Private conservation: An environmental success story

Published July 1, 2000

Expressing his support for an Interior Department proposal to create three new National Monuments and expand a fourth monument in the West, President Clinton late last year proclaimed, “giving these lands National Monument status would ensure they will be passed along to future generations healthy and whole.”

The implication in the President’s statement is that the federal government is somehow uniquely suited to serve as guardian of the nation’s natural heritage. That view, however, runs counter to a growing body of evidence compiled in recent years by federal investigators, conservation groups, and academics pointing to serious deficiencies in federal stewardship of lands:

  • A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the activities of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the period February 1988 to August 1990 found the two agencies were not meeting objectives for sustaining wildlife. Fifty-one Forest Service and BLM plans containing 1,130 wildlife-related action items were to have been implemented, but 39 percent had not been started. Another 22 percent were only partially completed.
  • A 1995 report by the Forest Policy Center (FPC) concluded, “because of perverse institutional incentives, the majority of forest health problems in the [inland West] region exist on public lands.” The FPC report added that at least 39 million acres of federal forest land were at risk of “catastrophic wildfire.”
  • Utah State University ecologist Charles Kay described massive environmental degradation at Yellowstone National Park in a 1997 study. According to Kay, the Yellowstone range is overpopulated by elk and bison resulting in the starvation of thousands of elk, an overgrazed range, the destruction of plant communities, the elimination of critical habitat, and a serious decline in biodiversity. As a result of the depletion of willows and aspen at Yellowstone, beavers have lost critical food and dam-building material. Oregon State University hydrologist Robert Beschta estimates that the damage to the riparian plain system of the Lamar River, which runs through Yellowstone, “could take centuries to repair.”
  • Ecologist Karl Hess Jr. uncovered similar conditions at Rocky Mountain National Park in a 1993 study. Hess described the dramatic decline of aspens, willows, wet meadows, and dry grasslands. He ascribed the damage to overgrazing by elk in the park.

The federal government owns approximately 630 million acres– nearly one-third of the nation’s land area. If the ecological degradation described above is allowed to continue, the risk to America’s flora and fauna could become extensive.

There is, however, an alternative to federal stewardship–an alternative as old as the nation itself. That alternative is private conservation.

Natural Bridge of Virginia

Nestled in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley in southwestern Virginia is a gigantic limestone arch spanning Cedar Creek, a tributary of the James River. Rising some 215 feet above the creek, averaging 100 feet in width, and spanning 90 feet across the gorge, the Natural Bridge is a unique geological formation. Its beauty and scientific significance caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who in 1774 purchased the Natural Bridge for 20 shillings from its previous “owner,” Britain’s King George III.

Jefferson thus began a tradition of private conservation of the Natural Bridge that continues today. “I view it in some degree as a public trust,” he wrote, “and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view.” His stewardship of the property included the building of a two-room cabin for visitors and, through his writings, spreading the word about the Natural Bridge.

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, ownership of the Natural Bridge passed to his heirs. It remained in the family until sold to Joel Lackland in 1835 for $1,500.

Today, the 1,600-acre site, which includes the 157-acre tract Jefferson acquired from King George, is owned by Angelo Puglisi, who oversees the stewardship of the property. During peak season (spring and summer), Natural Bridge of Virginia employs nearly 250 people.

Over 300,000 people visit the Natural Bridge each year. On the spot where Jefferson’s cabin once stood, there is now a 180-room hotel, complete with seminar rooms and banquet facilities.

While the amenities at the Natural Bridge far exceed anything Jefferson could have imagined, anyone looking for tacky signs of crass commercialism will not find them there. The property’s owner has seen to it that the public can view the site’s natural splendor in a manner that in no way detracts from its pristine beauty. Visitors can reach the Natural Bridge by following a one-mile-long trail past springs, waterfalls, and rapids and through stands of trees, including redbuds, dogwoods, and pines.

In addition to the bridge, the site offers another spectacular geological attraction, the Natural Bridge Caverns. Dropping some 347 feet below the surface, the caverns feature a flowstone dome, reflecting lakes, streams, waterfalls, and a wide array of calcite deposit formations, including stalagmites, stalactites, dripstone, and soda straws. Back on the surface, the area around the Natural Bridge is a stopping point for Canada geese and home to white-tail deer, black bears, bobcats, wild turkey, red foxes, and red-tailed hawks.

Ever since Jefferson purchased the site in 1774, it has been preserved for the public at private expense. All maintenance, improvements, and advertising have been borne by the owners and visitors.

For more information

visit the Natural Bridge of Virginia’s Web site at

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association

The creation of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania ranks as one of the country’s most successful private conservation success stories.

Prior to the sanctuary’s establishment in 1938, hunters gathered each fall for the north-south migration of hawks, falcons, and eagles that soar along mountain ridges on the warm air thermals and updrafts. As the birds passed Hawk Mountain, the hunters would shoot as many of them as time and their marksmanship allowed.

Not merely partaking in sport, the hunters were convinced they were doing good by killing predators that preyed on gamebirds and songbirds. Indeed, state fish and game agencies paid hunters a bounty for each “chicken hawk” killed. In 1885, Pennsylvania enacted legislation granting a bounty of 50 cents each on hawks, owls, weasels, and minks–creatures deemed harmful to the state’s agricultural interests. Though this “Scalp Act,” as it was known, was repealed 18 months later, as late as 1934 it was still legal to shoot almost any species of hawk in Pennsylvania.

