Selling Conservation to the Highest Bidder


Kirk Kardashian
In August 2010, the landscape auction at Vermont Technical College, in Randolph, Vermont, raised about $20,000.

In a world that worships economic activity, doing right by the earth is often more time consuming and expensive—either in actual dollars or opportunity cost—than succumbing to our manifest destiny. The same rule applies when conserving land: if it’s not financially advantageous, it often doesn’t happen. The question, then, is how to make open space, clean water, and intact wildlife habitat pay for itself. Daan Wensing and his colleagues at an Amsterdam-based company called Triple-E think they’ve found an answer: the “landscape auction.”

They developed this conservation tool to help people in rural parts of the Netherlands maintain their agricultural setting. The auction system enables citizens and businesses to adopt a landscape element—such as an open field or a walking trail—by paying for its creation or maintenance. This is not just a crunchy version of Adopt-a-Highway, but a way for a community to get together and give voice to its values. And it has been surprisingly effective—the first European auction, in 2007, raised $200,000 in just 45 minutes.

Now Wensing is trying to do the same thing for the landscapes conserved by the White River Partnership (WRP), a nonprofit organization in South Royalton, Vermont. At an auction in mid-August last year, people bid on items such as improving habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds and renting a bus so schoolkids can visit a farm. According to WRP Executive Director Mary Russ, the organization’s goal is “to bring people together to improve the long-term health of the White River watershed and the landscape between its rivers.”

The WRP started as a group of local farmers, fishermen, and business owners who wanted to maintain the quality of life in the White River watershed, which covers 710 square miles in central Vermont. It blossomed into an official nonprofit in 2000, after receiving a generous grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Today, the WRP offers a broad range of services, from water-quality monitoring to river-restoration programs and watershed education.

By all accounts, the WRP’s work has gone swimmingly. The water quality of the 56-mile-long main stem of the White River and its numerous branches is “fishable/swimmable,” an Environmental Protection Agency gold standard. “Almost all the tributaries,” says board member and fly-fishing guide Ron Rhodes, “support wild brook trout, and if you don’t have clean, cold water, brook trout can’t survive.”

Yet in Executive Director Russ’s opinion, something was missing. “The notion of the landscape underlies everything,” she says, “but up to this point, a lot of our work has been focused on the river. We see the landscape auction as a way to close the circle.”

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Kirk Kardashian
Auctioneer Rusty DeWees runs the landscape auction.

Russ first heard of the fundraising tool in 2008 when Meg Mitchell, the previous forest supervisor of the Green Mountain National Forest (which occupies 50,000 acres in the White River watershed), came back from the World Conservation Congress in Spain. Wensing gave a presentation there on a landscape auction in Ooijpolder, a pristine area in the Netherlands that is managed by private landowners who need additional revenue to maintain the open space. “Gee,” Mitchell said to Wensing after he spoke, “you could be talking about Vermont.”

When Wensing and his coworkers first conceived of a landscape auction, they were surprised it hadn’t been tried in the United States, where private capital drives a lot of conservation. “It’s about money and the landscape,” Wensing says, “about people paying other people to do things. This should come from the [United States]. Conservation in Europe, on the other hand, is subsidy driven.”

In Europe, a government might pay a farmer to maintain a hedgerow or to graze sheep instead of goats. The problem with such subsidies is that they’re full of restrictions and are usually short term. “So we thought, why don’t we make a separation between the ownership of the land and what’s on top of it?” Wensing recalls. Get the farmer to calculate how much it costs her to keep that hedgerow looking nice, and then let the public bid on it.

It turned out to be a flash of genius. The first auction drew national news coverage, and 300 people—including representatives from banks, insurance companies, philanthropic organizations, and schools—showed up to place bids. “Everyone was taking part and enjoying it,” Wensing says. Since then, he has organized auctions in Amsterdam, Germany, and Poland.

If you want to know how this could work in Vermont, ask Carl Russell. He’s co-owner, with Lisa McCrory, of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel, and he also serves on the board of WRP.

On their 160-acre farm, Russell and McCrory raise dairy cows, beef steers, breeding sows, heritage turkeys, and chickens—all of which are grass fed and managed organically. Russell uses draft horses and oxen instead of a tractor, and McCrory practices the “intuitive” agriculture of dowsing and spiritual gardening. Because the farm is small, it’s ineligible for most agricultural and conservation grants. Russell and McCrory have a clear choice about how to operate: they can think about their balance sheet first, or they can make investments in sustainable practices that benefit the environment but return almost nothing to their bottom line.

The landscape-auction idea offered an alternative. “When I got thinking about the opportunity of marketing our growth to private funding,” Russell says, “it sounded pretty interesting. We don’t want a handout, but it’s a struggle to incorporate ecological and environmental practices that benefit beyond the borders of our farm.”

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Kirk Kardashian
Vermont officials auctioned off maintenance of the Howe Bridge in the town of Tunbridge.

When Russ approached Russell about participating in the landscape auction, it didn’t take the farmer long to think of “things” he could put on the block. Since most of Russell’s land is forested, and he wants to offer more grazing to his animals, he plans to clear 30 acres of timber that his grandfather planted in the 1950s. But he’s not hiring a logger to remove the trees or an excavator to till the soil. He’s got a 10-year plan to remove the trees by hand—leaving the stumps and as much organic matter in the ground as possible—and then use a rotation of livestock. First come the pigs, which stir up the topsoil, and then the cattle and poultry, which add nutrients to the ground and encourage grass to grow. Doing this the old-fashioned way doesn’t just save money and reduce carbon dioxide emissions; it has benefits for erosion control and water quality.

But it costs the farmer many hours of labor—hours for which bidders might compensate him. “I’m not looking for someone to pay me my wages,” Russell explains, “but they could say, ‘That’s a great way to reclaim land; I can support that,’ and put some finances toward it.”

Russell also auctioned a day of working with him and his draft animals and of learning how to hand-milk cows and make cheese and yogurt. In those instances, part of the winning bid pays for the bidder’s farm experience, while the rest helps fund long-term projects.

Russ and Wensing worked with about a dozen landowners on other ideas to entice bidders, such as sponsoring a sugaring operation, restoring a historic barn, and tracking moose with a wildlife biologist. The town of Tunbridge auctioned maintenance of its covered bridge. In each case, the money offered in the auction was tax deductible (because WRP is an intermediary) and went only toward the specific item the bidder chose.

The landscape auction took place on a clement Saturday afternoon in mid-August, on the hilltop campus of Vermont Technical College, in Randolph Center. About 150 people attended. In two hours of bidding, the White River Partnership raised $20,000, with donations ranging from $25 to $3,500. The largest bid, comprised of multiple donations, was $7,200, which conserved a public access area on the White River in Royalton.

“Our experience,” Wensing says, “is that you need the perception that when you make a bid, you make a difference.”