Privately Protected Places

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Everybody has heard of Yellowstone National Park and even Tongass National Forest, the former under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and the latter under that of the Forest Service. But how many people have heard of the North Maine Woods, the Maine Coastal Heritage Trust, or the Eastern Pennsylvania Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, all of which are under nongovernmental control? Those and many other private parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and nature reserves are doing a much better job of preserving natural amenities than are the federal agencies.

Because of our shared interest in both environmentalism and liberty, my husband and I spent a year-long "working honeymoon" crisscrossing the country visiting private nature preserves and documenting their exciting and vitally important story. I focused on the writing, while my husband Scott, a professional fine-art photographer, recorded on film the lands that were quietly being preserved by individuals, conservation organizations, and business enterprises.

A year earlier, while studying geology at Pennsylvania State University, I had taken a course entitled "State of the World," after the annual publication of the same name. After many months of listening to unconvincing eco-statist rhetoric in class, I decided to do my research project on how free markets and private property rights could lead to more efficient and more permanent solutions to the many environmental problems facing the world today.

When I first presented my ideas in class, I found that most of the other students had never heard of a free-market approach to environmental policy. A few were skeptical; some were intrigued; but most were simply surprised. As my research progressed, it became clear why most of my classmates had never been exposed to free-market environmentalism. Even though I was actively looking for information on alternatives to government control, I found it difficult to locate the resources I needed. When I did find them, they were hardly as exciting as the message put out by the traditional environmental groups. Much of the literature on free-market environmentalism is couched in technical economics terms, such as externalities, transactions costs, opportunity costs, and capitalization. It was difficult for my classmates — as it seems to be for most other people — to visualize how a market system based on property rights, contracts, and the rule of law can safeguard environmental amenities better than a command-and-control governmental system.

To bring free-market environmentalism to the attention of more people in an emotionally appealing way, Scott and I decided to produce a coffee-table photography book showing the lands of private owners as protected places rather than as property requiring government protection. We contacted the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), two leading free-market environmental groups, and got suggestions and a modest (but very much appreciated) grant to allow us to visit and photograph numerous privately protected areas around the country.

Although the experts at PERC and CEI offered some suggestions about places to go, there is no central listing of the myriad privately preserved places. Often owners have no desire to open their property to visitors, because their concern is to minimize the damage too many visitors cause (witness Yellowstone or other state-owned parks). Some privately preserved places, such as those owned by private conservation organizations or businesses, are better known than others, so we used them as a starting point.

Our first home as husband and wife was a 1987 Dodge van we had converted into a makeshift camper. It had neither air conditioning nor running water; but it did have a propane stove and a good stereo, and it was already well broken in with an odometer reading of 115,000 miles. We added to those miles as we wound our way from Maine to New Mexico and from Oregon to Pennsylvania.

The East

We decided to start in the northeast and follow the autumn color back to Pennsylvania, so we made our way to Maine. Our first destination was the North Maine Woods, almost 3 million acres of working forest. Although not a true wilderness, the woods have remained essentially the same as they were a century ago, with vast tracts of forest and lakes, some accessible only by canoe or floatplane.

A cooperative effort joining property owned by 25 different timber and paper companies, the North Maine Woods are accessible through just a few user-fee stations. There are no visitor centers with park rangers, no gas stations or even paved roads. It is one of the few places where you can find true solitude. We would often spend days at a time with only moose, black bears, and beavers for company.

Next we made our way to the Atlantic coast to see some of the properties owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Lobsterman Jasper Cates lives along one of the most beautiful and pristine sections of Maine's rugged historic coastline. When developers threatened to build homes on one particular portion of rocky shoreline, Cates realized that the best way to protect it was, not to seek government intervention, but to buy the land. Gathering funding and support, he and a handful of concerned neighbors founded the Maine Coast Heritage Trust to purchase and protect what they could of Maine's remaining undeveloped rocky coast. What began as a plan to protect the historical and environmental treasures of a small community now protects thousands of acres of pristine islands and coastal property all along Maine's Atlantic shore.

