By Eric Crampton 02/09/2016


I endorse much of what Mike Dickison says in the Wanganui Chronicle:

ONE way for us to preserve the natural heritage of our country is to put our money where our mouth is and buy it.

This is done all the time privately by landowners setting aside parts of their own property as a QEII covenant, protected against future development.

The public version of this was the Givealittle campaign to purchase Awaroa Beach for over $2 million and add it to Abel Tasman National Park. Overseas, rainforests in developing countries have been saved by paying locals to not cut it down, or buying them and turning them into reserves. Perhaps, rather than use legislation or treaties to preserve nature, we could harness the free market.

I’d caveat the rainforests one with that payment for the preservation should go to the forests’ proper owners, which isn’t necessarily the government that auctions them out to the rich folks who want to help.

Currently there is a thriving trade in moa bones in New Zealand; because of a legal loophole, remains of extinct species collected on private land aren’t protected by the Wildlife Act. One response would be to shame Trade Me into no longer listing moa remains. Another would be to lobby to change the legislation. But a third option, if we truly care about fossil bones, is to buy them ourselves.

The worst offenders are looters who pull moa skeletons out of caves and sell them piecemeal. Economist Eric Crampton suggested we set up a PledgeMe account for buying “intact, at-site, and undisturbed” moa remains on private land. This would encourage people to locate the bones and landowners to preserve them undisturbed. The skeleton would become the property of whichever museum the PledgeMe campaign nominated, and could be put on display or stay safe in a cave. It’s a fascinating idea, and one applicable to other valuable goods on private land that the public have an interest in preserving.

I think I’d suggested it on Twitter.

He moves from there to suggesting we not use the mechanism for longfin eel protection. Long story short, New Zealand has a bizarre system where introduced trout are protected under all kinds of rules to make sure that recreational fishers on the rivers have a good time for a long time, but native and threatened eels are fished for what’s often pretty low valued uses. He suggests instead that the government just put an end to that fishery:

But there’s another counter-argument. The longfin eel fishery is public property, but it’s exploited for private profit: a few dozen eel fishers making a trivial $500,000 a year. Rather than crowdfund to buy back something we already own, we could simply tell the eel fishers to go catch something else.

Despite the potential of crowdfunding as a conservation tool it’s perfectly okay for democracy to overrule the free market. Just as it’s no longer acceptable to hunt whales and seals, future generations will be aghast that we exported longfin eels.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the total allowable catch for longfin eels to be set to sustainable levels, then open a crowdfunding market up for conservationists to buy back quota beyond that?

I totally applaud moves to use crowdfunding to let people coordinate around these things. It forms an assurance contract: the campaign only activates if you’ve raised enough money to do the job, so your $5 only goes into the pot when there’s enough money collected that your $5 will make a difference.