Each spring, snowmelt off the Sierras once sent water pouring over California’s lowlands. Migrating birds paused on a journey south stretching from Canada to South America south to rest and refuel. But, today, with 95% of wetlands gone, this is a more perilous journey than in the past.
To preserve the last remnants of wetlands and find habitat for a new generation of birds, conservation groups are now getting creative.
"If you think of us like a startup in the conservation space, this is a disruptive business model," says Eric Hallstein, a former venture capitalist who is now chief economist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the nation's largest environmental nonprofit measured by its assets.
Its program BirdReturn, now in its second year, harnesses new technology and a firm grasp of market economics to get the most conservation bang for the buck. First, Hallstein’s team goes online to track migrating birds. Thanks to tens of thousand of people contributing bird sightings on eBird—a massive crowdsourced database—the team can get accurate, timely predictions about when flocks will arrive in California’s Central Valley. Next, this data is overlaid with water maps pinpointing exactly where habitat is most needed.
What happens next is interesting: The nonprofit "buys" the land—at least for a time.
Hallstein realized conservation presents a classic buyer problem: The group has no idea how much it costs suppliers. To solve this, TNC designed a reverse auction. This auction format rewards the lowest-price sellers. Sellers, the rice farmers of the Sacramento River Valley in this case, offer to flood their fields for a few weeks or months at a time. For a price, each farmer essentially creates temporary wetlands. TNC only pays those who provide the most quality habitat at the lowest price. Donor capital is used as efficiently as possible to create just the right habitat at the right time. The contracts can then be changed, renewed, or canceled the next year as the weather, birds, pricing, and other factors fluctuate.
"It’s a several orders of magnitude difference in costs," says Hallstein. "We are able to rent habitat for roughly 0.5% to 1.5% of what permanent protection costs." He estimates that creating 100,000 acres of permanently protected wetland habitat would cost between $650 million and $1 billion. Renting, on the other hand, requires just $1 million to $3 million annually for similar results (at least for migrating birds that only need the land for part of the year).
"We’d rather pay off the hotel room than buy a house," he says. The group is now raising money to fund pop-up habitat for the Pacific Flyway through a crowdsourced campaign.
So far, TNC says it’s working. Forty farmers in the first year flooded about 10,000 acres (out of 500,000 devoted to rice farming in the Central Valley), as the New York Times reports. Target bird species—dunlins, sandpipers, snipes, whimbrels, and black-necked stilts and other shorebirds—were sighted at 30 times higher densities on BirdReturns fields than average fields during peak spring season, according to TNC. The organization is now expanding the program and applying more sophisticated analyses about exactly what habitat is needed.
If this approach is applied elsewhere from marine fisheries to stream restoration work, conservation may have found a new business model.
"It’s not that conservation has it wrong," says Hallstein. "It’s that conservation needs a portfolio of approaches."