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Hannah Downey, an environmental policy expert, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss how markets and the private sector can help tackle environmental challenges.

Hannah Downey: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 32 Transcript

By Chelsea Follett @Chellivia

By Hannah Downey @handowney

The conversation between Chelsea Follett and Hannah Downey can be found here. The transcript is below.

Chelsea Follett: Joining me today is Hannah Downey. Hannah is the Policy Director at the Property and Environment Research Center or PERC, helping to bring free-market solutions to environmental policy challenges. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and the Salt Lake Tribune, among other outlets. After being introduced to PERC in college, she pursued the ideas of free market environmentalism and became a PERC research assistant. She graduated from Montana State University with degrees in Economics and Political Science in 2015. And though she grew up in the Midwest, Hannah says she was lucky enough to spend her summers in Montana and worked as a backpacking guide in the Absaroka, if I have that correct, Beartooth Wilderness throughout college. Hannah now calls Bozeman home and fills her spare moments coaching youth, mountain biking, serving on the board of the local ski foundation and enjoying the wonderful outdoors every way she can. How are you, Hannah?

Hannah Downey: I am doing so well. Thank you so much for having me on today.

Chelsea Follett: And are you joining from Montana?

Hannah Downey: I am, I’m lucky to be based in Bozeman, which is the most wonderful place on Earth to be talking about environmental issues.

Chelsea Follett: I’ve heard it’s beautiful. For people who aren’t familiar with free-market environmentalism, what is that?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, so we at PERC, we’re the home of free market environmentalism, and it’s this wonderful idea that we can find and there are free market solutions to environmental challenges, and in fact, the free market instead of government or… Command and control approaches is actually the best way to achieve these conservation outcomes, so we at PERC we’re dedicated to advancing conservation through markets, incentives, property rights and partnerships, and so a lot of what this is all rooted in are the ideas of property rights, markets, trade, and a lot of this boils down to the ideas that kind of transcend, I would argue, most free market thinking, right? The ideas of ownership and in our standpoint, that comes down to people take really good care of things they own. You don’t wash your rental car, same thing with natural resources, you are more likely to steward them and care about sustainable use or even protecting those resources when there’s an ownership stake there. Additionally, there’s accountability, a secure property right. The idea that if someone comes in and damages the thing that you own, you can hold them liable for that. If someone comes in and pollutes all on your property, you’re able to hold them accountable for that. And finally, the idea of trade. If you have a right to a resource, you can trade and you’re able to realize the values that other people put on that resource and also understand that you can re-allocate those.

Hannah Downey: We aren’t stuck in existing systems, so that’s sort of the basis of free market environmentalism, and we just apply those ideas to conservation challenges, and so free market environmentalism looks like leasing water to leave it in stream for fish populations, it looks like recycling plastics into making fabric, it looks like private companies engaging in conservation outcomes, so there’s a lot of opportunity there, and at PERC we really focus on the land, water and wildlife side of things.

Chelsea Follett: How did you personally get involved with free-market environmentalism and PERC, and why do you think the market-based approach is the best way forward for conservation efforts?

Hannah Downey: That is such an excellent question, and so I think my bio kind of teased a little bit of this out, but truly, my love in life is being outdoors, I love to be in the mountains, I love to be in the water, that is… It’s a really personal and real issue for me. When I’m not in the office working on these sorts of things, I’m out skiing or hiking, or hunting or whatever that might be. Just able to get out and enjoy it. So, I really come from this intense desire that I think the average American, the average world citizen has that nature is this wonderful thing and we should care about conservation. There’s a reason to be invested in our natural world. So as I was going about, thinking about what I wanted to do with my professional life and what I wanted to study, realized more and more that kind of the way that we had always done things was to approach environmental conservation from a big government perspective, from a command and control perspective of a, We just need to regulate things, we need to tell people not to do things, and that just didn’t really align with what I was seeing on the ground.

