Sunday, March 12, 2006

Conservation and the private sector

The Wollemi Pine (Wollemi nobilis) that was discovered by parks officer David Noble in the Wollami National Park in 1994, and for which there are only 100 adult species in existence, can be privately purchased from 1 April 2006. A 15 cm high plant costs around $55 from Kuranga Nursery in Melbourne or from other sources. The extremely rare tree has been brought back from the brink by Wollemi Australia a joint public-private venture between the Queensland Government Department of Primary Industries (Forestry) and Birkdale Nursery. This has been licensed to market the Wollemi Pine in Australia and internationally to conserve it.

I am generally a skeptic of trying to privatise the conservation of biodiversity (subscription required) but the Wollemi case seems a good outcome. I was a small shareholder in Dr John Warmsley's failed Earth Sanctuaries and probably have lost my investment. I regard Warmsley as one of the visionaries of the Australian conservation movement and believe his conservation ideas are sound. He did lack diplomatic and business skills in dealing with the public sector.

Earth Sanctuaries failed because it could not provide a commercially viable conservation product. In terms of conserving individual mammal species it had an impressive record but the strong conservation outcomes mainly involved the production of public goods. People will pay to have a Wollemi pine in their garden but will underprovide offerings to secure good conservation outcomes generally. In addition, there is no level-playing field in the conservation area - despite some public support, Warmsley had always to compete against public firms whose costs were largely met by government, not from those paying for admission.

I am a strong supporter of sustaining public sector dominance of the biodiversity conservation area for these reasons. But I believe the private sector can have a role in conserving particular endangered habitats and species. The issue is basically one of contract design. If a clear output objective can be defined (e.g. build up a population of a particular species) without evoking costly byproduct distortions (e.g. ecotourism that damages conservation outcomes) then private sector involvement can be usefully sought. This activity will not dominate the conservation area but can be a useful input in providing a source of innovation and cost-effectiveness.

I will post more on my conservation economics views shortly.

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