These days, few people associate political conservatism with natural resource conservation, though the two words derive from the same Latin root word, conservare, which means “to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard.” That makes sense. After all, political conservatives want to preserve social and political institutions, while conservationists want to preserve the natural environment.
As a conservative Republican who loves the outdoors and who’s dedicated more than a decade of my professional life to natural resource conservation, what I’d like to explore is this: given the natural affinity between the two ideas, what does a conservative approach to conservation look like?
Let’s take it as a given that most people want to live in a healthy natural environment. While there a few who believe that “people should do whatever they want regardless of its impact on the environment” at one extreme and a few others who believe that the goal is “a natural environment free from any human taint or presence” at the other, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in the middle. Even as we enjoy our homes and yards, food and drink, cars and cellphones–all of which have significant environmental impacts–we’d like to see the natural environment protected and, where it’s been significantly degraded, restored, provided the social and economic costs aren’t too high.
While we share this same goal, consensus often breaks down over how best to achieve it. That’s where differences arise and the outlines of a conservative approach to conservation begin to emerge. To my mind, the following five principles animate that approach:
Bottom-up rather than top-down solutions. Many current debates on federal ownership of lands in the West turn on this question: whom do you trust (or mistrust) more to manage public lands consistent with your values–the federal government or state government? Not surprisingly, those who mistrust state government want to see federal ownership and control maintained (top-down) while those who mistrust the federal government want state control or, at very least, more management decisions made at the state and local level (bottom-up). While a conservative political philosophy leaves one deeply skeptical of power at all levels, it does express a strong preference for local control, an idea reflected in the structure of the Constitution itself. As James Madison observed in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” That difference in powers stems from a recognition that power exercised closer to the people is easier to check and control. Moreover, local decision-makers tend to better understand and take into account local communities and their interests.
Responsibility and accountability. A related tenet holds that, in a republic, responsibility and lines of accountability should be clear and well-defined, attributes rarely associated with bureaucratic decision-making and the rise of the administrative state. In other words, conservatives strongly prefer elected representatives to make policy decisions because they can be held accountable at the ballot box. In marked contrast to elected officials, bureaucrats tend to exercise power indirectly and through institutions, which makes it difficult to determine whom the decision-maker is, let alone how to hold them accountable. Physical distance also plays a role, as when a bureaucrat in a windowless cubicle in Washington, D.C., makes a decision that has a profound effect on the lives and livelihoods of people living in a small town in the rural West. A conservative approach to conservation sees that as a bad outcome, and puts a premium on local input and on decision-making made by government officials who are known to local communities and who understand the impact their decisions may have on those communities.
A focus on economic incentives and respect for private property rights. Though human behavior can be notoriously hard to predict, conservatives recognize that people tend to act in their own economic self-interest. As a result, conservatives frown on imposed solutions that frustrate those interests (for example, preventing a farmer or rancher from using land or water to sustain their livelihood) or that trample on settled expectations and private property rights. A conservative approach to conservation looks, first and foremost, to solutions that align economic incentives and respect for property rights with conservation goals. Without that, otherwise well-intentioned efforts meet with resistance or even outright hostility. In a zero sum game that forces people to choose between their livelihoods and an (often abstract) environmental goal, individuals understandably resist policies or practices that undermine their interests. On the other hand, most people gladly embrace conservation goals when those goals can be met in a way that either helps them financially or at least imposes no unreasonable financial risks or burdens.
A pragmatic approach that takes the long view. Not long ago, a federal agency tasked with restoring habitat for fish and wildlife couldn’t wrap its head around a proposal that would have, over time, significantly improved habitat for native trout in the State of Utah through voluntary leases designed to put water back into rivers and streams that run dry during irrigation season. The proposal contemplated that these leases were, by definition, temporary, and that when a lease expired, a few fish might die. In the context of landscape-scale conservation, it makes perfect sense to encourage leases that could create habitat for, say, 100,000 fish even if it means that a few hundred fish might die here and there (fish that wouldn’t be there to begin with but for the leasing program). Higher level bureaucrats at the agency, however, fixated on the possibility that a few fish might die, refused to bless the strategy. A conservative approach rejects such a short-sighted view of conservation.
Voluntary rather than compelled solutions. The hallmark of a conservative approach to conservation may be to elevate voluntary approaches over compelled ones. In short, nobody likes to be forced. In my experience, voluntary approaches, which typically engage a variety of stakeholders and promote collaboration, often see better and more lasting results than compelled ones, which typically force a conservation outcome through governmental mandate or private litigation. That doesn’t mean that rules and regulations don’t play an important role in conservation, only that individuals and communities tend to embrace collaborative and voluntary efforts (carrots) even as they resist and resent solutions that are forced on them (sticks).
While a compelled approach says, “I know what’s best for you, and I will force you to comply, even if you don’t agree with me,” a conservative approach says, “Let’s work together to find ways to conserve those things that matter to us both.” Head into any watershed in the West where agency or judicial actions to protect endangered fish have forced a shutdown of irrigation diversions, and you’ll find resentment, hostility, and outright anger directed at both the government actor *and* the protected species. On the other hand, head into a watershed where stakeholders have worked together to hammer out compromises, and you’ll find individual farmers and ranchers, even whole communities, who proudly showcase efforts to conserve a particular species or type of habitat. As Henry Ford observed, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
At the end of the day, political conservatism will withstand the test of time only as it delivers on protecting what matters most to people: their families and communities, political and cultural institutions, and the natural environments in which they live. I believe the elements are there for political conservatives to embrace a robust conservation ethic that promotes voluntary and collaborative solutions, rational incentives, and more transparent and effective local control. In the end, doing so will deliver healthier and more sustainable ecosystems and communities—goals we all share.