Hannah Downey: It wasn’t locally led, we weren’t seeing voluntary cooperation, all of the things that you see in real life contribute to sustainable, lasting outcomes, that wasn’t the framework that the broader political space was approaching conservation from. So I was lucky enough to be introduced to PERC while I was in college through some research projects that I was doing, and was able to just learn about this different way of thinking and realizing that we have all these tools that we have figured out how to produce bread or iPhones or whatever it is, and it’s like, Well, if what we’re demanding as people is environmental quality, amazing market approaches can get us there. So I’m really, really excited to have been a part of PERC. I started as a research assistant, I’m now our policy director, so I have the unique opportunity to think through a lot of how do the ideas that come from 40 plus years of PERC research, how do we translate those into environmental policy proposals? And how do we engage in that space to really ensure we are getting the incentives right and leading with the right messaging so that we can really achieve those good outcomes on the ground.

Chelsea Follett: So you’ve been involved in this policy space for quite a while now. How have you seen the free-market environmental movement grow or change over the course of that time? And what has been the reception to some of these ideas from… Many environmentalists are more on the left as you said, maybe they have more of a government-based approach toward conservation, so I’m curious about the reception towards some of these policies that you’ve been putting forward.

Hannah Downey: Yeah, we at PERC kinda like to joke that about 40 years ago when we started, back before I was even around, that we were a voice in the wilderness, that this was a very new idea. We’re coming from the era of really intense regulations looking at the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, where very much environmentalism was saying, “Stop, don’t do these things.” And so PERC was a very new idea of looking beyond government for these sorts of solutions. And since then it has been really amazing to actually see some of this receptivity. Certainly, there are still some very… I would say intense and often litigious, very strong maybe left-leaning environmental groups who only want to see government doing things and have an intense mistrust of anything that the private sector or markets or incentives might do, but that being said, the average person and many of the groups that we work with are seeing these outcomes on the ground, and that’s the biggest thing is as PERC has explored these ideas and been able to implement some of these ideas, we have seen how market-oriented approaches are restoring fisheries in our oceans.

Hannah Downey: We have seen our market approaches are securing migration corridors for ungulates in the west, we are seeing these actions actually lead to good conservation outcomes, and so there is now an openness to these sorts of market ideas. Certainly, not everyone is gonna go the pure free market approach, but there’s this understanding that incentives now matter for conservation, and so we are really encouraged to see that this realization is happening, and more and more groups are realizing that this is what achieves lasting outcomes on the ground.

Chelsea Follett: How can people who are fascinated by this approach get involved and what is environmental entrepreneurship?

Hannah Downey: Yes. Well, first and foremost, I have to plug PERC on this. If this is something that you are interested in, please reach out to us. We love to have these conversations. We have various fellowships, if you’re an academic interested in exploring these ideas, and that doesn’t just mean an economist, you can be an ecologist, a law professor or a student for any of these things, come join us, we’d love to work with you and think about research opportunities and ways to advance these ideas. We hold various seminars and things throughout the year that we’d love people to participate, so check out our website, P-E-R-C.org, reach out to us, we’d love for you to be involved in that direct way.

Hannah Downey: But beyond that, I think it just goes to translating this kind of mindset to day-to-day activities, and that can be… You brought up enviropreneurs, which is what we call the environmental entrepreneurs, and that’s an appreciation that private industry and business and capitalism can do really amazing things for the environment. We’ve been able to work with everyone from private companies trying to think through how can they create a greener product, how can they have a product, but they’re using it to create a sort of a plastic bank approach where you’re able to bring in plastic and trade it then for other goods or services you might need, and therefore we’re reducing pollution. We’ve also worked with people looking at how can we use dye for fabrics to have that have less of an environmental impact.

