Paradise Valley, Montana: A Study in Free Market Land Conservation

I first became aware of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) after moving to Montana and was immediately intrigued by their work. The more I dug into PERC’s research, the more I realized they aligned with my worldview of free market conservation. The CEO of PERC, Brian Yablonski, graciously met with me to discuss PERC’s initiatives. Even after two hours, we had barely touched the surface of PERC’s free-market, conservation initiatives.

Brian caught my attention when he told me about a new insurance fund concept they were working on for the ranchers of Paradise Valley. He explained that ranchers in Paradise Valley, directly North of Yellowstone National Park, were having issues with cattle getting brucellosis from the wintering elk herd. Brucellosis can be financially devastating to a ranching operation and was one of the core issues troubling the ranching community when surveyed by PERC.

The question for PERC became, How do we create a free-market solution to solve this problem? This is when the Paradise Valley Brucellosis Compensation Fund was created. When Brian outlined the concept to me, that would allow for the ranchers’ cattle and wintering elk to coexist, I told him on the spot I wanted to support this innovative solution. In an era of extreme government controlled environmentalism, it is crucial to highlight private market solutions for conservation. This is a great opportunity to do so!

It is important to respect the opinions of farmers and ranchers since they understand the greater natural ecosystem. They are the nation’s greatest conservationists and stewards of our precious land and resources. There has been an onslaught of attacks against ranchers and farmers from the environmental community; thus, it is crucial to illustrate examples of why this community is not at odds with conservation. In fact, their preservation of large areas of land is crucial task in maintaining a healthy ecosystem (a task not easily accomplished in a nation that is fixated on urban sprawl).

Simply put, farming, ranching, and conservation are not at odds with each other and, if approached properly, can flourish together. Growing up in a small ranching community, I saw firsthand the role that ranchers and farmers play in conservation. As stewards of the land, I have seen the government fail time and time again.

When my wife and I were exploring new places to live, what really struck us about Montana was its deeply rooted culture of land preservation. Montana remains home to a multitude of large multithousand-acre ranches; many are in conservation easements to ensure they stay protected for years to come. We immediately resonated with this culture and were relieved to see a western state that was pushing back against uncontrolled growth.

One of the major contributing factors to why we moved from Nevada to Montana was the quality of hunting and fishing. As a hunter and angler, I value healthy populations of wild game and fish. Eating wild game is at the center of our family’s diet. The ability to hunt and procure our own food is extremely important to us. I want my son to have the same opportunities to hunt and fish as I did growing up; I do not believe this opportunity is still viable in Nevada, the state where I was born and raised.

Montana boasts some of the healthiest big game, waterfowl, and fish populations in the United States. I believe this to be a testament of the conservation work being done by ranchers and farmers. When comparing Montana to other western states there is a stark difference in the ratio of private to public land.

For example, 80 percent of Nevada’s land is owned by government agencies compared to Montana’s 35 percent. Less public land certainly limits access, but I believe it promotes a healthier ecosystem. Privately owned land, specifically large ranches and farms, is managed carefully to drive efficient returns from renewable resources like crops, cattle, and wild game.

In contrast, government-run public lands do not have the same incentives or pricing data as do private lands which typically leads to misallocation and mismanagement of renewable and natural resources. As a Nevada resident, I could not draw a quality tag to hunt and procure food each year for my family. I attribute this to the years of mismanagement of the animal resources by the government. In Montana, I can buy over the counter tags and hunt throughout the state. Thanks to the conservation efforts in Montana, my freezer is full of wild game for my family.

This argument highlights Ludwig von Mises’s economic calculation problem as described in his 1920 essay, “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.” A society devoid of private property and market pricing is also devoid of economic calculation (profit and loss) and will misallocate resources. The terrible twentieth-century food shortages inherent in socialist countries emphasize this point. Economists at PERC understand this and use working case studies as proof. Even beyond PERC, there are other private organizations in Montana that are rethinking free-market conservation.

One such company is Land Trust. Founded in Bozeman, Montana, it connects landowners with outdoor recreationalists seeking land access through an easy-to-use online marketplace. Think Airbnb for the outdoor recreation community. One can go online to book a day of bird watching, fishing, foraging, or hunting on several private ranches and farms.

The customer experience is remarkable since this is a true private marketplace for outdoor recreationalists and landowners. The timing could not be better to help alleviate the pressure between public land advocates and private landowners. Most importantly, what will come out of the Land Trust platform is price discovery. The public land access argument is, by this model, demonstrated in a positive way. Years from now, I am confident that we will have the market data to prove our resources for outdoor recreation access and conservation are better spent in the free market.

Quality and access will start to converge thanks to platforms like Land Trust and funds like the Paradise Valley Brucellosis Compensation Fund. Organizations like PERC and Land Trust are rethinking how we approach conservation in the free market. These are radical organizations in a world where legislation like the Green New Deal is presented as conservation. Legislation like the Green New Deal puts conservation in the hands of those furthest removed from the environment they are claiming to protect. Even more troubling is that their concept of conservation is based on excess spending without any economic calculation. This flavor of conservation will only lead to further misallocation of resources (which is ironically the very antithesis of conservation).

I am proud to be a Montanan and live alongside the ranchers and farmers protecting this amazing land. I will continue to work alongside groups like PERC and Land Trust to help foster free-market conservation so my son will have the same opportunities I had to hunt, fish, and explore untouched wilderness—something I am unwilling to trust or leave in the hands of the state!

By Dusty Wunderlich Via