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For nearly seventy years, conservationists and environmentalists have been bitterly criticizing the loss and destruction of wildlife habitat on private lands through thoughtless or callously intentional agricultural, industrial, and urban development. At the same time, landowners' protests against the perceived economic obstacles of environmental laws and regulations have risen to fever pitch, as the "takings" debate makes clear. To lower the political and economic heat, many conservationists have advocated economic incentives for landowners to encourage them to protect and conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat on their lands instead of destroying them. Giving financial incentives to landowners to eschew unsustainable and destructive development is a tactic conservationists have been using for almost seventy years--to little avail at the necessary scales conservation requires. Despite the sincere and valuable work of land trusts and other private non-profit organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the Nature Conservancy, or the short-term successes of the federally funded Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the recent Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (Natural Resources Conservation Service 1996), human economic activities continue to relentlessly damage and destroy both wildlife and habitat. What are we doing wrong?

Outstretched Palms: Aldo Leopold and the Failure of Economic Incentives to Achieve Conservation Goal

(Author’s Note. I wrote this essay for a conference sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters in 1999 on “Aldo Leopold and Conservation on Private Lands.” I am offering it to readers of NewWest given the interest in the topic of incentives to private landowners for conservation. Granted, it has a certain academic aroma about it, but it was after all an academic conference. A shortened version of this essay appeared in the Nov-Dec 1999 issue of Bugle Magazine. RMH).

“When the private landowner is asked to perform some unprofitable act for the good of the community, he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the act costs him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only forethought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least debatable.”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


FOR nearly seventy years, conservationists and environmentalists have been bitterly criticizing the loss and destruction of wildlife habitat on private lands through thoughtless or callously intentional agricultural, industrial, and urban development. At the same time, landowners’ protests against the perceived economic obstacles of environmental laws and regulations have risen to fever pitch, as the “takings” debate makes
clear. To lower the political and economic heat, many conservationists have advocated economic incentives for landowners to encourage them to protect and conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat on their lands instead of destroying them (e.g., Mann and Plummer 1995; Arha 1997a, 1997b; Flicker 1997; Bean and Wilcove 1997; Freese 1998; Glick et al. 1998).

Giving financial incentives to landowners to eschew unsustainable and destructive development is a tactic conservationists have been using for almost seventy years–to little avail at
the necessary scales conservation requires. Despite the sincere and valuable work of land trusts and other private non-profit organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the Nature Conservancy, or the short-term successes of the federally funded Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the recent Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (Natural Resources Conservation Service 1996), human economic activities continue to relentlessly damage and destroy both wildlife and habitat.(2) What are we doing wrong?

Conservation on private lands was one of the fundamental problems that deeply vexed conservationist Aldo Leopold. In 1933, he pragmatically recognized that “the only conceivable motive which might activate a sufficient number of … landholders [to practice game conservation and management] is the financial motive” (1986: 398; my emphases). Yet, a scant fifteen years later, he concluded that “the bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and faith rather than on investments of cash” (1949: 225; my emphasis).

Conservation on private lands was a problem Leopold never solved. Few followed his example as the exemplary steward of his worn-out Wisconsin sand country farm. It was a problem he came to believe could never be solved by giving landowners financial incentives in exchange for their implementation of “voluntary” conservation measures. He concluded that “an ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy” for landowners’ (and government’s) myriad stewardship failures (1949: 214).

Because it’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Sand County Almanac, and because we are having no more success now in achieving conservation on private lands at the necessary scales than our predecessors did, perhaps we should reflect on Leopold’s experiences with and conclusions about conservation on private lands. We need to pay close attention because we are making the same mistakes he did. He learned from his mistakes, and looked elsewhere for the “motive forces” of conservation, but we seem to have trouble following his lead in economics the way we follow him on ecological, aesthetic, and ethical matters.

You may disagree. But one thing is clear: Leopold’s little known change of heart about the effectiveness of financial incentives for conservation on private lands may well be no less important to the development of the Land Ethic than his well-known change of heart about the effectiveness of predator control, which he describes in the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” (1949: 129-133).

“Do economists know about lupines?” he once asked (Leopold 1949: 102). It was a rhetorical question. Leopold already knew the answer. Unfortunately, some of us still think economists do know about lupines.


NO ONE denies that one of the most serious conservation problems in the inter-mountain west, where I live, as well as the rest of the country, is the protection and conservation of wildlife habitat on private agricultural lands. Private lands provide crucial winter range for big game–elk, deer, antelope–and critical habitat for a whole host of other species, many rare, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker in the American south, or truly endangered, such as the blackfooted ferret in Wyoming and Montana.