Hannah Downey: There is this amazing space where entrepreneurs can either take a product that we already have and produce it in a way that is more efficient with resources, so we’re being better stewards of our resources, we also have entrepreneurs who are creating products that allow us to do better environmental work. I think in the tech space, we’ve seen incredible advancements there, where we’re able to apply technology to solving these environmental problems, and without entrepreneurs stepping in and actually creating those products that we can apply to environmental challenges, we wouldn’t have that. So, there’s so many opportunities there, and we would… We would just love to create this culture of enviropreneurship, an entrepreneurship when it comes to the environment.

Chelsea Follett: You also mentioned at one point that you advocate for a more locally-led approach to conservation. What are some of the advantages of locally-led, more decentralized conservation efforts as opposed to a centralized model, more led by bureaucrats?

Hannah Downey: That is a huge question and one that is so central to how we think about things at PERC, as I’m sure so many listeners or viewers have experienced, your unique local community faces unique local challenges. So I’m gonna bring up an example just outside Bozeman here, where we are… Where we have predators, and these are endangered species who have been cultivated or either re-introduced on the landscape, specifically maybe wolves and grizzlies. So we have these species that are federally protected and we provide their habitat, it’s just the region where we are, and the goal is to grow and recover these species’ population, so they no longer have to be in the federal emergency room but can be returned to state management as a healthy population of the species. One of the challenges that we face that I don’t think many people realize is there are threats from these predators, both threats to human lives, to agriculture viability, they kill livestock, and so there’s a lot of conflict surrounding some of these species, but to many who maybe aren’t on the ground here, they don’t understand that these species come with a cost and their presence comes with a cost. So while we want to actively recover them and move to those healthy populations, we have to consider those costs and we have to make sure that we are engaging with people on the ground.

Hannah Downey: And so we’ve seen locally some really innovative ideas come together, such as some groups starting compensation funds that have now grown kind of across the west, but where we’re able to compensate for some of those costs, the wildlife lovers are able to compensate for a cow that is killed by a wolf or something like that. And so those are the sorts of ideas where if you didn’t understand the local make-up on the ground and the local impacts that that species was having, you wouldn’t be able to contribute to a culture that is accepting of that species, so it’s a complicated issue, but I think those are… We have to start locally so that we can truly understand the cost and benefits associated with the environmental challenge.

Chelsea Follett: And that’s a great segue to talking about species conservation and biodiversity, and this is something I know you’ve done a lot of work on, everything from elk populations in Montana where you’re based to how we can preserve elephants and lions in Africa. You wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. Could you walk us through how a market approach can help to preserve different species and biodiversity with some examples?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, absolutely, and we’ve touched on… You bring up some of the best examples that we really have, and I think a lot of this comes down to, in order for species to survive, they require a habitat, and that habitat can mean someone’s farmer ranch, it can mean a public landscape, it can meet all these other things, but there’s ultimately this whole ecosystem that’s happening and these other demands on a landscape, so species using that habitat is just one of those demands on that landscape. And so at PERC we really think about how can we make wildlife an asset instead of a liability for the people who live or work with those species? Elk in Montana, they eat hay, they can spread disease to livestock, predators in Montana, we briefly talked about wolves and grizzly bears, they directly kill livestock and come at a huge financial cost to the ranchers on the landscape. Let’s go to Africa where we mentioned elephants and lions and things, again, there’s impacts, the elephants can… Their human impact, human lives, also can trample crops or disrupt communities. So I think there it comes to realizing we have these costs, what can we do about it? And so at PERC, we’re really committed to finding ways for the people who value those wildlife to help out at the very least offset that cost.

Hannah Downey: A really great example that we have here in Montana with the elk is PERC was a part of Montana’s first elk occupancy agreement or habitat lease is another word for it, where we were able to go to a rancher who had these elk populations move through along their migratory corridors, and they were directly competing with the rancher’s cattle for forage and also there was risk of disease, and so what we did was we were able to very quickly arrange a contract with this rancher where we leased some of his habitat during the season where the elk are moving through, so he moved his cows off, we helped fund a wildlife friendly fence so the elk could still move through, but the cattle were separated and those elk could then come in and eat the native grasses and have a healthy forage as they’re moving along this migration corridor. And it’s not… And we were able to offset that cost for the rancher and now everyone’s happy, and it was really amazing, we were able to get that contract under way in just a few short months, and you think of… If you use maybe a Farm Bill program or a federal government program, you can’t have that agility, you can’t move that quickly, there are so many stages of review.

