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Monetizing Nature 

Guest Editorial

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We take so many of the West’s open spaces for granted — the private ranches and agricultural lands that provide invaluable resources for us all — from clean air and water, wildlife habitat and crop pollination, to scenic vistas, hunting opportunities, and so much more. But landowners are rarely compensated for the far-reaching benefits they provide, and they face intense pressure to sell out their land for development.

Yet finally, some landowners are starting to get reimbursed for what they’ve freely provided for decades. “With scarcity comes value,” says Story Clark, author of A Field Guide to Conservation Finance. “A lot of work is going into figuring out the cost of natural capital, (defined loosely as intact ecosystems), and what will be lost if we lose it. On the reverse side, we need to be able to pay for it to keep it.”

So far, in most cases, the money to restore habitat or keep landscapes in a natural state has come from the government or from donations made by conservation-minded individuals and organizations. But as Clark sees it, this “system, fueled almost entirely by philanthropy … will never get ahead of the bulldozers.”

She urges landowners to look in a new direction, by turning their gaze to the world of for-profit financing, using the expertise of bankers, lawyers, accountants and financiers to protect their land. Such tools can connect people who benefit from conservation — such as city dwellers who want to drink clean water from their taps — with those who provide those benefits, including the ranchers who steward riparian areas.

Usually when people think about paying to conserve a valuable quality that lies on someone else’s private land, they think in terms of conservation easements, where philanthropists and the government give landowners money or tax breaks in exchange for development rights to their land. Market-based conservation finance seeks ways to transfer money from the people who enjoy conservation benefits to those who actually provide the benefits.

Clark offers a couple of examples: Salt Lake City residents pay a dollar extra on their water bills each month to protect watersheds in the mountains above the city, saving money that would otherwise be spent transporting and cleaning water. Or a developer who paves over a wetland buys mitigation bank credits from a landowner who protects that type of wetland on private property.

“There are so many ways you can think about monetizing values on a piece of land,” Clark says. “I have found hundreds.”

That’s why Clark was invited to appear at this week’s Forum on Conservation Finance in Casper, Wyo. Experts — including Clark — describe how market approaches can help finance conservation.

“We’re looking for ways to connect to market-based, long-term, sustainable funding for landowners and communities involved in conservation,” says Andrea Erickson Quiroz, Wyoming state director for The Nature Conservancy. “We want people to say, ‘Hmmm, maybe this is something we could try.’ ”

“This is really exciting stuff. This is world-changing,” Clark adds. “If we can monetize natural capital, we won’t lose it. We’re already seeing it happen.”

Emilene Ostlind is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).

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