Given the unavoidable economic development pressures on private land, the obvious–and uncontested–conservation strategy is to seek political, economic, and legal mechanisms that sustain the least intensive land-uses, and thus wildlife. The one mechanism that keeps coming up again and again–especially from property owners–is financial incentives. The mechanism is based on the belief that landowners are providing a public service by conserving wildlife and habitat, and should be monetarily compensated for that service.

What many conservationists apparently don’t know is that giving landowners incentives has been one of the explicit strategies of wildlife conservation since 1930, when the American Game Association (AGA) promulgated the American Game Policy [hereafter the Policy]. The chief author of that Policy was none other than Aldo Leopold, chairman of a committee formed in 1928 to develop a national game policy for the AGA (Meine 1988: 272; WMI 1971). The Policy–which may be the most important document in the history of American wildlife conservation–designed the wildlife management and funding system we have today in the United States.

Unfortunately, in 1999 we are still arguing about how to encourage, persuade, badger, bully, or bait landowners into practicing conservation.(3) After sixty-nine years of giving incentives, subsidies, and tax breaks to private landowners, we are still losing millions of acres of wetlands, riparian areas, forests, and range lands to development every year. What are we doing wrong?

We must bring Leopold into any contemporary discussion of landowner incentive programs, because he was at one time a strong supporter of them. The Policy clearly identified incentive-based conservation on private lands as one of the seven basic strategies of wildlife conservation. (4) Specifically, Leopold recommended (1971: 24; my emphasis):

Recognize the landowner as the custodian of public game on all [private] land, protect him from the irresponsible shooter, and compensate him for putting his land in productive condition … In short, make game management a partnership enterprise to which the landowner, the sportsman, and the public each contributes appropriate services, and from which each derives appropriate rewards.

Leopold recommended this strategy because he believed that “only the landowner can practice management efficiently” (WMI 1971: 22). Consequently, Leopold and his colleagues saw only three possible ways for conservationists to “induce” a landowner to conserve game habitat: “buy him out, and become the landowner” (public ownership); compensate him directly or indirectly for producing a game crop and for the privilege of harvesting it” (incentives); or “cede him title to the game, so that he will own it” (privatization). Because Leopold considered the third option “incompatible with American tradition and thought,” he rejected it (See below). (5) In short, he had only two policy options to make conservation work: public ownership of land and compensation to private landowners.

Given his early support for the incentive strategy, would Leopold agree to the recent rhetorical use of the Policy to gain support landowner incentive programs? (6)

No. Leopold’s thinking about the role of economics in conservation was extremely sophisticated and complex, and as he gained more experience with on-the-ground conservation on private lands through farmer-sportsman cooperatives, private shooting preserves, and wildlife ecology in the 1930s and 1940s, the tenor of his economic thinking changed. It became an ecologically- and ethically-based economics. As we shall see, by the late 30s he had lost faith in the power of economic incentives to induce landowners to practice management on their lands; he saw little evidence the profit motive resulted in conservation (AWI 1939: 279f). This conviction deepened throughout the 1940s and he unequivocally affirmed it A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold saw no way out of the dilemmas raised by landowner incentives other than to embed economics in land ethics and aesthetics. The man who in 1930 made landowner incentives one of the critical strategies for conservation sharply noted in A Sand County Almanac nearly two decades later that “When the private landowner is asked to perform some unprofitable act for the good of the community, he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the act costs him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only forethought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least debatable” (1949: 213). Although Leopold fully understood that “it goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land,” he also believed that “the fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land-use” (1949: 225).

What motives truly encourage sustainable land use is the hard question we are still struggling with today. But as far as Leopold was concerned, the profit motive was not one of them.


“ONE of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” Leopold wrote in his essay “Conservation” (1993: 165 ). The “world of wounds,” ecological, social, and agricultural, was precisely what Leopold and his game policy committee set out to heal when in 1930 they wrote the American Game Policy (Wildlife Management Institute/WMI 1971). The threats the Policy addressed were clear.

Ecologically, wildlife and wildlife habitat were rapidly disappearing. Socially, urban hunters were descending in droves on rural farms and communities, frequently damaging both property and community life, resulting in more and more land posted against hunting.

Landowner-hunter relations had become quite bitter and polarized throughout the nation, particularly in the heavily populated east and mid-west. Agriculturally, farmlands themselves continued to erode and decline in fertility because of poor farming and logging practices. Something drastic had to be done. The solution, as Leopold and his colleagues saw it, was to alter land-use in such a way that the land would still allow farmers to produce food and fiber as primary crops and still cheaply produce game as a “by-product” by protecting habitat. (WMI 1971: 2). For the protection of habitat, farmers would be compensated.