Hannah Downey: And so while I’m really happy to see that there are programs out there that… Government programs that are starting to recognize the power of incentives are offsetting those costs, one of the challenges is they just can’t move as quickly as the private sector, so we’ve had great success, we’re looking at expanding on that, but I think that’s just one example that really goes to show how we think about market forces and our role as wildlife advocates in that exchange.

Chelsea Follett: I think that’s great, how you approach people and forces that people… Now, there’s a big misconception, I think, that groups like ranchers might be natural enemies to conservation and instead, you approach them and find ways to actually see how they can help with conservation. And I think that it is a misconception that market forces are diametrically opposed to environmental interests. Fans of HumanProgress.org know that we’ve been seeing many species rebound in recent years and conservation efforts are usually the best in the wealthier countries. There’s something called the environmental Kuznets curve that I’m sure you’re aware of, but for any listeners that need a reminder, after a country passes a certain level of economic development, it tends to start devoting more resources to environmental conservation, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. And another area that you are an expert on in addition to species conservation is forest management. And you’ve been doing some really exciting work there that I think our listeners would love to hear about.

Hannah Downey: Yeah, thank you for the opportunity to talk about forests as well, because I think it all feeds right back into what you were talking about of, how do we view humans and communities as partners in this rather than targets that we have to do conservation too? It’s how do we build on partnerships and local collaboration rather than just targeting people and forcing them to do things? And so you brought up ranchers, I think the Forestry Community is another instance here where we have some potential partners and really cool private entrepreneurs starting to do amazing work in the forest space, but before we dive into that, I should probably back up a little bit and lay the groundwork for why we’re having this forest conversation. So if you live in the West, you are very directly impacted by the ongoing wildfire crisis, you have probably seen flames, had smoke, know someone who has been evacuated.

Hannah Downey: Just absolutely tragic impacts. If you aren’t in the West, you have also still probably experienced wildfire, the smoke travels all across the United States, you’ve probably had days on the east coast where you have woken up and seen smoke or smog or all this pollution traveling across the US from smoke and wildfires in the west. And beyond the human impacts of loss of infrastructure, loss of homes, loss of human life, tragically, we are seeing situations where wildlife habitat is completely destroyed. Forests are one of our best sources of drinking water. A wildfire rips through, and we have no…

Hannah Downey: Our water quality is severely damaged, recreation and people who love to get out and hike or bird watch or whatever it might be, you have all of these implications, and then the carbon emissions from wildfires. I believe it was last year, the amount of carbon emitted was equal to about having 25 million cars on the road for a year, and that is just… No matter where you come from, you should be caring about this forest issue. And so that is where… From PERC, we approach it from, how do we prevent… How do we better prevent these wildfires, how do we better contribute to restoring our forests and building healthy resilient forests, so that when fires come through, they aren’t catastrophic? Fire is historically natural on our landscapes, but the catastrophic fires we’re seeing are because we have had so much fire suppression over the years, build up of fuels, not getting in there and actively managing our forests, so now when a fire comes through, it’s absolutely catastrophic.

Hannah Downey: They’re burning hotter, they’re burning bigger, they’re costing millions to billions of dollars in all of these… In direct and indirect costs, and it is just tragic. And so at PERC, we’ve really been trying to think through how do we improve our policies so that we can get in there and more actively restore our forests? And when I’m talking about that, I’m talking about mechanical thinning, which is everything ranging from traditional logging operations, where you’d see a company going in, harvesting timber, and that is being turned into homes or whatever it is.