Over the years, untold thousands of raptors were slaughtered as they migrated over Hawk Mountain. The practice might have continued for many more years had it not been for the efforts of one woman, Rosalie Edge.

An avid birdwatcher, Edge joined a small but vocal group of ornithologists and others concerned about the dwindling numbers of birds of prey resulting from the annual “hawk shoot” in eastern Pennsylvania.

After having no success getting the National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS), the U.S. Biological Survey, or state game departments to support her work, Edge formed the Emergency Conservation Committee in 1929. She spearheaded efforts to get NAAS to purchase Hawk Mountain and create a sanctuary that would put an end to the mass killing of raptors each fall.

When NAAS balked, Edge sought out a local real estate agent, who informed her that 1,398 acres on Hawk Mountain were available for purchase at $2.50 an acre. She leased the area for one year for $500 before purchasing the property outright in December 1935. The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association was incorporated in 1938 to hold and manage the property, which now comprises 2,380 acres.

Edge hired a curator, and her hawk conservation effort was underway. At first, the public showed little interest in the sanctuary. But over time, hawk-shooters were replaced by hawk-watchers. Today, as many as 3,000 people daily visit Hawk Mountain at the peak of the migration period each fall. In a typical year, visitors come from 44 states and 25 foreign countries.

In addition to providing a place from which to view migrating birds, Hawk Mountain also contains over 40 species of trees, including red oak, chestnut oak, red maple, sassafras, and black gum. The sanctuary’s forest is home to such wildlife species as ruffled grouse, wild turkey, great horned owl, pileated woodpecker, white-tailed deer, and red and grey fox.

In the 62 years since its creation, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has become an internationally recognized conservation, education, and research center. From a staff of one voluntary warden, it has grown to include 13 full-time and five part-time employees, plus 10 interns each year.

The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association is a private, member-supported, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. There are eight membership categories with annual dues. Contributing memberships and sponsor levels beginning at $50, $100, $250, $500, and $1,000 entitles members to the use of special campgrounds and trail shelters, invitations to special events, and other amenities. The sanctuary’s budget in 1998 was $1.125 million.

It is difficult to underestimate the impact Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has had both on the fortune of migrating raptors and on the public’s attitude toward them. As Robert J. Smith of the Center for Private Conservation points out, “Mrs. Edge proved that, even when the government is subsidizing environmental destruction, one person with a vision and a little money can affect human behavior for the better through voluntary action and the institution of private property.”

For more information

visit the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Web site at

The Roney Land and Cattle Co., Inc.

The Roney Land & Cattle Company is a 115,000-acre ranch whose roots go back to the late 1850s, when the site was originally homesteaded. It has been in the Roney family for five generations and has survived and prospered in some of the most ecologically challenging surroundings imaginable.

The ranch is located in the Sacramento Valley’s Vina Plains, a 150-square mile area northeast of Chico, California. Largely devoid of trees, the Vina Plains are characterized by broad, wind-swept open vistas where thin, nutrient-poor soils lie atop an impervious layer of clay.

Rainfall occurs only in the winter and is followed by eight to nine months of sustained drought. The winter rains fill depressions in the soil, and the impervious clay holds the water until it is evaporated by the summer’s heat.

These vernal pools, as they are known, are home to unique plant and animal life that has evolved over thousands of years. The flora and fauna found in and around the pools include unusual grasses, brilliantly colored wildflowers, and rarely seen invertebrates such as tiny fairy and tadpole shrimp. The pools range in size from a small puddle to an acre or more; they can be as shallow as a few inches and are rarely deeper than a few feet.

Many of these pools, and the plant and vegetable life they sustain, have fallen victim to commercial and residential development. In the last few years, the federal government has listed or proposed for listing as threatened or endangered species a number of the plants and invertebrates found in and around the pools. Though their numbers may be dwindling elsewhere, these and other flora and fauna characteristic of vernal pools are thriving on the Roney ranch, where managed grazing protects the pools.

The ranch’s current owner, Wally Roney, prevents overgrazing by carefully monitoring the conditions on his ranch and by moving his cattle off the grasslands and into the surrounding foothills in the spring, onto mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada range in the summer, and back to the grasslands in the fall. What’s more, Roney has cross-bred his cattle with an African stock to produce a herd with both grazers and browsers, reducing their impact on native grasses and flowers, riparian areas, and wetland habitats.

The effect of this managed grazing on the vernal pools has been dramatic. The practice has proved far superior to just fencing off the pools to keep the cattle away and allowing “natural regulation” to operate.

Roney and his family are in the cattle business. Their responsibility for the lands under their stewardship means they must respect the fragile environment of the Vina Plains or suffer the consequences. “The Roneys demonstrate the genuine land ethic that comes from the long-term secure ownership of land and that accompanies their working ranch,” notes the CPC’s Smith. “Their interest in maintaining their land, the vernal pools, and the native wildflowers and grasses is not altruistic–their business and livelihood depend on it.”

The benefits of private stewardship

The secret behind the success of private conservation is the stake the owner has in protecting his property. “Since Thomas Jefferson’s day, we have been blessed with owners who took it upon themselves to protect the natural splendor of this place,” notes David Parker, director of marketing and public relations at the Natural Bridge.

“They never lost sight of the original mission,” explains Parker–something that cannot be said of the giant, politically driven bureaucracies in charge of managing the federal government’s vast tracts of land.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.