To that end, Leopold (1986: xxxi; Leopold’s italics) based game management on the discovery that “game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it–axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun. A favorable alignment of these forces sometimes came about in pioneer days by accident … Management is their purposeful and continuing alignment”. The purpose of the American Game Policy was to design and fund such a system of “purposeful and continuing” management.

Conservationists fervently believed that game management and conservation could work on private lands–if landowners agreed. Their cooperation was essential. All of Leopold’s colleagues agreed on this point. But the agreement stopped there (See AGA 1930: 143f). Game enthusiasts were badly split over why landowners should agree to cooperate. Some, the “free-hunters,” traditionalists to the core, believed it was hunters’ legal right through cultural inheritance and custom to hunt public game wherever it was found–even on private property. They expected farmers simply to acknowledge public rights to hunt on private property. Others, more pragmatic, understood that hunting would cost one way or the other and demanded the institution of license fees as well as taxes on arms and equipment. (7) They also recognized that landowners had certain legal property rights in land, including the right to exclude hunters. These pragmatists claimed that only the profit motive–earning an income from the sale of hunting privileges–would encourage landowners to allow public hunting on their land as well as to practice positive game management and conservation. The pragmatists expected hunters to pay for the privilege of hunting on private land. Hunting wasn’t free, and it wasn’t a right.

Clearly, a “no-man’s land” separated the free hunters and the pragmatists, catching wildlife in the gap.

A complex and sometimes contradictory thinker, Leopold found himself agreeing with both camps. Typically, in writing the Policy he attempted to accommodate the contrary interests of free hunters, the pragmatists, and farmers. He did this by classifying game according to land ownership and economic land use. Free hunting (which did not, however, exclude license fees) would occur on public lands. Compensation to landowners for allowing hunting would apply to private lands (WMI 1971: 24-24, 26-27). To Leopold, this “win-win” solution seemed a reasonable compromise. (8)

Nevertheless, Leopold had great sympathy, for cultural and philosophical reasons, with the free hunting idea, if not its accompanying demand that hunting itself should be free. He had long believed that hunting was the cultural heritage of all Americans and that Americans should have every reasonable opportunity to hunt (Leopold 1991: 62-67). (9) Even in 1930, he had little sympathy for the position that economics should determine all land use. Hunting was ultimately a cultural and social activity, not an economic one. Economics was just a means to an end, not an end in itself, and he intended to compromise that belief only so far as was absolutely necessary.

To protect the cultural value of free hunting, he built a not-very-well articulated assumption into the Policy for private lands game management and conservation: economics would be embedded in voluntary community between hunters and farmers. He had concluded from his own extensive game surveys of the mid-western states for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (Leopold 1931) that many farmers were more interested in protection against trespass and property damage than in charging fees for access to make a profit. He feared that the profit motive would lead to exclusive hunting clubs and commercial shooting preserves that would exclude the hunter of average or little means. Another faction on the right-wing of the “pragmatist” side, the “game farmers,” was already strongly pushing for European-style privatization of game for profit (Leopold 1991: 62f). While not excluding private shooting preserves from the Policy (AGA 1930: 146-147), Leopold wanted compensation to landowners to occur not through mere market exchanges but in the context of community cooperatives, where individual farmers and sportsmen would band together out of love for hunting and wildlife. Each group would contribute to the welfare of game and each other on specific farms all over the country (see Leopold 1986: 405). Farmers would contribute labor, management, and materials, sportsmen would contribute cash and assist the farmer with on-the-ground conservation and game management year-round. This was an idyllic vision, in keeping with Jeffersonian ideals of independent yeoman farmers and small, independent businessmen joined together for the common good.

The Policy was also firmly grounded in what was scientifically known about the density and distribution of game across the landscape, and socially about its “recreational value” to hunters. Maintaining high densities of game in areas of limited size, or “intensive” management, as was practiced on shooting preserves in Great Britain, was both expensive and “artificial.” Both were management sins for Leopold. (One of his “theorems” in Game Management was that “the recreational value of a head of game is inverse to the artificiality of its origin, and hence in a broad way to the intensiveness of the system of game management which produced it” [1986: 394]). Biologically, many game species simply wouldn’t tolerate high densities for long; socially, hunters naturally rebelled against crowds in the field.

Leopold (1986: 396) therefore called for “low intensity management on all lands (rather than high intensity management on a few spots) in order to take advantage of the lower costs and lesser artificiality thus obtainable.”