Hannah Downey: It also ranges down to just purely needing to get in there and harvest the small diameter timber that maybe doesn’t have commercial value, but is contributing to the over-growth in our forests. So mechanical thinning is one tool, also prescribed burning where you’re actually having trained people go in and administer low intensity fires on the landscape that help just clear… Under very controlled conditions to make sure that you’re doing these small low-intensity burns to clear out the underbrush. So those are two of the tools that we are looking at advancing to do more forest restoration work. And what we have repeatedly found in this work is that there are policies that get in the way of doing these good things, there’s growing bipartisan recognition that we need to restore our forests to reduce this wildfire crisis. But there are all of these policy hurdles that get in the way: Litigation, red tape, lack of capacity, and we really think that there are some de-regulatory private industry solutions that can really help with the problem.

Chelsea Follett: That is really interesting how the problem has been caused in large part by a lack of active management. I think a lot of people believe that the best way to protect forests is to just not touch them and let Mother Nature achieve an equilibrium, but that is really an example of the naturalistic fallacy. And of course, human beings have been managing the environment in different ways, for millennia, there are archeological examples of clearing fires being used by different communities across the world for a very long time, but we’re able to do it better now, I believe, than in the past, of course. Can you talk a little bit about that distinction and where is the resistance coming from to active management of forests?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, that is a great question, and I think a really great point. So historically, there was… Yeah, or there have been amongst many very vocal environmental groups, this tendency that the best thing we can do for the forests is not touch it. Well, that’s where now we’re seeing, I think this year alone, we’ve seen over 6 million acres burn, and it’s just catastrophic. And so there is this growing recognition as people are directly seeing their homes and their neighborhoods and their communities and wildlife habitat and water sheds destroyed by fire, there is this wonderful, growing bipartisan recognition that we need to do more. Certainly, there are still, I would describe them as maybe more fringe environmental groups that will litigate over these activities, so it is really encouraging to see that there’s this recognition that we need to get in and actively manage forests. It’s no longer… We need to leave the environmental perception in the past of, the best way to care for the environment is to not do anything. We are starting to leave that, at least in the forest context and move into a more, what we need is proactive good management. The problem is many of our policies and regulations are set up in that “stop anything bad” approach rather than “promote doing good” approach.

Hannah Downey: So for example, PERC recently, we have looked at the National Environmental Policy Act, and exactly what that means in the forest management context, NEPA, as many have heard it called, and it applies to energy development, and it also applies to the forest context. And so what we have researchers go in and look at is, how long does that delay a project, how long does getting that environmental review and permitting, how long does that actually stop it? Once we say, We know we need to do something in this forest to increase its resiliency and reduce wildfire risk, when can we actually make a change? And so we have found that when you have to actually go in and do an environmental impact statement, the most stringent level of review for a mechanical treatment, you are looking at about five and a half years between project… Like, idea initiation to actually starting to apply that treatment on the ground. And for a prescribed burn, you’re looking at over seven years. So, that’s a very long time. Add in litigation, and we’re looking at almost a decade of delays, which is absolutely crazy when we’re saying, “Alright, well, right now, we know that we need to be treating about 80 million acres just in National Forest System land to reduce this wildfire risk,” and we’re currently treating about 2 million a year, so we’re not doing great.

Hannah Downey: And even if we’re able to accelerate and use all this money that has come from all of these various big government packages passed by Congress recently, that doesn’t get to the timing delays. And we have seen instances, for example, the Pumice Project in the Klamath National Forest, there was a forest management project planned there, and a group of environmental litigants, they came forward and said, “Well, actually, getting in there and doing some of this treatment work, cutting down trees, clearing brush, those sorts of things, that’s gonna harm this federally protected owl.” Well, guess what happened while this project was stuck in litigation? A forest fire came through and destroyed the very owl habitat that this environmental group was claiming to be protecting. And so I think here we see the damages of those delays. If we aren’t able to move quickly to expend resources to do some of this work, we are harming the exact environmental benefits that we’re claiming we want to protect. So I think this is a huge issue, an area where PERC is looking really closely to try and see, how do we break through some of that regulation to accelerate the work that needs to be done.

