Rosalie Edge was an astonishing woman, as her biographer Dyana Furmansky recounts in Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy. Edge was a New Yorker of the Gilded Age who married into wealth, and a veteran suffragette who in her 40s and 50s discovered a love for birds and conserving the environment. She wrote prolifically, lobbied politicians, and partook in the emerging conservationist movement – forty years before the birth of modern environmentalism. But Mrs. Edge did something more: she put her money where her mouth was.

Today her name is mostly associated with Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. Because of favorable winds, many migrating birds of prey passed over the mountain in late summer and fall every year. Hunters had noticed that, and contemporary photos and written records show the skies filled with raptors within easy access of hunting parties. Thousands of these majestic birds were killed every year, thus endangering several species and subspecies.

Amid the Great Depression, Edge borrowed money from a benefactor of her non-profit Emergency Conservation Committee to lease Hawk Mountain for a year. And she hired another friend and ally, Maurice Broun, to serve as warden, banishing the hunters and gunners from the spot. The Wikipedia entry on her says that she “unilaterally ended the annual shoot by buying the property and turning it into a sanctuary.” The very next year, she secured the funds to buy the mountain outright and permanently turn it into a wildlife sanctuary.

The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, an hour-and-a-half outside of Philadelphia, became the country’s and the world’s first protected preserve for wild birds of prey. Her son, Peter Edge, describes Hawk Mountain as “the crowning achievement of my mother’s career in conservation.”

Edge may have shared with her modern-day environmentalists an “insistence of personal responsibility for keeping the earth in balance,” but instead of merely rallying outside the seat of government, she did something more tangible in support of her cause. Besides, her story illustrates that trusting the government to be our climate savior is rarely appropriate: part of the reason that hunters sought the hawks in Pennsylvania at the time was the $5 bounty ($5 in 1934 equaled $99 in 2020) that the Pennsylvania Game Commission paid for dead birds, which were considered a nuisance to surrounding farmers. 

Markets and property rights facilitate peaceful co-existence when people hold conflicting ideas about the use of particular resources or commodities. Here, farmers and politicians wanted to get rid of the hawks, hunters wanted to shoot them for money and sport, and conservationists like Mrs. Edge wished to preserve the animals. Conservationists often look upon markets, prices, and property rights as enabling the destruction of the Earth. In reality, market-based conservation success stories from wolves and black bears in North America to rhinos and lions in sub-Saharan Africa abound. Technologies and institutions are just tools. They can be used for good purposes and bad – something that Edge understood. 

Rosalie Edge’s concern for hawks and eagles mirror today’s concern for forests or whales, even though some whales are back to their pre-industrial numbers and we are fast approaching net-zero deforestation globally. Those who are concerned with blue whales being hit by ships or by the logging of trees in the Amazon may be inspired by the Edge- solution: buy the threatened species. When a whale is hit by a ship outside of the busy Californian harbor, charge the shipping company with destruction of property. Elsewhere, I have sketched similar insurance-based proposals for damages from climate change.

This way of internalizing externalities seems foreign to those who most care about the planet. Strangely, the environmentalists seem to prefer the slow and heavy-handed solution of government regulation, taxes, and outright bans over the price-based incentives of the marketplace. Perhaps it’s not fair that the lives of poor defenseless hawks should depend on wealthy donors who buy them and look out for them. But, in a world filled with conflicting needs and desires, why not settle for second-best?

For all that we know, Edge might have favored complete bans on hunting birds and certainly wished to abolish the Alaskan bounties for bald eagles, but effecting those changes was outside of her control. Instead of betting everything on getting the right guy or gal into the Oval Office or the U.S. Congress, market-based initiatives would allow environmentalists to change their own little part of the world directly.  

Today’s environmentalism is often characterized by massive PR campaigns, mass mobilization, use of ever-more alarmist language, and the making of (sometimes misleading) documentaries. Instead, we should take matters into our own hands – as Rosalie Edge did. Buy up property for conservation efforts, pool funds for green reinsurance, finance research programs, go trophy hunting in successful reservations, or fund real clean-tech initiatives.

The tale of one Pennsylvanian mountain in 1934 should inspire those who care about nature.