We also visited Maine's Acadia National Park. Although the park is quite beautiful, it was hard to ignore the roads, cars, countless people, and accompanying development. The property of the trust, on the other hand, looked just like it had 200 years and more ago, thanks to Jasper Cates and his neighbors.

As we left Maine and made our way south to New York State, we began to learn more and more about the Nature Conservancy, one of the most respected environmental organizations. As we talked with people, we learned that the conservancy is not always what it seems.

Many private landowners in the Adirondack Park region of New York State, such as David Howard, founder of the Land Rights Foundation, view the Nature Conservancy as a threatening entity set on purchasing the private land inside the "green line" borders of the park. Because of onerous edicts and bureaucratic commands, many small private landowners within the park boundaries feel pressured to sell their property to the state for inclusion in the park. Because of continual and punitive government harassment, many decide to sell to the Nature Conservancy instead. What they don't realize is that often the conservancy will turn around and sell their family property to the government, often at a very great profit.

With a new wariness about the intentions of some conservation organizations, we made our way to Pennsylvania and another privately owned preserve. The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania lies along a natural migration route. In the early part of this century though, it was the end of the migration for thousands of raptors each year. At the time, all predators were considered undesirable. Hunters would stand on the rocky cliffs and shoot hundreds of birds a day as they slowly spiraled on the thermal updrafts.

Rosalie Edge, a leading conservationist of her day, finally stopped the slaughter by purchasing the mountain in 1934. Because of Edge and her sanctuary manager, Maurice Brown, both of whom literally risked their lives to prevent hunting of the birds they treasured, bird watchers now gather where hunters once stood. Today the 2,000-acre reserve is considered one of the best birding locations in the world.

The West

After a brief rest at home over Christmas, Scott and I headed west on the next leg of our journey. This time we planned to visit lands owned by individuals and families, rather than by organizations or businesses as we had in the East.

When we approached ranchers to explain our project, we were greeted with gratitude and hospitality. We were welcomed into their homes, communities, and families. Most of them never get credit for the conservation and restoration work they do on their land. They were happy to, for once, be seen as friends of the environment.

We visited many landowners on the trip, but a few stand out. The Yamsi Ranch and Iram Wild Horse Preserve are both run by the Hyde family. Dayton Hyde is perhaps best known for his many books about his experiences on his Oregon ranch and for breaking a seemingly unbreakable rancher's law — he welcomed coyotes on his land. Instead of killing them, he fed them. As a result, Hyde no longer needed to worry about coyotes attacking his herds.

Today, Dayton's wife, Gerda, and their grown children manage the Yamsi Ranch and continue the family tradition of holistic planning. On the afternoon we arrived, son John and his brother-in-law Scott Jayne were following in Gerda Hyde's footsteps by replanting willows along the banks of the Upper Williamson River. Over the years, Gerda herself replanted, by hand, over 250,000 trees on the ranch.

The Hydes have also made other improvements to their property. John Hyde explained to us the necessity of cattle in a brittle, arid environment, such as theirs. He showed us how, without grazing, the live grasses become choked with clumps of dead plant matter until the entire plant eventually dies. To keep the grasslands green, the Hydes graze each parcel intensively for a short period of time, followed by a long rest to allow the grasses to regrow.

Near the end of our tour of the property, John Hyde drove us to a natural spring that empties into the river. As we drank from the spring, John told us that, unlike many ranchers, they use no pesticides on their cattle that might contaminate this pure water. The Hydes have controlled the fly problem by selective breeding.

Although the Hydes have done a great deal of work on their own property, their influence can also be felt elsewhere. In addition to starting the Wildlife Stronghold program, an association of landowners dedicated to protecting the wildlife on their property, the Hydes took action to protect the delicate watershed surrounding their ranch. A five-year plan was worked out that brought together an interesting mix of Native Americans, ranchers, liberals, and conservatives to protect the watershed of the Upper Williamson River. Just as the program looked as if it might be a success, Forest Service regulations brought all efforts to a halt. Nothing could be done to the watershed that was on National Forest land. Without that vital part, all work was in vain.

