Leave it to the Dutch. Inventors of stock markets and the first speculative bubble (the tulip mania of 1637), Europe's merchant savants have devised a new commercial transaction: the landscape auction.
Devised by the advisory firm Triple E, the landscape auction puts conservation on the block. Unlike at most other auctions, no one takes home or deposits their winnings. Instead, bidders walk away having contributed to a new way of conserving natural places when public dollars and private donations fall short. The Amsterdam-based company is intent on making them a permanent feature of private land conservation around the world.
"It is a market-based instrument to conserve nature, and the market is potentially very large," Triple E’s landscape auction director Daan Wensing wrote in an email. "The perception that tax dollars alone can save the landscape has changed."
Triple E ran America’s first landscape auction last year for the White River watershed of Vermont. During the course of an afternoon, one small corner of the country was parceled up, auctioned off and conserved for the highest bidder: One winner claimed a prime slice of restored streamside vegetation habitat for the Chestnut-sided Warbler, another pocketed 10 new trees along the White River for a cool $100.
It's not exactly Wall Street, but then it's still early days. Since 2007, Triple E says it has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through more than 20 landscape auctions held in the U.S., Netherlands, Germany, and Poland (see a campy video of first one here in the Netherlands).
In a way, landscape auctions make sense given supply and demand. We live in a world with an ever shrinking pool of wildlands and ecosystem services. Plenty of people are willing to pay for what's left—polls by the Land Trust Alliance claim that "solid majorities willing to pay as much as $100 more in annual taxes to support conservation"—yet only a few have the chance to do so directly. While it's nice to be Ted Turner, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up about 3,000 square miles of land across the U.S., much of it for conservation, most of us can't put Western ranches on our shopping list.
Yet the public's aggregate buying power dwarfs that of any mogul. The fact that more land is not conserved is a market failure, technically known as a negative externality. As the final price of a product or service rarely reflects the cost to the public of polluting a river or degrading an ecosystem, we often produce and sell too much of an item from the perspective of the public good. Economists point to the health damage caused by cheap leaded gasoline (net benefits from phasing out leaded gasoline were more than $5 billion annually as of 1986 according to the EPA).
But landscape auctions aren't even close to breaking out into the mainstream. Triple E's two U.S. auctions, and a small but successful series in Europe, are only a drop in the bucket. Perhaps America’s enthusiasm for free markets and record of charitable giving are tailored made for this new approach. Let the bidding begin.
[Image: Flickr user Global X]