Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What can we do to secure sustainable sources of funding for protected area stewardship?

In my last blog, I began by discussing the impossible expectations now being thrust on protected areas—they are growing in size and diversity. I ended up by suggesting that depending upon tourism to finance protected area stewardship was unrealistic on both philosophical and practical grounds. Expecting one use to support the stewardship of areas that provide a diversity of services and benefits leads to unrealistically high entrance and user fees, empowers one economic use and limits a sense of ownership of the citizens who ultimately benefit from protected areas.

In one sense, this issue can be partly resolved through more comprehensive programs of conservation that extend beyond the boundaries of protected areas. Broader conservation efforts lead to greater citizen involvement and awareness of the importance of conservation, more equitable access to ecosystem services and benefits and a higher quality of life. This all means that we decrease our reliance on protected areas as the source of ecosystem services and benefits.

Of course, this is a long term strategy. What can we do in the short term to develop sustainable financing mechanisms. Well, one way is for governments to market services and benefits that flow from protected areas. Such services as production of clean water, for example, could be sold in a marketplace so that those who benefit from this service would pay for it. By taxing transactions in the marketplace, governments could secure funding that would help pay for stewardship. This might work, but for a large number of protected areas, the flow of services and benefits might be too small to generate significant revenue.

Another mechanism might be to tax natural resource consumption—say wood, fiber, minerals—and to place the revenues in a trust or fund for stewardship purposes. Stewardship would emphasize conservation and use of renewable resource commodities, reducing pressures on protected areas.

A third mechanism might be to charge fees directly to users, but this would probably end up being a fee on tourism and visitation, as it is the most significant economic activity taking place within most protected areas. Another approach to taxing touristic activity would be to place a sales tax on certain purchases—lodging, food, transportation—near the protected area. Revenues would go to stewardship. In Montana, where I live, there is no statewide sales tax, but tourism dependent communities are allowed under state law to tax “luxury” items. The revenues from these taxes go to improve community infrastructure or to property tax relief.

A fourth mechanism is to fund management from the government’s general fund, monies raised from taxes, fees and duties. This is the way funding now occurs in many places, but changes in priorities have tended to reduce this funding source over time.

As I write this, it seems to me that there is no easy way, no silver bullet, no magic pill for sustainable funding of protected areas. Now, I am sure that thousands of reports, studies, queries and audits have been written about this issue. But they seem to have been ineffective, as we are still confronted with this issue? Why? Why can’t we come up with some good alternatives for sustainable funding? Is it a matter of our own creativity? Is it a matter of not understanding the consequences? Or is it a matter of political will?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Growing and diversifying expectations for protected areas: Are they too high?

If there is one trend that has typified the relationship between society and its protected areas it is the growing demands and broadening expectations for the services and benefits based on the natural capital preserved within them. Originally established on a foundation of scenery protection, recovery of wildlife populations and preservation of landscapes from human development, the world’s storehouse of parks and other similar areas have experienced diversifying demands:

• they have become sources of genetic resources, potentially providing useful and effective medicines for human health,

• they are increasingly recognized as buffers against climate change,

• poverty stricken areas increasingly view them as engines of economic development and as ways of enhancing their quality of life,

• they are to serve as models of democratic governance, and

• they should provide opportunities to learn about the natural world and our impact upon it.

This partial list is quite significant. But are we up to meeting these expectations? The diversification of expectations has grown rapidly, far outpacing our ability—in terms of technical aspects and in terms of institutions—to competently address them. Government budgets for protection are generally declining; in the U.S., agencies such as the Forest Service, have lost a lot of their staffs as the federal government has changed its priorities for funding. This loss of staff has reduced the agency’s capabilities to manage publicly administered lands for these growing purposes.

In response to diversifying and growing demands in combination with declining funding, agencies have increasingly turned to tourism as a method of financing management. Tourism is probably the dominant economic use of protected areas. Revenues from visitors, such as fees, charges and taxes, can become sources of revenue directed toward management. Indirect revenue from taxes and fees on visitor expenditures outside of protected areas can also contribute to management. For example, in the state of Montana in the U.S., a portion of the taxes on use of overnight accommodations regardless of their location goes to fund management of state parks and to the state Historical Society for maintenance of local signs.

Now, I believe tourism should pay its way: the increased costs of management of a protected area for visitation, particularly for recreational purposes, should be borne by those inducing those costs. But many agencies are looking for tourism to pay for all management costs. This orientation is problematic for several reasons.

First, protected areas are designed to benefit all of society, not just particular segments. When only segment finances the management for all of society two things happen: (1) that segment will exercise more and more power over management decisions; and (2) the remaining components of society may lose a sense of “ownership” or responsibility for the area. The second consequence is dangerous in the long run as it will eventually lead to, I fear, a disassociation of society and environmental protection.

Second, as fees are raised to generate revenue to cover management costs, those unable to pay cannot visit the park. This is not an unfounded fear. In South Africa, entrance fees (termed a “conservation fee) to Kruger National Park range up to $20 US per day for international visitors, and average about $5 US per day per person for South African citizens. This fee structure has a tremendous influence on visitation patterns: the vast majority of visitors to Kruger are international visitors who can afford the entrance fee. The revenues from tourism, including profits from accommodation and food pay for the entire management costs of Kruger.

A typical South African family of 5 would thus pay $25 per day for entrance into the park in comparison to the U.S. average of about $20 per week per vehicle.

Third, structuring fees so that visitors subsidize management reflects a philosophy that only individuals benefit from the protected areas not society as a whole. Yet, the fundamental purpose of protection is to ensure a continuing, sustainable flow of services and benefits is provided to society.

So, finding money is a big problem, and finding it in a way that does not conflict with the goals of protection is also a big problem, one that is value laden in character. What is needed is a framework to structure our thinking about how we can solve these problems. More on this later.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Couple of Common Systems Underlying Protected Area Problems

Its been a couple of weeks since I have been able to post, as we have started on a significant remodel of our home. Basically, the family and dining rooms and kitchen have been gutted and will be replaced with a totally new design and interior. Our main outside deck is also being replaced. That work, and living upstairs has kept me occupied.

But last time, I spoke about systems thinking, and mentioned the idea of a ‘fixes that fail’ system. This is one of the systems that characterizes protected area planning and management. Basically, in a fixes that fails system, an action is implemented that has side effects occurring after a delay that were unintended. These side effects counterbalance the primary effect of the original “fix”. I had mentioned campsite closures in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as an example, which is graphically represented here. Such closures, based on an event-oriented perspective, resulted in more impact, not less. Another example, is the long established Forest Service fire suppression policy. That policy viewed each naturally occurring fire as an event, and not part of a larger, and dynamic, ecosystem process. As a result, fire suppression led to accumulated fuels, which in a drought increased risk of fire and thus led to larger, more intense fires, just the opposite of what was intended. Now that policy has been changed, but the fact remains that it took nearly 75 years for the delay between fire suppression and fuel accumulation to be recognized.

Another common system plaguing protected areas is a ‘shifting the burden’ system. In this system, a problem has several potential solutions. Decision makers select a symptomatic solution because it appears to be effective and has an apparent time frame advantage over a more fundamental solution. Upon implementation, the solution turns out to have a number of unintended side effects, one of which is to solve only symptoms, not the problem itself. One could say that problem displacement represents a shifting the burden solution—see figure. Numerous examples of this occur in protected areas, such as limiting visitor use (one group or type of visitor always is discriminated against, and thus shoulders the burden).

The lesson here is understanding that there is a system underlying the problem that one sees. Knee jerk reactive management can make things worse or lead to consequences neither intended nor desired.