Monday, April 5, 2010

Tax Credits and Cooperative Conservation

I agree in principle with the goal of moving federal environmental policy away from coercive conservation (which has been the prevailing model since the early 1970s) and toward "cooperative conservation," a concept that was touted by the Bush administration but gained little traction (mainly because nothing touted by the Bush administration could possibly win favor with left-leaning greens). And a part of that paradigm shift will almost certainly involve using economic incentives, rather than the blunt force of government mandates, to encourage environmental stewardship.

Simply paying people to do the right thing -- to create or maintain habitat for the Salt Pond Slime Slug, for instance -- is one concept that some, like Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, are pushing. But as someone who also believes in the conservation of endangered tax dollars, I worry that the tax credit system Crapo is proposing, if not tightly controlled, will lead to widespread gaming of the system and a massive waste of money.

Crapo's attempt to incrementally reform the Endangered Species Act is laudable (given the political futility of trying to overhaul it all at once). But the tax credit component can hardly be called "targeted," and the potential for scams will be huge, if they'll cost an estimated $2 billion over ten years. Billions already are squandered annually, paying farmers to idle their fields in the name of improving wildlife habitat or protecting so-called wetlands. Whether any of these programs serve as anything more than a federal sop has never been shown (or seriously studied, as far as I know). It mostly amounts to slapping the "green" label on another government giveaway. Expecting Crapo's program to operate with more accountability, and integrity, is probably folly.

That's the sort of cynicism that's bound to greet even a decent and interesting idea, given the federal government's almost perfect track record for turning good ideas into a scandalous glop.


John Sanzone said...

ESA reform - as long as Crapo isn't doing it to appease open season on wolf advocates, it sounds like a great plan. More than that--an incredible plan.

As for 'so-called wetlands' do you mean ones which people pretend exist to get tax breaks, or are you saying that wetlands don't exist and aren't vital to biodiversity?

Sean Paige said...

By "wetland," I mean an area that is frequently or predominantly wet, watery, moist, swampy, boggy or soggy -- which is far different from the federal government's definition, which is just about any area that it chooses for regulatory purposes to call a wetland, even if it's only damp a few days a year. "Wetland" also describes just about any low-lying parcel of land that environmentalists covet, or want to place off-limits. True wetlands are important for maintaining biodiversity -- the rest are only useful for collecting government checks or advancing an anti-development agenda.