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The Landscape Auction: financing conservation

March 3, 2010

The idea behind the Landscape Auction is a fairly simple: buy and protect what you love. The concept was created by Triple E, a Dutch consulting firm, to finance the protection of nature and wildlife.

Here’s how it works: businesses, organizations, and individuals come together for an auction. They bid on landscape elements, such as a row of hedges, a tree, wildlife habitat, a worker’s salary, a piece of a barn, a piece of farming equipment, walking trails . . . a wide variety of ecological “elements” that need protection. The prices are determined based on the management costs over a specific period of time (perhaps 10 years). When a bidder wins a particular item, they don’t actually own it in a legal sense, rather they have given the money to protect that item and to conserve the landscape over the set timeframe.

All of the money goes towards that one purchased element, for example, keeping a walking trail easily accessible and clear of debris. The bidders “own” that item for the specified amount of time and can go visit and enjoy their hedges, tree, trail . . . knowing that it is being maintained and cared for with their funding.

Bids are tax-deductible as payments go directly to an NGO. This summer, the White River Partnership will hold the first landscape auction in the U.S. Previous auctions have been held in various parts of The Netherlands: the Ooijpolder, the Heuvellandschap and the Gooij. The Ooijpolder is a beautiful part of the country that attracts over 1 million visitors a year. However, there was no financial incentive to maintain the area’s biodiversity since surrounding towns weren’t willing to pay and there are no visiting fees. To create incentive, they held one of the first landscape auctions in 2007, raising EUR 140,000.

This concept is fantastic because companies and individuals alike can support the environment in a tangible way. The value of nature becomes clear. Triple E describes it well:

The Landscape Auction is a marketplace. It connects nature organisations and farmers responsible for the maintenance of our landscape, biological diversity and (cultural) heritage that are in need for financial support with other parties interested to financially support the conservation, restoration and/or sustainable use of particular landscape elements. A Landscape Auction offers you the unique opportunity to support what you consider valuable.

What do you value? What do you think of this mechanism to finance biodiversity? What landscape element would you bid on?

I heard about one item on the auction block that offered a little something extra: it was a section of a barn and if you successfully bid you were entitled to a full day in the barn to do whatever. Perhaps, a roll in the hay?

image via flickr user Mr. Pi
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Hoffman permalink
    April 14, 2010 5:04 pm

    Something seems missing from this idea. Or maybe it is only missing from the description, in which case I am eager for more information.

    What seems to be missing is the bidder’s incentive.

    The explanation of why this was invented says “there was no financial incentive to maintain the area’s biodiversity since surrounding towns weren’t willing to pay and there are no visiting fees. To create incentive, they held one of the first landscape auctions…”

    Why would I bid competitively to pay for the protection of a scenic landscape? What happens if I get outbid? Presumably that means that somebody else pays (a lesser price) and I still get to enjoy the scenic landscape (and my money can now go toward some other purpose).

    The auction seems to both respond to and simultaneously ignore the fact that the items being auctioned off are public goods—i.e. goods that nobody can be excluded from enjoying, and therefore ones that nobody has any incentive to pay for.

    The fact that people are reluctant to unilaterally pay for public goods is a classic problem, and one that is often addressed through a combination of taxation, subsidy and regulation. The world would applaud the invention a voluntary, non-governmental solution; but this does not seem to be a real one, despite the rhetorical claim that “The Landscape Auction is a marketplace.”

    As far as I can tell from the description, bidders at the auction are making charitable donations. Perhaps that is what this is about, and I am missing the spirit of the thing—a fun new way to organize charitable giving. The description, however, comes off as a claim that Triple E has found a way to transform positive externalities into marketable commodities; and this does not appear to be the case.

    If I am missing something, I would be glad for any further explanation.

    • Liza permalink*
      April 14, 2010 6:39 pm

      Thank you so much for bringing this up. You are absolutely right when you say that it’s a form of philanthropic giving. My interpretation is that it’s mostly about the spirit of conservation and drawing attention to the health of our ecosystems and the landscape elements being auctioned off. There is often a far greater incentive to develop land than to conserve it so I think the auctions are a great, fun way to draw people together under the united goal of conservation. These auctions help fund projects that might improve, restore or maintain the landscape elements (where as state or governmental funds may be harder to come by or be unavailable).

      Say you, as the bidder, really enjoy a certain stream that runs through a field near your home. You bid on that stream as a way to protect it and show that you value it. If you are outbid, great! Someone else’s donation is protecting the stream. I hope this clarifies . . . I apologize if I made it seem like the landscapes and elements are being touted as commodities themselves.

    • April 15, 2010 7:15 am

      Matthew – the other thing that we have failed to highlight, at least for our auction here in Vermont, is that most of the items in the auction will be PRIVATELY owned not public. So these things can indeed be denied to us, whether it is in the form of a walking trail that is no longer kept open on a farmer’s land, or a beautiful view that is lost, or a historic barn that comes tumbling down for lack of repair. What the White River Partnership is trying to do thru or auction this summer is make a connection between the private landowners and those of us who enjoy using/seeing their land. Maybe you want to help a local maple sugarer stay in business so you bid on a tree, or even a day at the farm helping make syrup. The farmer can then use that money to help conserve that tree or their operation. PS – we’ve just about wrapped up the landowner agreements so we should have more details out soon on what the auction items will be. I think that will help also! Thanks for your interest. – Ron Rhodes, Board VP, White River Partnership

      • Matthew Hoffman permalink
        April 15, 2010 9:00 am

        Thanks, Ron and Liza, for your replies. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to put down your project– I was only scrutinizing it because I’m interested in this topic; and the Triple E description made it sound like they had figured out a solution to a problem that a lot of scholars are working on. It doesn’t seem that they have, but this does seem like a fun way to raise some awareness and some money around our state’s most important issue.

        Ron, the fact that the goods you mention are privately owned and that they can be lost doesn’t change the fact that once such goods are provided (like a view or an historic barn) anyone can enjoy them. Scenic views and historic barns are what Vermonters value most; but people don’t contribute to the upkeep of these things because there is no way to restrict the benefits to those who pay. We don’t seem to have gotten around that problem. (There is usually the additional problem that one person’s contribution won’t be enough.)

        Interesting topic.

  2. Ron Rhodes permalink
    August 13, 2010 11:51 am

    Lots of media attention around tomorrow’s event!!! See you all there.

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