The federal government could get better value for its money in wetland preservation by buying direct and leaving private landowners alone, says a new study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Various government efforts have indeed ensured no net loss of wetlands–in fact, there's been an increase. In 1995 alone, CEI estimated a country-wide net gain in wetlands of 69,000 acres.
But 90 percent of that increase comes from three separate preservation programs, not from regulatory programs administered by the Army Corps of Engineers that make sure private landowners don't affect wetlands. The preservation programs buy "conservation easement" rights from eager farmers, who retain ownership of the lands that are returned to a wet state.
Not only are the buyout programs more effective–they're cheaper, too. "If you look at what it costs to buy conservation easements vs. what it costs to pay these wetland bureaucrats in the Army Corps of Engineers program," says study author Jonathan Tolman, "the regulatory program is five times more expensive per acre saved than the voluntary one. It's not only unnecessary to regulate private wetlands to generate net gains, it's a lot more expensive than the voluntary alternative."