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WLA: Incentivizing stewardship could be the key to conservation economics

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“The oldest task in human history – to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

Aldo Leopold provided the simple definition of conservation used by the Western Landowners Alliance today.

Cole Mannix, Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) associate director, authored and published a document laying the complicated nature of conservation economics. 

The document was published in December 2018 with support from National Geographic Society. 

Conservation as a form of economics

“People most commonly associate conservation with the setting aside of land in parks or wilderness or legally restricting human use of the area,” said Mannix. “But this is problematic. The need for wildlife to move with the seasons from one part of their range to another illustrates the limits of these islands of protection.”

He explained there is less land to set aside, and conservation today must increasingly focus on supporting those kinds of economic activities compatible with ecological health and discouraging those that are not. 

“The stewardship of western private lands is critically important in its own right for the larger landscape,” he noted. “Unlike management of public lands, private stewardship must support itself within the market economy, where landowners and managers are immersed in the daily tension between ecology and market forces.” 

“Working with living systems requires human observation and ongoing adaptation,” Mannix noted. “In other words, stewardship is an art, difficult to capture in action and continuing to lose artists.” 

Growth in agriculture 

“Unlimited growth is neither possible nor desirable,” Mannix said. 

He explained many of the long-accepted teachings of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution have been proven false. The revolution does not account for the price of food and fiber nor the ecological cost of U.S. agriculture.

“Despite the largest gains in agricultural productivity and the lowest food prices in the world, child hunger in the U.S. has increased from one in 16 in the 1960s to nearly one in six presently,” Mannix said.

He noted part of this increase could be attributed to stricter definitions of hunger, yet poverty is often a larger cause of hunger than food supply. 

Mark Bittman of the New York Times stated the way to feed 9 billion people is to eliminate poverty. 

“Let’s think of the poorest place on earth and put ourselves there,” Bittman explained. “Undoubtedly, we won’t be hungry, and the difference between us and the natives isn’t the availability of food, instead the wad of 20 dollar bills in our pockets.”

“If insufficient yield were the main obstacle of feeding people, agricultural trade organizations wouldn’t have to work so hard to expand markets,” he said. “Forty percent of food would not be wasted and 40 percent of corn wouldn’t be allocated for biofuel use.”

Economic growth 


“Despite important gains in conservation, the specter of diminished western lands continues to expand,” said Mannix. “Today, human demands are exceeding the limits of the biosphere, changing the climate, altering fundamental natural cycles and crowding out biodiversity.” 

He explained the nature of humans has always been to find a substitute for things we no longer have access to. 

“The economic principle of substitution in textbook economics assumes if any given input in the economy becomes scarce or too expensive, innovation will find an acceptable replacement,” Mannix explained. “But the issue is, there is no substitution for fresh water, soil or biodiversity.”

He explained the textbook definition and use of economics puts the economy in a man-made vacuum, where raw materials and energy inputs are unlimited and waste outputs are either assumed to be negligible or flow off the page.

“As the economy grows, it becomes increasingly impossible to ignore the limits of Earth’s ecosystems,” Mannix noted.

Improving conservation economics

“Profit is essential,” said Mannix, “but it often ranks lower for western landowners than values such as heritage and way of life.” 

“Ultimately, turning the big picture trends discussed in this paper require a scale and urgency of response beyond what existing tools and approaches are achieving,” Mannix noted. 

“Improving conservation economics is not synonymous with getting more money,” Mannix explained. “Rather, it includes all the various ways to increase support and decrease risks for stewardship and vice-versa for the competition.” 

“At a time when care for our natural resources and wildlife has never been more important, farmers and ranchers not only have less time than ever to pay attention, but they continue to lose the ability to distinguish the products of their stewardship,” said Mannix. 

He explained for conservation to be at an appropriate scale, there must be policies in place. 

“Policies must be designed not only to encourage more good but also to discourage harm,” Mannix commented. “At a time when the playing field has been sloped so steeply against stewardship, our goal should be to level that slope as much as possible.”

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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