Private Conservation: A Tocquevillian Tradition

AMERICA’S UNIQUE APPROACH to private conservation and private stewardship grows out of the penchant by Americans to undertake and form voluntary associations. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, singled out this characteristic of the American people as one of the most striking things that separated them from the people of the Old World.

“In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America,” observed de Tocqueville. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. . . to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

This analysis was based on de Tocqueville’s observations of America in the 1830s, which of course predated the conservation crisis that Americans began to recognize in the 1880s. Americans naturally utilized a similar approach for the protection of wildlife and habitat that were vanishing. Sportsmen and women and outdoors advocates, who had seen firsthand the vast flocks and herds slowly diminish in numbers, created the first private, voluntary associations to attempt to stem and reverse the tide.

While many of these people and organizations lobbied for laws to protect wildlife and for changes in hunting seasons, methods, and bag limits, most of them engaged in private action long before government became aware of the problems, and certainly before public opinion made it politically feasible for government to act.

Efforts to protect songbirds and plume birds from slaughter for the millinery trade were largely responsible for the creation of a series of Audubon societies from about 1885 on, which led to the creation of the National Association of Audubon Societies in 1905. Audubon immediately took action to educate the public on the need to stop the slaughter and acted to replace the traditional Christmas “side hunts” in which groups of men and boys went afield to see who could bag the largest numbers of birds and mammals. In its place they promoted the Christmas Bird Count, in which people went afield to count all the birds they could find within a prescribed area. These Christmas Counts provide the longest continuous database of bird populations in existence.

Audubon hired biologists to locate the last remaining nesting colonies of bird species especially subject to the gunners’ efforts. They purchased many of these sites as private sanctuaries and still own them today. They hired private Audubon wardens to protect their sanctuaries.

Both before and after Audubon, groups of concerned citizens formed voluntary associations to preserve whatever environmental or wildlife amenities they valued. In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, Americans discovered that the government’s encouragement of settlement of the Great Plains had destroyed the wetlands and prairie potholes that were nesting habitat for much of the nation’s waterfowl. Soon sportsmen, hunters, biologists, and conservationists formed a number of organizations to respond to the crisis.

Surely the most important conservation association formed during the Dust Bowl period was Ducks Unlimited (DU). DU undertook private action to save the most important waterfowl nesting habitat, the pothole wetlands of the Canadian prairie provinces. And they did it the old-fashioned way. They raised money and leased the wetlands – paying farmers not to put waterfowl habitat to the plow.

Ducks Unlimited proved to be one of the most successful examples of private conservation anywhere, and it spawned fellow DUs in countries around the world. Saving wetlands for the selfish desire for more ducks for hunting is sometimes criticized as ‘impure’ but it also saves those wetlands for hundreds of other species. If DU saves a marsh for duck habitat, that marsh is also saved for herons, rails, blackbirds and sparrows; for snakes, frogs, salamanders, scores of dragonflies, and hundreds of invertebrates. Thus, DU happily provides public environmental amenities at private expense.

DU even helped answer an old conundrum in economics – the free-rider problem. Private citizens, economists have argued, won’t undertake expensive activities that provide benefits to the public at large if they cannot charge the public. But it turns out that under the driving force of voluntary associations and private conservation, the free-rider problem is far more of a problem for economists than for duck hunters. For the past six decades the nation’s waterfowl hunters have been willing to raise tens of millions of dollars annually to save wetlands so that they would have a chance to see and perhaps shoot more ducks each fall. And it has been totally immaterial to DU’s membership that millions of birdwatchers, naturalists, fisherman, photographers, and the general public have been able to benefit at no cost.

It’s simply one of the many benefits of living in a free society based upon private property, voluntary associations, and voluntary actions.


Mr. Smith is an Associated Scholar and Senior Environmental Scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. He also serves as senior scholar at CEI’s Center for Private Conservation (CPC). The CPC documents, prepares case studies on, and publicizes noteworthy examples of private conservation and stewardship on private lands in the United States and abroad.