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Deal Recalls Big, Bold Roots of Conservation

Conservation used to be the province of the bold, not the pinched. The Everglades deal is a return to form.
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In part 1 of this three-part series, we examined the impossibility of truly restoring any habitat to pre-human condition. Part 2 looked at the political and engineering jockeying required to mount the restoration.

U.S. Sugar was in a bind last year, caught between debilitating regulation and several bad hurricane seasons, when the company sent a couple of lobbyists to visit the governor. The meeting — following a recent environmental court victory restricting back-pumping of farm runoff into Lake Okeechobee — was the latest in a long history of ear-tugging among the private industry, the state government and local environmentalists.

Everyone’s interests, of course, never seemed to align. And now, with this latest ruling threatening the future of a longtime economic engine in South Florida, what was supposed to happen next?

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist responded with a less likely question: Why don’t we just buy you out?

That conservation strategy — sidestepping litigation, regulation and coercion — was both big in scope and simple in concept. As such, it may also be a model for industry, politicians and environmentalists elsewhere in the country struggling with smaller and less effective answers to spoiled landscapes.

The idea — “just buy it” — actually isn’t a radical new one, notes Northeast conservationist Michael Kellett. It is the original one, the means by which many of our national parks were created. The U.S. has a history of major public land acquisition for conservation. It’s just not a recent history.

“A lot of conservationists don’t know anything about this stuff,” Kellett said. “It’s been like a lost art for the last quarter-century. There’s a whole new generation of conservationists who’ve been told, ‘Oh, we don’t do that stuff; that’s old. …’”

The newer generation of solutions often involves “conservation easements,” individually negotiated deals that grant tax benefits to private landowners in exchange for restrictions on development. The land stays in private hands, the habitat gets a degree of protection in perpetuity, and, in theory, everyone wins. Often, though, activities like logging are permitted to continue.

That’s what makes it a compromise, not a permanent solution.

Kellett is the executive director of RESTORE, a group that has for more than a decade been advocating buying up logging territory in Maine to create a new North Woods National Park.

“A lot of conservation people, they think so small,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘Well, we can’t just buy it all.’ I go, ‘Why can’t we just buy it all?’”

The North Woods in Maine share a significant similarity with the Everglades: The local, long-entrenched industry has fallen on hard times. Today, logging is a more lucrative activity in places like Brazil, and logging companies in Maine are suddenly willing sellers, a key component in the “just buy it” strategy.

But unlike in the South Florida wetlands, there is still another suitor for the North Woods: out-of-state developers. If the land doesn’t become a national park, some of it, recently purchased, is slotted for vacation subdivisions.

Conservationists in California have pitched a similar proposal to buy up the largest private landholding in the state, 270,000 acres called Tejon Ranch that straddle the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert, the San Joaquin Valley and some important California condor habitat. The land belongs to developer Tejon Ranch Co., which this spring reached an agreement with several conservation groups to develop on only 10 percent of the land in exchange for conserving the rest of it (albeit it would stay in private hands).

The deal includes an option for the state to purchase 62,000 acres, partially for a state park. But while the compromise has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and Audubon California, the Center for Biological Diversity insists the public still needs to buy the entire ranch to protect the condor.

“With the amount of public and private funding that’s gone into recovering these birds back from the brink of extinction,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, “we think there would be no way we could have supported a deal that would have impacted so much condor-critical habitat.”

She estimated that already-existing investment at nearly $45 million. So the center walked away from the table with Tejon Ranch Co. and the other conservation groups more than a year ago. Today, the center has even printed up mock national park brochures for a Tejon-Tehachapi state or national park to promote the alternative solution.

The Tejon compromise announced in May makes broad use of the conservation easement idea. At least 178,000 acres of the land will be overseen by a newly created nonprofit conservancy. As all easements are individually negotiated, the specifics of what activities may continue on the land vary (and in this case have not yet been revealed in detail).

“Conservation easements are a very useful tool,” said Tom Butler, the author of Wildlands Philanthropy, a book on America’s tradition of private philanthropy to create public parks. “However, they have become, within the land trust community, almost a silver bullet to this problem of ‘Everybody wants a win-win solution.’ Wouldn’t it be great if we could keep the land in private hands; also give it some protection; (and) also keep grazing it, farming it (and) logging it, and everything will be great? The problem is you can’t do everything on the same acre of land.”

Easements — generally intended in perpetuity — also can become lost as the land changes hands over time. Conservationists insist that only a permanent commitment to the land will save it, but “perpetuity” is a difficult concept when future landowners don’t (and couldn’t possibly) have a say in the deal. And so one argument goes: If the government or private conservancies are paying someone not to develop their land, why not pay a little more to own it outright and avoid the complications?

Easements can cost 80 percent or more of the full value of the land. But if extraction industries continue to operate — while development halts — no one is really getting 80 percent of the land’s conservation value.

When buying the land outright — and in the case of the Everglades, buying infrastructure like processing plants and railroads — the right price is also a crucial component in making the deal a win-win.

U.S. Sugar said in a statement the day the agreement was announced that the company never would have considered the deal if the price weren’t a fair one for shareholders. It also cited the growing regulatory concerns.

“For three decades, four good governors struggled with the complex environmental problems posed by Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and agriculture,” U.S. Sugar President Robert Buker said, in announcing the deal. “The results of these struggles have been a series of partial fixes, sometimes effective but invariably expensive.”

He called just selling it a “fundamental, systemic solution.” As he suggested, the big answer required the right kind of politician, in this case an out-of-the-box environmentally friendly Republican governor (perhaps with larger aspirations?).

“I don’t think this would ever happen under Jeb Bush,” said Jonathan Ullman, the Sierra Club’s South Florida/Everglades senior representative, echoing an identical comment made by Ron Tipton, of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Powerful politicians have to believe — as the just-buy-it conservationists do — that the money exists. Florida is actually saving taxpayers money on the U.S. Sugar deal, which will suddenly make the pre-existing Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan less cumbersome and expensive.

In Maine, private citizen Roxanne Quimby has been buying up land to turn over to the potential national park. Anderson envisions private donations in California as well, with an additional mix of state and federal funding.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, funded by receipts from offshore oil and gas drilling, exists largely for the purpose of acquiring new federal conservation land. The fund is authorized at $900 million annually, a maximum it has rarely ever met. Funneling money in that direction is a tough sell during a war and with a federal deficit. But — as in the Everglades — sometimes the alternatives are even more expensive.

“The big lesson that you get from Charlie Crist is don’t shy away from big, bold action,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, “because if you’re sure-footed, and he is, that can be the fastest, cheapest way to solve big environmental problems.”

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