James R. Cook is a rare bird—a hard-money environmentalist. He has carved himself out a profitable niche in the world of investment, selling metals and coins. And he has combined that success with another, more esoteric venture—the conservation of ducks and their wetland habitat.
Cook's interest in ducks is longstanding. He was born in 1938 in Saskatchewan, Canada, and grew up in Minnesota, and the rituals and pleasures of duck hunting were an important part of his youth. As a true hunter, he came to be concerned about the health and survival of the species he hunted. By the time Cook was a teenager, he was already disturbed by the disappearance of the wetlands that waterfowl flock to.
Faced with the continuing drainage of wetlands under government programs to subsidize the extension of farmland, the young Cook undertook his own private conservation efforts. He often talked farmers into letting him create a duck pond on their property. Using explosives, he would "blast a pothole" for the ducks. Sometimes he would cajole a dozen friends with wheelbarrows and shovels into doing the work by hand. But Cook eventually realized that his efforts were basically symbolic, since a duck pond in the middle of a plowed field does not really significantly benefit wild ducks. He decided that mounting a real conservation effort would require a lot more money than he was making at the time, so he started looking for a way to get it.
After working briefly for the US Post Office, Cook became a successful broker and for 10 years ran the insurance firm that had been his father's. Eventually he quit that business—he says he was "bored" by it—and went to Florida where he bought a bottled-water franchise. Barely had he purchased the franchise when the company that sold it to him went broke. He and his partner, Cook recounts, were left "high and dry in Miami." But Cook built the nonexistent business into a company that put spring-water vending machines into large apartment complexes. In 1972 they liquidated the business for $150,000.
Cook went back to Minneapolis-St. Paul to think things over. It was then that Jim Cook first started seeing the connection between individual liberty, conservation, and the free market. Without losing his interest in the species of duck that make the Canada-to-US commute every year, he developed an interest in specie. It started with silver and spread to gold, which he came to realize is related to many other things—even ducks.
"Gold is by nature political," observes Cook. "Ownership of gold indicates some economic insight that most people don't possess."
In 1974, committed to making enough money really to help the ducks, Cook started Investment Rarities, Inc. (IRI) in Minneapolis-St. Paul. In 1976 the company sold metal and coins worth $500,000 and by 1980 was selling $550 million annually. Today, IRI is the largest dealer of Krugerrands in America.
The success of IRI enabled Cook to start looking around at various properties that could be restored to their previous wetland state and provide refuge for his ducks. In North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, he began to buy and restore over 10,000 acres at 20 different sites. When asked how much the land cost, Cook says insouciantly that the average price of an acre was about $400. These areas are more than duck ponds. Plants that the ducks feed on are introduced or encouraged to grow, and the dry land is uncultivated and unhunted, even by Cook.
Cook still believes in hunting and says he enjoys it when he gets a chance to do it. But his spare time these days tends to be filled with his conservation efforts. He says, in a calm and relatively soft voice, "I really get off restoring drained land—unplugging a ditch and planting dense prairie grass. No one hunts in those areas, because so much wetland has been drained. Even the land that the government buys for duck habitat with duck-stamp fees is subject to overhunting. Ducks need a few friendly places. We manage the land exclusively for the wildlife, and the results are awesome." Though Cook has hired four professional wildlife managers, he is himself heavily involved in the conservation work.
To say that Cook has not done badly for someone who never went to college is wrongfully to imply that a degree is important to the rarest of species, the true entrepreneur. As the national and international economy does worse, provoking an acceleration in hard-money transactions, Cook's business does better. Cook knows that, and the irony shows in his voice when he says, "In the long run, the best thing for the country would be an essentially defunct gold business. I'd rather lose the gold business. I'm diversified, anyway."
Indeed, Cook is diversified. He owns a small oil company, deals in securities, and manages a mutual fund. He is involved in several innovative venture-capital projects, and he has written a book, The Heroic Entrepreneur, a combination history and "how-to" book due out this fall.
The word entrepreneur does not carry the emotional weight that it should, and Cook is an entrepreneur in more ways than just making money. "The entrepreneur is an icon smasher, someone who brings down the old order," says Cook. He himself is a free-market conservationist and an individual-rights philosopher-merchant.
Can anybody else hear the sounds of icons being smashed?
Patrick Cox is a frequent guest columnist for USA Today and public affairs director of the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Specie Seller, Species Saver".