The Economic Logic of Preserving Wild Areas

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Wild Sky Beef logo

A few weeks ago I mentioned a new collaboration between the filmmaker Ken Burns and the creators of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. They’re working together on a prize in Burns’s name, to recognize artists, historians, or other cultural and civic leaders who have advanced modern awareness of the American idea. “The American Idea” is the Atlantic’s favorite term for this concept, that being part of our magazine’s founding charter; the Prairie Reserve people use the term “American spirit,” but we’re talking about the same thing.

In that item and other reports on the APR, I’ve mentioned their non-traditional, market-minded approach to protecting plant and animal life and recreating, across millions of acres, something like the pre-Lewis & Clark plains bioscape. In response, reader W.B. sent in a lead to a Library of Economic Liberty podcast last fall, in which Peter Geddes of the APR talks with economist Russ Roberts about the economic logic of the undertaking. The podcast is an hour long, and a transcription accompanies it. I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the long-term economics of sustainability. (Which was also the theme of my Al Gore piece last fall.)

Two samples. One, about the proper scale of the Reserve:

Roberts: Is it enough? I mean, it's big, but is it big enough?

Geddes: It is. What the conservation biologists have told us we need is a minimum size, and then all this of course is overlaid with what you can actually do practically. There are places in the country where conservation at this kind of scale is just frankly impossible. So, you've been out to the Bozeman area and know how popular and how fast-growing it is. The cost of getting the land is just too great.

So, again, Northeastern Montana is a place that has had fewer people today than when Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “The Closing of the American Frontier” back in 1876. Way fewer than, less than 1 person per square mile. So you've got to pick places for conservation where: a). you have the right habitat conditions; b). you have the right sociology, the right demographics, I guess, so that it's not a place that is getting an influx of people but rather an outflux of people; and c). where you can actually afford to buy the land.

Next, they talk about not just coexisting but cooperating with the cattle ranchers who are now are the major economic and cultural figures in the area. Geddes explains the “Wild Sky” branding program, which offers a higher price-per-pound to ranchers who abide by certain wildlife-friendly practices:

Geddes: The key thing to growing wildlife numbers, and this is not unique to our project, in fact happens all around the world, is to minimize human conflict. And in most places, people view wildlife as a cost rather than an economic benefit.

Six or seven years ago members of our team were over in Africa and they were travelling around to various camps, and they came to one in Namibia where the wildlife park, their parks over there, game parks, had figured out a way to live with cheetahs, and make the local communities, the beneficiaries of having cheetahs on their land rather than the enemies of that. There are all sorts of work that's been done in Africa for the last 20 years to try to flip this dynamic.

So, we imported those ideas back to the American Prairie Reserve; and we bought a beef company. Some of our critics think we are anti-cows, but we actually own a cattle company. And the idea is: Neighboring ranchers who want to participate in our Wild Sky Beef program, in exchange for operating their livestock in a more wildlife-friendly way.. we've paid them a premium for their cattle when we buy them in fall or in the spring.

And it's kind of like a frequent flier program at Delta or United. You can be silver, gold, diamond, platinum, medallion, whatever it is. And as you move up that frequent-flier status, that means you are more tolerant of wildlife. So that the top of the food chain is you agree to have grizzly bears on your property. And the amount of money that you get for going ever higher in your frequent flier status increases over time.

And again, this is an attempt to--first, it recognizes that we are going to have holdouts in the American Prairie Reserve, for a very long time. We are going to have people on the periphery who are going to be cattle ranchers. Indeed, we are going to be surrounded by about a half million head of cows when we are completely finished.

We've got to make things go well for those people. So we need to figure out a way where we don't compromise on the biodiversity values that we want; and again, so that people see our wildlife, our wildlife that's spilling over from the reserve onto their land, as a benefit rather than a cost….

Instead of selling soap or shampoo or coffee, we've tried to--we've picked a business that fits with the local culture, that recognizes that these are people who love being cowboys and cowgirls, and they will for a very, very long time. So, trying to figure out a way to make, saying, 'Stick with the local culture.' And for these ranchers to see economic benefit.

There’s a lot more in the discussion, which explains many of the ambitions and challenges of the project — and offers a specimen of how usually-opposing interests might be reconciled.