Friday, December 13, 1996
SAVING LEBANON'S PRIVATELY-OWNED LANDSCAPE
text and photographs by Fareed Abou-Haidar
In the U.S., many environmental organizations are active in saving government land (land owned by all the people) from ill-conceived mining, logging, overgrazing, and dam-building schemes that take place due to outdated laws. These public lands cover vast areas of the U.S.
Private lands are another matter. Because private property rights are held in such high regard, it is much more difficult to save valuable habitat from development through government regulation. The surest way to save it is to simply buy it. Many local and national organizations have been formed for that task. One of the oldest and best-known is The Nature Conservancy. This nationwide organization has hundreds of thousands of members who pay annual dues. In addition, foundations and companies contribute large amounts of money; many companies benefit from the publicity that comes with being involved in conservation. This money is used to buy land threatened with development. Using a sophisticated computer database that includes rare species of plants and animals, land to be bought is prioritized based on the rarity of its flora and fauna. Many of these preserves are open to the public, benefiting the local economy.
Since Lebanon is composed largely of private land, saving ecologically valuable land will often mean acquiring it. Lebanon needs its own land conservation organization. Such an organization would raise money from member individuals, responsible companies, and the government to buy areas that are most threatened and contain valuable resources such as forests, rock formations, rare species of plants, riparian (riverside) habitat, or outstanding scenery. Some landowners might be generous enough to donate their land, sell it at below-market prices, or give up the right to develop it (i.e. conservation easement). Certain areas could be targeted for acquisition while land prices are still reasonable. A regular newsletter would keep citizens up to date on the latest lands to be saved. Some of the areas could be opened to the public, with an entrance fee; this would raise more money for other land acquisition projects and benefit the local economy by attracting visitors. These open spaces would be appreciated by nearby residents for their psychological benefits in a small, claustrophobic country where the imprint of humans seems to be everywhere.
An alternate way to buy land, perhaps directly by the government, would be to impose a sales tax of, say one percent, on most products and services except food and other basic necessities (thus relieving poor people of extra burdens). If real-estate transactions were to be taxed, that alone would would raise huge sums for saving vast areas of Lebanon from destruction. In Arizona, the City of Scottsdale has imposed a sales tax to save a spectacular mountain range from development that threatens to destroy it. The same could be applied all over Lebanon.
In short, the government may be able to manage what land it owns for environmental values, but the vast areas that are privately owned may have to be saved, piece by piece, from inappropriate uses. This would insure that Lebanon does not become border-to-border buildings and roads.