Creating habitat at one-eighth the cost

By Frank Convery, Chief Economist

This regular column honors the memory of Robert W. Wilson, a longtime EDF supporter and champion of harnessing market forces to drive environmental progress.

Dr. Gene Murph is one of my heroes. He is playing a key role in protecting the golden-cheeked warbler, a species whose existence in the United States is threatened because its sole breeding habitat is shrinking. Dr. Murph operates a 1,300-acre ranch in prime warbler habitat near Fort Hood, TX.

This is how he got involved: The Army at Fort Hood needed to expand training into habitat favored by the warbler. To do so, the Department of Defense needed to secure high-quality habitat elsewhere. How to ensure that this habitat would leave the bird better off at minimal cost to taxpayers?

EDF worked to create a habitat exchange, in which the Army would pay nearby ranchers to improve habitat. We invited land-owners to bid what they wanted to get paid to provide habitat on their land.

Dr. Murph is a hero because, when others hesitated, he made the imaginative leap and signed up, committing to habitat-enhancing practices on his land. His leadership encouraged others. Quickly, a rare bird became a valuable asset to nurture, like a crop.

The result? The known population of warblers nearly doubled from 5,000 to 9,000 birds. The cost? One-eighth of what easements would have cost. The market delivered high-quality protection at low cost. And the experience provided solid evidence that habitat exchanges can benefit a variety of imperiled species, including monarch butterflies—and help landowners too.