In other words, for management and conservation to work properly, the distribution of game, and thus hunting opportunities (and by extension hunters), had to be widespread across the landscape on both public and private lands. Public lands weren’t enough, and would never be enough, to meet the public’s growing demand for game and hunting opportunities. Although the Policy had also recommended that governments purchase land “just as far and as fast as land prices and available funds will permit,” and practice wildlife management on existing public lands, no one expected, or wanted, governments to own it all (WMI 1971: 24). Therefore, to provide enough game to shoot in specific areas, individual farmers and public land managers had to produce and manage the density of game at biologically-achievable levels on their particular parcels of land. Furthermore, to provide enough game and hunting opportunities to meet the high demand, farmers and public land managers had to practice game management to distribute game populations and hunters across the landscape to reduce the density of the latter in particular places and ensure the broad ecological survival of the former. Conservation absolutely needed both public and private lands to work. This obviously put the private landowner at center stage in conservation, because public lands were but a small percentage of the total. That is why Leopold believed some forms of compensation for landowners’ efforts were necessary–to address conservation at what conservation biologists call the landscape scale. (10)

Leopold had great hopes for incentives to private landowners, and the number of farmer-sportsman cooperatives that sprang up around the country in the early 30s pleased him. He was especially impressed by a joint landowner-Isaac Walton League project in Williamston Township, Ingham County, Michigan, and the Riley Cooperative in Riley, Wisconsin, which he himself helped start (AGA 1932: 64-65; Leopold 1940). In briefing the 1932 American Game Conference, he seemed especially pleased that farmer-sportsman cooperatives seemed to be organizing themselves without any help and that “revenue is not the motive of the farmer in practicing game management in either Iowa or Wisconsin, especially in Wisconsin. The moving motive is universally the protection which the farmer gets from promiscuous and uncontrolled trespass” (AGA 1932: 65; my emphases). After only two years, community so far seemed to be reigning in the profit motive he feared would derail conservation on private lands.

Nevertheless, over the next seven years he noted with alarm at annual meetings of the American Game Association and the American Wildlife Institute that many cooperatives were collapsing, either from quarrels among farmers and sportsmen or the rise in commercial operations (AWI 1936: 279-280). Cooperatives depended upon “strong leadership,” which seemed to be lacking in most situations (AWI 1936: 280, 282). Where such strong leadership existed, cooperatives worked; “in such a community any effort to rest the game-management program on a revenue basis is not only necessary, but would be obnoxious” (AWI 1936: 282; my emphases).

By 1935, Leopold’s annual briefings on how Policy implementation was progressing for farm game became more dire. He noted (AGA 1935: 51f; my emphases) that the “farm restoration problem [was] unsolved … I am not convinced … that shooting revenue alone is a sufficiently powerful incentive to bring thousands of farms under management.” Foreshadowing “The Land Ethic,” he predicted that “game cropping on farms as well as most other kinds of conservation, must await some rather fundamental changes in rural culture and in land economics [because] conservation … is at direct variance with the moral and esthetic standards of our generation.”

Also by 1935, Leopold was becoming more concerned over the destruction of raptors on farms and shooting preserves, ostensibly to protect valuable game birds from theft by non-paying hawks. He and other scientists were learning that predation at moderate levels was not harmful to wildlife and in most cases was even beneficial (AGA 1935: 54-55). Predator control damaged the ecological community, which in Leopold’s evolving thinking also injured the human community, as well as the possibility of an integrated human-land community. Remarkably, the once enthusiastic Forest Service predator-killer radically suggested (AGA 1935: 55) that:

in the case of game farms, we must … learn to deduct from their service to game their inevitable damage to otherwise harmless predators … [The issue of predator control] is serious, because the legal principle of rewarding private game production with liberal privileges is of basic importance to the future. The preserve principle, when extended from artificial to wild propagation, is our most promising legal principle for executing the American Game Policy. What chance for such an extension when the very name ‘shooting preserve’ carries the odium of indiscriminate hawk-killing? … I see no easy remedy for the abuses of predator control .. except the slow and painful process of teaching sportsmen and farmers the ecology of predation .. In addition to understanding, there must exist a willingness to take nominal losses of game or livestock for the general good.

Leopold had recognized not only the need for community between farmers and sportsmen, but between farmers, sportsmen, and the land as well. Here is the origin of the moral land community that is the goal of the Land Ethic. Also crucial here is the notion that economic benefits and costs go both ways; a farmer or preserve operator who accepts compensation for managing game in the public interest is also liable to the public for damages to the public’s game–in this case, hawks. The economic implications of Leopold’s insight into landowners’ financial obligations to the community for damages to public property are potentially lethal for the policy of financial incentives.