Chelsea Follett: I think that’s a great point about how markets can move more quickly and are often more dynamic than governments. So if you believe that environmental protection is an urgent matter, favoring an approach like the market-based approach where things can evolve more quickly, where you can respond more quickly to different challenges, that makes a lot of sense. What are some of the other government challenges or barriers to environmentalism, do you think?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, I’d say, timing and regulation is often a huge one. We’ve talked a little bit about it, but the idea that regulation is so strongly based in, “Don’t do bad things,” well, we’re at a point in time where we need to start doing good things. Let’s take the… We’ll go back to the Endangered Species Act a little bit, that we talked about earlier. So, private lands provide essential habitat for endangered species. Without private lands, these species would be extinct. The Endangered Species Act has done a good job through very heavy-handed regulation, of maybe keeping species from going extinct, however, fewer than 3% of species that have found themselves on that list have actually recovered. So we need to be asking ourselves, like, “Alright, maybe regulation has done a good job of saying, ‘Stop doing these bad things,’ but we need to actively be involving those private landowners who provide habitat, and restoring habitat and recovering species, and getting these species to a recovery and delisted state.” The challenge is that while these species are on the list, they’re fully regulated.

Hannah Downey: You can be punished for the presence of these species, we have seen instances of landowners preemptively cutting down trees, because they’re afraid that if they let their trees grow, it’s gonna become habitat for an endangered woodpecker. And if once that woodpecker comes in, that family won’t be able to use that forest land in the way they previously had. So we’re completely dis-incentivizing active engagement by private landowners in species recovery and habitat restoration, or providing that habitat at all. And so this is where, from PERC’s perspective, it’s, we need to remove some of those regulations, we need to instead be finding ways for these local cooperatives, things like our Elk Occupancy Agreement. And as you know, the Elk is not endangered, but those sorts of approaches that create value for these species, so that there’s a reason for landowners to say, “Sure, we’re willing to partner with these groups to engage on habitat restoration and grow these species populations to a point of recovery.”

Hannah Downey: That’s a really, really big one for us. We talked a little bit about litigation and NEPA, those are just two tools where we see regulation coming in and really increasing the barriers to getting good work done. We’re at a point in time where we know a lot of what needs to be done, we need to be providing habitat, we need to be restoring our forests, we know these things, but if all of the barriers are enacted in a way that makes it difficult to get there, then people aren’t willing to engage, local communities aren’t willing to engage, the private landowners, the ranchers, the sportsmen, they are unwilling to actually devote their resources on the ground. And groups are eager to do that, but I think we need to burst through those barriers.

Chelsea Follett: And the market approach is nimble enough to be able to do that and respond quickly when the unintended consequences of some of those well-intentioned government actions come to light. That’s, I think, a good segue maybe into climate change. So that’s obviously an issue that people are very concerned about, regarding the environment. I think that when people think about the future of the environment, for many people, that’s at the top of their minds, the top issue, if not one of them. How would you say a market-based approach or oriented approach can address climate change, and what work has PERC maybe been doing in that arena, if anything?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, that’s a great question, and that’s certainly an overarching issue on all of these things. And going back a little bit to the enviropreneur discussion we had, there are incredible technologies and tools that we’ve had and are refining and are developing still that can help address a lot of that, ranging from carbon capture to nuclear, to even just watching how we’ve become more efficient with resources, I think that’s a huge thing that market signals can share, is when we’re able to actually have a market and have prices reflect scarcity or values on things, we become a lot more efficient. And we have the tools to do that. So from PERC’s perspective, I think that is one of the greatest challenges of how do we unleash the market so that we can innovate, so that we can be creative, so that we can advance technologies to really make a difference here, in allowing us to be more efficient with resources and allowing us to remedy maybe past situations. And I think carbon capture is an area where the intersection of tech, environmentalism, innovation, private ingenuity have all come together to make incredible advancements. But a lot of this comes down to, how do we not let government pick the winners and losers here, how do we let the market run with those sorts of things?

