It goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and always will.
~Aldo Leopold, 1948
Aldo Leopold wrote about many topics—hunting, game management, agriculture, songbirds, botany, conservation, ethics, education and many others. Leopold also wrote about economics, and he understood that economics dictate much of what can be done on the land. He knew that money does not grow on trees and that the land must generate income in order to pay for the costs of owning, maintaining and managing the land. Leopold also knew that the private landowner, not the government, is the best owner, manager and caretaker of the land.
Too often, real world economics is divorced from conservation, but Leopold did not make this mistake. He acknowledged that financial constraints will always be a limiting factor in land management. Some conservation practices, no matter how appealing, are simply not affordable and cannot be justified.
Consider the cost of restoring diverse native grassland on an old cropland field that has grown up in thick mesquite or huisache. No doubt this is a desirable practice, but when you consider the price tag, well in excess of $300 per acre, it is impractical for most operations and the level of risk is high. Even with government incentives, it is difficult to justify many worthwhile conservation projects.
Chip Merrill, the great Texas rancher, land steward and teacher, taught his Texas Christian University ranch management students a two-way test to determine if a practice was feasible on a ranch. Both questions must be answered yes in order for the proposed practice to be adopted: (1) Is the practice ecologically sound? (2) Is the practice economically sound?
By thinking through both the ecological and economic consequences of a practice, the landowner or manager can make decisions that are good for the land and good for economic sustainability. The economic realities of conservation and land management are much more challenging than the ecological component. It is relatively easy to come up with a wonderful management plan on paper that will improve wildlife habitat, plant diversity, livestock productivity and watershed condition. The hard part is developing a realistic plan that is economically feasible.
The economics of cattle ranching are sobering. Today, a weaned calf brings a little more than twice what it brought in 1980. In that same time period, the cost of a basic three-quarter ton ranch pickup has increased five-fold. The costs of ranching have far outpaced the income from cattle.
Fortunately, in Texas, hunters are willing to pay handsomely for the opportunity to hunt on well-managed land. It is a great partnership that meets the demand for quality hunting and contributes substantially to the financial stability of landowners.
It is a fine thing that Texas ranchers are paid for the hunting they provide as well as the livestock they produce. But way back in 1934, Leopold lamented that “most members of the land community had no direct economic value,” and he considered this a weakness in the conservation system of that day. Here, we think not only of songbirds, rodents, small mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians but also the natural processes that take place on private land, which benefit society.
Responsible landowners provide a great deal of public benefit beyond the crops, livestock, timber and hunting they produce. Will landowners someday be compensated for maintaining healthy watershed conditions which help keep creeks and rivers running clean? Will they be compensated for every acre foot of water that goes into aquifers beneath their land? Will they be paid for the atmospheric carbon that is sequestered in healthy grassland and woodland soils? Will landowners receive payments for maintaining or enhancing biodiversity? There are costs and effort associated with each of these “ecosystem services.” They do not happen automatically.
Leopold was far ahead of his time and often prophetically accurate. Over 80 years ago, he said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” When landowners are justly compensated for the ecological benefits they provide to society, conservation will move forward. Conservation and economics always go together.