‘Enviro-capitalists,’ Public Profit from Wilderness Conservation

Published January 1, 1999

The idea of having to pay to use wilderness areas for recreational purposes smacks of heresy in certain circles, but it is a growing trend, debunking the long-held belief that profits are inconsistent with a healthy environment.

Because much of the open space once available to just about anyone has long since disappeared, special efforts are needed to nurture that which is left. And that requires a large amount of money.

Enter a new breed of entrepreneurs: the “enviro-capitalists.”

“Enviro-capitalists are entrepreneurs using business tools to preserve open space, develop wildlife habitat, save endangered species, and generally improve environmental quality,” note Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal in a recent issue of The Freeman.

Anderson is a professor of economics at Montana State University and executive director of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana. Leal is a senior associate of PERC. Their Freeman article was adapted from the first chapter of their recently released book, Enviro-Capitalists: Doing Good While Doing Well.

Unlike many environmentalists who rely on confrontational and restrictive means to achieve desired results, enviro-capitalists create business opportunities by developing new products, attracting venture capital, working with resource owners, and marketing their products.

Anderson and Leal note that an enviro-capitalist “promotes fee-hunting on private property that rewards a landowner for providing habitat for wild animals; buys endangered-species habitat instead of lobbying for regulations that restrict the use of private lands; and leases water to increase instream flows, rather than seeking legislation to limit water use by irrigators.”

The authors cite as an example of how well this market approach can work a program implemented 15 years ago by International Paper Co. (IP), the world’s largest forest and paper products company.

Beginning in 1983, the Purchase, New York-based IP began its fee-based wildlife and recreation program in the 1.2 million acres of its mid-South region that includes parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Despite protests from many local residents, IP had responded to hunters who were complaining about lack of wildlife and too many people. Litter, arson, and off-road traffic also had become a problem. The implementation of fee-based hunting has resulted in a new revenue stream for IP, and hunters now enjoy abundant game and safer conditions. By 1990, the program’s revenue had reached $10 million.

At the heart of IP’s program, which provides incentives for land users to take better care of what they enjoy, are three sources of revenue: hunting club leases, daily-use permits, and seasonal family permits.

While the hunting clubs provide a sizable chunk of the program’s revenue, they also have become an invaluable land management tool: they provide protection for wildlife, work with IP to control their harvests, and promote habit improvement.

Today, about two-thirds of IP’s more than 6 million acres in the United States are managed profitably for wildlife and recreation. On the company’s timber lands in northern Maine, visitors pay daily fees of $3 to $6 and seasonal fees of $15 to $90 for camping, hiking, fishing, and canoeing. Cabin sites are leased for $700 to $1,000 a year in New York’s Adirondack area.

The program also has changed the methods by which IP’s forest managers manage their land. Realizing that the bottom line is linked to a healthy wildlife population, IP managers took extra steps to develop habitats for numerous species, including white-tailed deer, wild turkey, squirrels, and the once-endangered bald eagle.

Ten years after the program began, “game surveys showed that populations of deer, turkey, fox, quail, and ducks had increased substantially,” Anderson and Leal note. These improvements were the results of better habitats and less hunting pressure, according to IP biologists.

IP’s program is catching on in other areas of the country. In Texas, for example, owners of large ranches are creating income by sponsoring nature hikes and bird-watching tours.

Even in the West, where there is easy access to public lands, fee-based programs are beginning to take root, noted Anderson and Leal.