Hannah Downey: Because we’ve talked about regulation and the burdens that that enacts, but also when you look at policy, there are often carve-outs for whatever group is able to lobby the best, or things like that. And so we’re, again, going back to choosing those winners and losers, when what we really need is solid competition and allowing humans to do what we do best, which is get creative and solve real problems.

Chelsea Follett: For listeners who are interested in this topic, I have to plug the Simon Abundance Index. And the new book by my colleague, Marian, “Superabundance,” which is all about how resources have become more abundant through greater efficiency, brought about by market processes like you were just discussing, Hannah. And I think that an overarching theme in what you have been saying is, you keep coming back to technology and the different ways that we can use technology or we can use human problem-solving skills to address different issues ranging from climate change to forest management. And this kind of represents a tension where some people, again, who care about the environment, do I think tend to rely on this naturalistic fallacy or this idea of the primeval environment untouched and unsullied by human interference being the ideal that we have to get back to. And they see anything new or unnatural as, if not a threat to the environment, at least suspect. How would you answer someone who is skeptical of using technology or human interference or involvement to address environmental challenges?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, that’s a great question because they seem at opposite ends of each other, the concept of an iPhone and a walk in the woods seem so different. But I just encourage people to look at what we’ve been able to do, and I should clarify, what I’m advocating for is not that we should take over Yellowstone National Park and put in a new Silicon Valley, because of the importance of tech. It’s understanding that there’s an intersection and a relationship between those worlds that can allow us to expand our understanding of the natural world and therefore allow us to be better stewards there and allow us to understand that these technologies are what… I keep going back to efficiency, because I think that is one of the clearest standards we have to understand how to do more with less. That’s how we’ve been able to feed so many more people while still keeping places like Yellowstone National Park around and not needing to take it over to produce food or clothing or whatever it might be. So that, I think, is just really important that we can look at those examples. I’m gonna applaud my friend, Todd Myers, at Washington Policy Center.

Hannah Downey: He is one of the best people I know on this, and he has some books and a new book coming out very shortly here, that really looks at this intersection, and even how apps and citizen science and plugging in on an app where you’ve seen a bird or something, how that is informing us to make better environmental decisions, so that we can know, where are we gonna have a big environmental impact or where are we not? How can we choose those… How can we better understand and have the knowledge so that we can weigh those trade-offs and make those decisions? And again, a lot of it comes back to knowledge is essentially making these good decisions and sending all of that decision-making power up to someone in Washington DC who has maybe never been on the ground, that’s a bad situation. But when we’re able to have these tools to gather knowledge, understand trade-offs, have those local voices elevated, that is when we will see lasting conservation outcomes.

Chelsea Follett: That’s a great point about de-materialization, doing more with less. And it kind of gets back to, again, the idea that ranchers and farmers are not the enemies of the environment. In fact, advances that we’ve seen in agriculture that allow us to create more food with less land, that’s been huge in terms of returning land to the natural environments. I would love to end on a positive note, since this is the Human Progress Podcast. Of course, this entire thing has been filled with very positive energy, actually, because you and PERC have such a solutions-oriented, hopeful approach and a practical approach to the environment. But if there are any recent successes of PERC or other people in this policy space that you could talk about to just demonstrate what’s possible and uplift listeners worried about the future of the environment, well, what kind of case for environmental optimism can you make with recent examples?