In 1936, at the 1st North American Wildlife Conference, Leopold continued to express his dismay over predator control on commercial shooting preserves as well as ‘” the difficulty of adjusting [preserves] to public equities”–by which he meant that preserves were too expensive for the average hunter, usually excluded because a limited number of wealthy sportsmen had taken out exclusive leases on a prime hunting area (AWI 1936: 280). Leopold still had great hopes for non-commercial farmer-sportsman cooperatives, such as his own Riley Cooperative, where farmer and sportsman members, in the spirit of the unwritten assumption of the Policy, each provided appropriate services and each received appropriate rewards.

Nevertheless, his tone of address was becoming darker (AWI 1936: 280): “We thought, in 1931, that we were dealing with a detached problem in the mechanics of game production and use. We find, in 1936, that our problem also involves many other land uses and also many motives, tastes, and attitudes, and that it cannot be detached from the large and slower question of establishing the role of conservation in American farm life.” Each year, his dissatisfaction with the economics of conservation was driving him closer to the Land Ethic.

At the 1939 North American Wildlife Conference, he participated in a panel called “Farmer-Sportsman, A Partnership for Wildlife Restoration.” About farmlands conservation, he categorically stated (AWI 1939: 145-147; my emphases) that “I no longer believe that a little ‘bait’ for the farmer, either in cash, service, or protection, is going to move him to active custodianship of wildlife. If the wildlife cropping tradition is not in his bones, then no external force, either of my kind or any other kind, is going to put it there. It must grow from the inside, and slowly.” He was deeply disturbed by the high “mortality” of farmer-sportsman cooperatives since 1930. He noted that the ones that survived tended to be special game propagation stations funded primarily for game research, such as the Riley Cooperative. (One suspects Riley survived only because Leopold wanted it to). (11) While he noted “a considerable increase of non-subsidized feeding [of game] by farmers, [which] we can accept as foreshadowing custodianship,” farmers were still failing to provide adequate cover and to regulate hunters’ take of game animals on their farms. As a consequence, wildlife and habitat were still continuing to decline. “We will have no conservation worthy of the name until food and cover for wildlife is deliberately instead of accidentally provided for; until abundant wildlife is the mark of the best rather than the worst farming.”

Furthermore, the rise in commercial shooting preserves that depended on artificial propagation of game and where “birds are put out just ahead of the guns” contradicted his belief that farmers (and hunters) should practice wildlife husbandry on their own, and not lessees or government. “Seldom are the farmers full partners in the enterprise,” he complained. He seemed to place part of the blame for the failure of partnerships on wildlife agencies’ failure to train farmers to be game managers: “Administrators do not like the child they failed to train.” Commercial shooting preserves were becoming economically successful, but they ignored community and they prevented both farmers and hunters from learning to be conservationists working together on the land for the public good. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

At the 1945 North American Wildlife Conference, giving a presentation entitled “The Outlook for Farm Wildlife,” Leopold (AWI 1945: 165) starkly noted that despite the growth of the wildlife profession, as well as its supporting bureaucracies, “wildlife habitat in fertile regions is being destroyed faster than it is being rebuilt,” both exotic and native species like deer were displaying “pest behavior,” and “private initiative in wildlife management has grown very slowly.” In short, “a general disorganization of the wildlife community seems to be taking place.”

By the mid-1940s, Leopold had realized that the practice of conservation on private lands would be a long time coming. He concluded that compensation to landowners was having little positive effect on their farming and conservation practices. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the ecologist saw ceaseless destruction of habitat, the moral philosopher saw ceaseless pursuit of economic advantage to the detriment of the land and human communities, and the wildlife manager saw little interest in actual, on the ground, voluntary positive conservation by landowners. He clearly felt that much of the Game Policy was in shambles. Economics and the politics of economics had taken over, and the land continued to suffer.

After years of failure, Leopold’s mature views on the place of economics in conservation subordinated economics to ethics and aesthetics, even though he well understood that as a practical matter, economics would always come out on top. Nevertheless, he wrote in his essay “Conservation” (1991: 156-157; my emphases) that:

When one considers the prodigious achievements of the profit motive in wrecking land, one hesitates to reject it as a vehicle for restoring land. I incline to believe we have overestimated the scope of the profit motive … There are, in fact, ethical and aesthetic premises which underlie the economic system. Once [these premises are] accepted, economic forces tend to align the smaller details of social organization into harmony with them. No such ethical and aesthetic premise yet exists for the condition of the land [our] children must live in … There is as yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest, or a polluted stream, provided the dividends suffice to send the youngsters to college … What conservation education must build is an ethical underpinning for land economics and a universal curiosity to understand the land mechanism. Conservation may then follow.

