“Where birds thrive people prosper,” according to Audubon Louisiana. It’s the canary in the coalmine story; healthy bird populations are an indicator of environmental health.

But it is not just about protecting the environment. There is a symbiotic relationship between the environment and people. On the Audubon Society’s Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, the group demonstrates what it means to enhance environmental health by balancing conservation and production. The Rainey Sanctuary is one of the Audubon’s “Important Bird Areas.”

But in addition to protecting bird habitat on the 24,000 acre sanctuary in southwest Louisiana, gas wells have provided significant revenues to expand conservation well beyond its borders.

Protecting the environment is not an all or nothing equation, rather it is a constant consideration of tradeoffs. In fact, an attempt to protect everything makes little sense, as that would sacrifice human health and prosperity.

Poor Policy, Political Gain, and Bad Stewardship

It is a prevailing notion that the government knows best how to protect the environment. But political management is intrinsically polarized. A look at the management of the US federal lands provides evidence that government is not such a good steward.

Federal lands make up over a quarter of the nation. Though there are multiple designations for federally owned land, the majority is to be managed for “preservation, recreation, and development of natural resources.”

Yet, almost one-third of the acreage managed by the Forest Service is at high risk of catastrophic wildfire—and over half of the agency’s budget is used to fight wildfires each year.

Fire risk has increased due in part to an 80 percent reduction in harvest and a rise in tree mortality. The reduced harvest has less to do with environmental quality and sustainable timber production than with political management. A once powerful timber industry has all but vanished, thanks to environmental groups that have mobilized to influence government decision-makers. Federal forest use has shifted from excessive timber harvest to almost none. Neither are good for forest health, recreation, or sustainable resource production.

The national parks, including our “crown jewels,” are also in dire need of attention. The deferred maintenance backlog in the National Park Service is $11.9 billion and growing. Visitor centers, wastewater systems, roads, bridges, and trails are deteriorating with insufficient funding to maintain them.

Yet while the federal land resources are left to degrade, money is available to buy more lands. There is more political gain from new designations than improved day-to-day maintenance. Federal land management exemplifies the political misallocation of resources.

An Alternative to Government Control

Private rights provide an alternative to government control. When property rights are secure, good stewardship that considers the value of alternative uses is a natural outcome.

Audubon Louisiana has owned the surface and mineral rights of the Rainey Sanctuary since 1924. From the early 1950s until the late 1990s, access to the mineral rights on the Rainey were leased for gas development. While pumping gas was not benign to the landscape, activity was closely monitored and managed to minimize the impact.

Why the Audubon Society, with an organizational mission to protect wildlife habitat, would allow drilling development on its land is a crucial question. As a landowner, the organization realizes there is value to alternate uses of its land. By allowing drilling, Audubon earned more than $25 million to further enhance environmental quality on the Rainey and elsewhere.

At the same time, the Audubon Society is opposed to drilling on federal lands. Hypocritical? No. Audubon receives none of the financial benefits from federal mineral royalties. Nor do they have control over potentially damaging actions on federal land.

A Realistic Environmental Vision

Protecting the environment is not free. To wisely invest in environmental quality requires an understanding of the value of alternative resource uses. Government environmentalism is a polarized, winner-take-all game where special interests are inherently blind to alternative uses. Private environmentalism evolves with changing social demands by realizing the various resource values.

The key to private environmentalism is to secure rights that allow negotiation and trade and hold owners accountable. It is the mutual gains from trade that encourages private owners to consider different uses. Unlike the polarized conflicts that occur on federal lands, private environmentalism meets demands through win-win solutions.

Let’s celebrate Earth Day with a realistic look at nature that includes humans in their interdependent role to enhance and balance both environmental quality and prosperity.