often best left to private ownership,” Sherwood said.

Robert J. Smith, senior scholar at the Center for Private Conservation of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, testified that the hearing’s five conservationists were just a few of many. “These examples of private conservation in America are just the tip of an enormous iceberg. With 280 million Americans looking for ways to protect whatever they value, we are far more likely to succeed than if we place all our resources in one basket and let it be subject to a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approach.”

Allison Freeman is an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.