But only then. The question is, when?


WHAT went wrong? Leopold knew better than anyone that wildlife conservation and hunting depended upon wide distribution of both hunters and certain densities of game species across the landscape–public and privately owned. That’s why he made private lands conservation, and the roles of the individual landowner and hunter as part of a community, one of the pillars of the Policy. That’s also why he never ceased to doubt that public land ownership and management alone would solve the conservation problem. The public couldn’t own all the land, and bureaucracy, which Leopold criticized as much as any conservative Republican, militated against efficient and imaginative management. (12)

Yet in Leopold’s opinion, most landowners refused to practice conservation and management unless they were paid, and even then, they did nothing or very little to do more than what they were paid for. They did what was required, and barely that in most cases (see Leopold 1949: 208-209, 213-214).

I suspect that in 1930 Leopold had deceived himself about the efficacy of the profit motive or even the desire for non-monetary compensation to achieve the goals of conservation among landowners. For a few short years, he implicitly counted on the possibility of the widespread “distribution” of certain “densities” of community feeling among hunters and landowners, even when what he was seeing on the ground told him it wasn’t working at the necessary scales.

Furthermore, the structure of the Policy itself was inherently flawed, and Leopold also came to understand that flaw within a decade of writing the Policy. The classification of game in terms of economic land uses undercut the assumptions upon which he based the entire Policy. There’s no way the widespread social, cultural, and ethical benefits he dreamed of could come out of classifying game in economic land use terms. Furthermore, the Policy depended absolutely on most game being a by-product from the primary production of other crops. If economic pressures forced clean farming and other more intensive techniques on private land, then either game had to become a primary crop and thus “carry” the farm economically on its back (which was the goal of the game farmers), or disappear. In short, the Policy contained the seeds of its own collapse.

By the very nature of the beast, the stated goal of the Policy–to produce abundant wild game crops for widespread recreational use–could not but fall into the economic production-regardless-of-the-damage, private-property-rights trap that we now find ourselves trying to escape 69 years later. Leopold had one goal in his heart, a goal not fully articulated even to himself, and another for public consumption in the Policy. It caught him short when he realized the dilemma of trying to use economic mechanisms to achieve larger, non-economic goals. One of the penalties of an economic education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds of one’s own making.


LEOPOLD’S early hopes that incentives would encourage landowners to practice conservation on their land were dashed by the same factors that led him to make incentives a pillar of the Game Policy in the first place. He had believed that a certain level of compensation to landowners and community might check the insatiable human demand for the unsustainable transformation of natural resources into human goods and services. But he also realized that for incentives to really work, community had to exist or be built. (13) Unfortunately, his reliance on community to offset economic realities failed. Where profits were to be made, community faced extinction.

Unable to find anything in flawed human institutions to transform human nature, Leopold late in life turned to the soul, and the soul’s own innate sense of justice and delight in the world, to align human economic actions with the ecological realities of the land. That’s the heart of the Land Ethic. Granted, the Land Ethic was necessarily a quixotic, utopian turn. That Leopold understood that the Land Ethic is utopian can be seen in the frequent, insistent references to extinction and time in his masterpiece A Sand County Almanac (1949).

I will resist the temptation to speculate on what Leopold would say to us today about our intractable problems of conserving wildlife habitat, were he serendipitously to return from the “wider reaches of evolutionary time” that appears to have carried his idea of heaven (Leopold 1949: 97). Always the pragmatist-idealist, and despite his publicly expressed bitterness over the failure of conservation to take hold at the scales he knew were necessary, he had come to a kind of peace with himself and the contradictions of a world he both loved and despaired over, but which still delighted him–the early spring clangor of cranes calling at dawn from a marsh; the imprint of an owl’s wings on the snow, the stark red blood of a rabbit at the center of the owl’s snowy reversed image; or the white flag of a deer his arrow had missed.

During the last years of his life, Aldo Leopold turned to the utopian hope that an ecological conscience and a land ethic would eventually evolve in human society to solve the intractable economic problems of land conservation. In short, the economic tragedies of the present turned his eyes to an ecological future he knew must come.

But can we afford to wait that long?


(Robert Hoskins is a conservationist, horseman, and hunter who lives in Crowheart, Wyoming. He is a 1976 graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a former Army Special Forces officer.)


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_____. 1993. Round river: From the journals of Aldo Leopold. Ed. L. B. Leopold. New York: Oxford University Press.

Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1996. Framework for the future of wildlife. Washington DC: United States Department of Agriculture.

