PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, is the home of free market environmentalism.
PERC was founded in 1980 by a group of conservation-minded economists and political scientists who wanted to investigate the free market’s ability to protect environmental quality. What they found is that market incentives are the best way to encourage conservation, flipping the environmental narrative and informing the center’s work ever since.
It’s uncommon to hear someone advocate that free-market economics is the best protection for our nation’s vast bundle of natural resources and the environment, but PERC Executive Director Brian Yablonski knows it to be true.
“When PERC first started, people marginalized us and thought we were an oxymoron,” Yablonski said. “But once people read our information, it made sense.”
Commonsense solutions that give people an incentive to help the environment are what PERC is all about. The center’s research in the areas of private and public lands, water and fisheries, wildlife, tribes, energy, and urban issues has garnered the attention of thinkers on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. The idea of free-market environmentalism has even caught the attention of some progressive environmentalists.
“These ideas have gotten more and more popular over time,” said Rick Stroup, a founding member of PERC. “Even some liberals are fascinated by the question of how property rights can actually help to preserve the environment.”
For example, in 2002, PERC scholar Donald Leal penned an influential research report that suggested status-quo government policies to protect fisheries had failed. Instead of decades-old policies that promoted destructive competition among commercial fishers, Leal recommended introducing property rights concepts through mechanisms like individual transferable quotas that reduce the expensive and damaging “race to fish.” Before his time at PERC, Yablonski helped implement such property rights-based policies in Florida. There, as well as in other states where the policies have been implemented, the outcomes were stark improvements — overfishing declined, species recovered, and the commercial fishing industry became safer and more profitable.
Because of innovative research and policy recommendations such as these, PERC has become an important resource for federal and state decision makers on a variety of important issues. In 2018, PERC was a leading voice in the national conversation on how to improve federal endangered species policy. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has generated both high skepticism and high praise since it was established in 1973, with a PERC report noting that “supporters point out that only 1 percent of the species listed have gone extinct, while critics counter that less than 2 percent of listed species have recovered and been delisted.”
PERC provided research and testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources, advocating for a cleanup of the listing process and new funding sources to improve this popular, but broken, conservation tool. In September 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior took the first step towards ESA reform with policy improvements that would increase incentives for private landowners who protect and restore endangered species habitat. With more than 70 percent of America’s wildlife found on private land, these ESA reforms better vest landowners in the recovery process.
PERC has also become a leader on issues such as wild horse management, with research highlighting incentive-based methods to combat the overpopulation crisis on our public rangelands. With more than three times the number of horses the range can reasonably support, the toll on the grassland is immense. The overpopulation also takes a toll on the horses that are locked up in holding facilities, costing the government a projected $1 billion over their lifetime.
Yablonski and PERC scholars know from personal experience that government regulations often do more to hurt the environment than help.
“We aren’t guys sitting in an ivory tower,” Yablonski said. “We’re based in Montana with staff that have connections to what we’re writing about.”
PERC has grown the connection between environmentalists and scholars for years, with residential summer programs aimed at connecting the next generation of rising scholars to the latest issues.
And, an accomplished group of fellows and fellows emeritus have provided PERC with robust conservation ideas since its founding. Additional programming for college students provides opportunities for the next generation of leaders to explore environmental policy. Workshops and visiting fellowships round out a full slate of opportunities PERC offers for scholars and other researchers.
But they’re not just interested in high-quality research. With a team of 14 and a roster of more than 25 scholars, PERC wants to create a “culture of creative conservation and environmental entrepreneurship that replaces the often ineffective and acrimonious political culture.” They are well on their way to that goal and turning their ideas into action by effectively sharing their research with key decision makers and getting results that achieve real conservation successes.
The Pope Foundation ‘s 2018 John Blundell Fellow Will Rierson and PERC contributed to this article.