Hannah Downey: Yeah, that is a great question, and I love to highlight that. Yeah, PERC is really solutions-oriented, we are trying to come in and say, “There’s a lot of challenges out there, certainly, but we can do this, we have the tools at our disposal to make something happen here.” And so I guess I’ll just share a few of the examples that I’ve been really excited about recently, and hopefully listeners will also share some of my enthusiasm here, but I touched on our Elk Occupancy Agreement earlier, and that in my mind, is an amazing example. I think that’s something that we can really work on scaling up. It goes back to your point of, farmers and ranchers and working lands, they’re some of the greatest conservationists of open space, of grasslands, of wetlands, of all of these things, and it is so telling to me that these partners, they have voluntarily placed about 56 million acres to conservation easements. And that doesn’t even capture all of the ones who aren’t in conservation easements, but that amount of space just in conservation easements, that 56 million acres, that’s equal to the size of the State of Minnesota, that’s double the amount of land managed by the National Park Service in the lower 48. And so that to me is just so telling of…

Hannah Downey: We need these sorts of ideas where we are able to highlight the work that is being done by these private landowners and find solutions like the Elk Occupancy Agreement, where we’re able to bring in… Be partners, and conservationists are able to recognize the conservation value that those working lands have and find some of these nimble, quick approaches to help offset costs so that we can continue to see that balance exist against the threats of development or whatever, just the hardships that working lands face these days. So that’s one example I really wanted to highlight. Another one that is really fun to me and very personal to me is the Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Incentive Program. This is something PERC worked on for years, and we’ve now seen it implemented at the Bureau of Land Management with great success. So for those who don’t know, Wild Horses and Burros, you think of these majestic animals galloping across the western rangelands, just iconic. Well, the reality is, we have way too many of them, and they’re coming at a huge environmental impact, they’re competing with native species, they double in population about every four years, so we just don’t have enough forage, we don’t have enough water, they’re out-competing native species, they’re competing with native endangered species, destroying rangelands, to a point where actually they’re really an environmental pest, at the amounts we have right now.

Hannah Downey: Well, due to some regulatory restrictions, exact management options are limited, but the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency tasked with overseeing these animals, what they do is they remove some of those animals from the rangeland, they put them in federal holding facilities paid for by taxpayers, and then those horses are hopefully adopted out. Well, one of the challenges we were seeing for a very long time is that these animals were sitting in these off-range holding facilities for a long time, costing taxpayers a lot of money. The estimate is, depending on how long the animal’s in that facility, everywhere from $24,000 up to $50,000 depending on the lifetime of the animal. So, now I’m insignificant here.

Hannah Downey: And what we were able to say is, like, “Well, instead of the tax payer paying all of the costs to hold these animals, what if instead, we are able to incentivize private homes to adopt these animals? Adopting wild horse comes with costs, you gotta pay for food, training, transportation, all of these things. And so we kinda put forward this idea of an incentive payment program, and now the Bureau of Land Management is doing this, where an adopter is actually paid $1000 when they adopt a wild horse or burro out of one of these holding facilities to help cover some of those upfront costs. It’s moving animals out of these facilities much quicker, it’s getting them into good private homes, and we’re saving taxpayers money. In fact, over 8250 animals have already been adopted by…

Hannah Downey: Through this program, just in about the past three and a half years since it’s been running, which is amazing. We’re saving taxpayers upwards of $200 million, which maybe doesn’t seem like that much, but it’s having a huge impact for the program, for being able to get some of these animals off the range and preserve those rangeland ecosystems. It will not solve the problem across the board, but it is one piece where we have seen incentives, market tools come in and be able to make a difference in a program. So those are just two of my favorite examples. We’ve talked a little bit about forests, there’s some amazing private organizations I’d like to flag: Blue Forest, they’re an amazing group helping to leverage financial tool. They took some tools from the financial sector, bond-type ideas, where they were able to leverage private capital to actually get in and do a lot of this active forest restoration work at a much quicker timeline, but just… I just think there are so many examples when you look out there, of market-oriented approaches coming in and being able to really help advance conservation outcomes.

Chelsea Follett: Well, that is a great case for environmental optimism. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Hannah.

Hannah Downey: Yes, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Hannah Downey is the policy director at PERC, which helps to bring free market solutions to environmental policy challenges. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, The Salt Lake Tribune, and local papers.

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