Mann, C.C. and M. L. Plummer. 1995. Empowering species: The best way to save endangered species may be to help them pay their way. The Atlantic Monthly 275(2): 22-23.

Meine, C. 1988. Aldo Leopold. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Roosevelt, T. 1990 (1905). Outdoor pastimes of an American hunter. Paul Schullery, Ed. Harrisburg PA: Stackpole Books.

Wildlife Management Institute. 1971. The American Game Policy and its development, 1928-1930.


1 Email,

2 The Natural Resources Conservation Service document Framework for the Future of Wildlife (1996: 8) remarks that “there is a lack of understanding of wildlife habitat requirements among landowners” and that “economics is a major consideration. Landowners need reasons to justify wildlife as a part of farm/ranch plans. Land is viewed as a commodity. Some [wildlife] practices are seen as liabilities, not as assets.” On page 13, we read “Although NRCS has historically provided wildlife planning assistance to private landowners, the ingrained concept within the planning process was that wildlife habitat was something that was left over after all other land uses were considered.” That these statements can be made in the 1990s after 60 years of incentives policies should give us pause when considering the value of financial incentives to private landowners for conservation.

3 The word “bait” is Leopold’s (AWI 1939: 146). See below.

4 The other 6 strategies are: extend public ownership of land where economically feasible, experiment with different conservation mechanisms, create a game management profession, conduct scientific research on the land, cooperate with scientists and non-shooting protectionists, and develop funding sources. See WMI 1971: 24-25.

5 One of the problems that conservation is now facing is the likelihood that the incentives approach, particularly allowing landowners to sell hunting licenses normally allocated by lottery by the states, allows landowners to establish de facto title in game. Some landowners have argued that wildlife is the product of the soil, which is their property, and therefore wildlife (commercially valuable big-game animals) completely belongs to them, under the medieval common law doctrines property ratione soli and right of venery. In the legal case Clajon Production Corporation et al. v. Petera, (1993, 1995), Texas oilman Clayton Williams, rancher Marion Scott, and Salt Creek Ranch LLC, all Wyoming landowners at the time (Williams has since sold out), filed suit to have Wyoming’s hunting license allocation system declared unconstitutional. The plaintiffs claimed that Wyoming’s license allocation system constituted a “taking” of their private property–big game animals and the right to sell hunting privileges on the open market–because the state allocated hunting opportunities, not the landowners. The plaintiffs specifically used medieval common law doctrines of private property to support their argument. (They also claimed that Wyoming’s allocation system violated the “dormant” Interstate Commerce Clause). The lawsuit failed at both the district and appellate court levels, but landowners (and big-game outfitters) have not ceased trying to control the allocation of hunting licenses in Wyoming. The Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association has a lawsuit (case # 98CV1027) currently in Wyoming Federal District Court over the same issue: what the outfitters call an unfair allocation of hunting licenses. The lawsuit alleges violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause.
In other words, Leopold’s second option, incentives, is functioning as a mechanism to achieve the rejected third option–title in game.
Given the control landowners already exercise over land, when they have the authority to sell hunting privileges to the highest bidder, they are in fact acting as if they have title in wildlife. They do in fact fully control wildlife by fully controlling access to wildlife, especially when the land base encompasses the seasonal migrations of game such as elk or deer. This is the case in Texas, for example, where the state still claims that wildlife is a public trust and that ultimate authority for wildlife still rests with the State, but in fact landowners are calling the management shots.