Undeterred, the Hyde family continues to reach out to educate the community. By conducting school field trips, trail rides, and offering catch-and-release fly fishing opportunities, the Hydes make sure that word of their work spreads.

Lately, Dayton Hyde has turned his attentions to another project, the Iram Wild Horse Sanctuary, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The sanctuary, founded as a nonprofit organization, provides a home for unadoptable wild horses on over 11,000 acres of spectacular land that is also home to scattered remains of Native American tepee rings and petroglyphs.

Dayton Hyde knows that public property rarely serves the best interest of the environment. Many National Parks face the constant problem of preventing the great numbers of visitors from damaging what they have traveled so far to enjoy. Trail erosion, litter, and even intentional destruction and vandalism of natural treasures are all unavoidable problems on public property. That "tragedy of the commons" does not occur on protected private property. Hyde told us that no additional damage has been done to the petroglyphs, or to any other part of the sanctuary, since it has been in his care. Because access to the horses' habitat can be carefully controlled, the land and the horses can thrive.

Guided tours, trail rides, special western events, and overnight accommodations in authentically styled tepees attract many visitors to the sanctuary. Tourism is the driving force that allows the sanctuary to remain in operation.

The Southwest

As our journey continued farther south, we met a man who has brought new life to a ruined and dying landscape in the mountains of central New Mexico. Thirteenth-century petroglyphs of fish and beaver in the area gave a very different picture of the dry and barren tract of land that rancher Sid Goodloe had purchased in 1956. Through 40 years of hard work, Goodloe was able to successfully rebuild the natural savanna ecosystem historically found there.

By a combination of cutting, bulldozing, and prescribed burning, Goodloe removed water-hungry piñon and juniper trees that had taken root as a result of decades of overgrazing and unnatural, government-sponsored fire-suppression programs. His goal was to return the land to its natural state. Like the Hydes, he used his cattle as an environmental tool.

Whereas the natural fire cycle formerly removed excess brush, Goodloe now does so by hand. Invading water-hungry piñon and juniper created an incredible demand on the area's typically minute water resources. Once the piñon and juniper had been removed, long-dead springs came alive and water began to flow in the streams once again. Careful fencing of the stream banks allowed natural willows and cottonwoods to take root as silt re-covered the eroded bedrock of the stream. Today, trout thrive in the small stream beside Goodloe's modest adobe house, just as they did many centuries ago.

Native grassland plants also began to thrive on the open prairie when the piñon and juniper were gone. Elk, mule deer, and turkeys now flock to the property from the surrounding National Forest lands to feed on the new bounty.

Ever since the original Smokey the Bear was found as a badly burned and injured cub just a few miles from Capitan, New Mexico, total fire suppression had been the unquestioned rule of the forest. Goodloe's dramatic success with his property, however, finally gave Forest Service managers reason to question that policy. Ironically enough, when local managers tried to make the same improvements to abused and overgrown National Forest property, all attempts at change were halted by the Endangered Species Act: the National Forest contained habitat of the endangered goshawk.

On July 3, 1994, as Capitan celebrated the 50th anniversary of Smokey's rescue, lightning struck the Patos Mountain National Forest bordering Sid Goodloe's property. Years of governmental fire suppression had allowed an unnatural buildup of dead brush that encouraged the flames to climb high into the upper canopy of the trees. The goshawk habitat, along with much of the surrounding National Forest property, was destroyed.

In the end, it was Goodloe's management practices that allowed the fire to be contained. The firefighters used as the edge of their backfire his ranch, which sustained only a mild cleansing burn that recycled the biomass nutrients; rid the area of underbrush; and left the larger trees, with their natural resistance to low-intensity fires.

When we started our trip, we had an intellectual grasp of free-market environmentalism. We knew about the incentives involved in private ownership and the economic realities of the market. We learned much more as we talked with, and worked alongside, individual landowners, the real environmentalists, who are motivated by a love and respect for the land — their land.

Collette Ridgeway

Collette Ridgeway is director of student applications at the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University.