6 A fairly recent version of traditional private lands conservation through incentives to landowners in the American West is called the Private Lands/Public Wildlife (PLPW) Conservation Program. Supporters of PLPW specifically use the American Game Policy to gain support for their program.
According to wildlife management consultant Dr. Kaush Arha, a Boone & Crockett Club fellow at the University of California-Berkeley and a staunch advocate of private lands conservation incentives, PLPW programs expressly seek to conserve wildlife habitat on private lands and improve public access to those lands by providing to landowners “tangible incentives for their cooperation in meeting” habitat and access objectives (Arha 1997b: 41; my emphasis).
Arha (1997a) tries to determine quantitatively what those incentives should be by isolating the value of ecological contributions of private lands to big-game (mostly elk) habitat, and playing those numbers against economic opportunity costs landowners incur by not maximizing agricultural production on their land as a favor to wildlife. In Arha’s economic model, ecological contributions of private lands and opportunity costs incurred by landowners, when considered together, set the baseline for monetary incentives he believes the public should pay landowners for their conservation efforts.
There are many problems with this approach, not the least of which is that it fails to account for existing incentives, tax breaks, and subsidies–many of them quite lucrative–that landowners already receive from society and that arguably more than offset any opportunity costs landowners may incur by taking conservation efforts. More objectionable, it does not attempt to account for the ecological and economic contributions the surrounding ecosystem provides to private lands. These latter contributions, I believe, make the question of opportunity costs moot.
For example, a ranch in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is more biologically productive than an ranch of equal size in eastern Wyoming’s dry high short-grass prairie ecosystem. Consequently, the GYE ranch is worth a lot more economically. Location, location, location.
In short, Arha’s model is a perfect example of the unscientific assumption that parcels of private land are somehow separate from the ecosystem of which they inextricably are an ecological part, as well as the social system of which they are inextricably linked. Arha’s economic assumption about the one-way the flow of benefits between private landowners and society is simply wrong.
Arha and other advocates of landowner incentives in the American West consciously refer to the American Game Policy as proof Leopold would support PLPW and other incentive programs if he were still alive. Supporters of PLPW incentive programs–which are generally and profoundly disliked and opposed by hunters, most recently in Wyoming–have been drawn to the “custodian” quotation included in the text of this essay like deer to salt. Former Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner and rancher Mary Flitner quoted it two years ago in a pro-incentives column in the *Casper Star-Tribune* (1997: E4). Current Commissioner and attorney/rancher Tracy Hunt has used the quotation liberally over the last four years in public meetings and workshops to argue for landowner incentives (Personal Knowledge). Arha, whom the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has hired to design and implement a PLPW program in Wyoming, also emphasizes the quotation in slide shows he gives around the state (Personal Knowledge). This frequent misrepresentation of Leopold’s ideas about economics was the impetus for researching and writing this essay.

7 Conservationists achieved this latter goal with the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) Act in 1937, which placed excise taxes on the sale of sporting arms and ammunition to fund habitat conservation programs in the states.

8 In Leopold’s classification, upland birds and small game were “farm game;” elk, deer, and antelope were “forest and range game;” large cervids like elk and moose and carnivores, such as bears and mountain lions, were “wilderness game;” and waterfowl and doves were “migratory game.” Farm game and some forest and range game were associated with agricultural land uses on private land or the public domain. Some forest and range game, as well as wilderness game, were associated with wilderness on all publicly owned lands. Migratory birds occurred on both private and public land. However, because waterfowl could tolerate higher densities than upland game birds, and used predictable habitats, it was feasible for the public to own much migratory game habitat.

9 From Leopold’s 1919 article, “Wild Lifers and Game Farmers: A Plea for Democracy in Sport.” This was also Theodore Roosevelt’s belief. Note this comment from his Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter (1905, Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, p. 289): “… we should realize that the effort toward [conservation] is essentially a democratic movement. It is entirely in our power to as a nation to preserve large tracts of wilderness … as playgrounds for rich and poor alike, and to preserve the game so that it shall continue to exist for the benefit of all lovers of nature, and to give reasonable opportunities for the exercise of skill of the hunter, whether he is or not a man of means.”

10 It’s also why many conservationists today support the notion of compensating landowners for wildlife habitat. The problem of private lands conservation is very real. It’s just that incentives policies have not demonstrated success at the necessary scales.

11 In his Journal of Wildlife Management article “History of the Riley Game Cooperative, 1931-1939” (1940: 292), Leopold notes that “Each year since 1936 a graduate student has been assigned to Riley. During weekends and vacations he makes censuses, conducts in experiments in feeding and banding, and supervises plantings.”

12 It still does.

13 Note this remark from his article on the Riley Game Cooperative (1940: 300): “No farmer-sportsman group is stronger than the ties of mutual confidence and enthusiasm which binds its members.”


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  1. Correction: In the title of this piece, it should be “Goals” not “Goal.” For some reason, the “s” fell out. I still can’t get the hang of the posting system for NewWest. Maybe it’s an age thing.

  2. I enjoyed Hoskins’s excellent piece on Aldo Leopold and incentives. For those interested in reading more in the same vein, the Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute would be happy to send you a copy of our recent publication, “Battling Over Leopold’s Legacy,” by Eric Freyfogle. If you are interested in receving a copy, please send your mailing address to me at

    John Echeverria
    Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute

  3. Thanks for this article. I believe the future culture war will be fought mostly on this turf: property rights, conservation and what virtually every ecologist/environmental ethicist today calls “our crisis” of environmental degradation. The new west is the landscape in which this war is most polarized in my opinion. Witness the skirmishes between rural eastern Washington and more communitarian, green and urban Seattle which were actually couched in the overt terminologies of these political camps. Country folk actually marched into Seattle with signs and protest against growth management legislation last year.