The best way to protect valuable resources—whether drinking water, wildlife or archaeological digs—is to let the profit motive work its magic.

At least that’s the case made by authors Richard L. Stroup (above), a professor of economics at Montana State University and a former director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Department of Interior, and Matthew Brown (below), an economist and mathematical statistician.

Both Stroup and Brown are associated with the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), a think tank based in Bozeman, Montana. PERC was founded specifically to solve problems involving natural and cultural resources by using market incentives. In Zimbabwe, for example, local villagers had long viewed wild elephants as competition for food (the elephants ate their crops) and as a source of ivory—two strong motives to slaughter the animals. The killing of the elephants, however, resulted in a perilous reduction of their numbers. To save the elephant population, a new program was tried: Local communities would share in the profits from fee hunting and recreation programs involving elephants. Soon the villagers began resisting the temptation to over-hunt because they wanted to protect a long-term source of revenue.

Similar solutions might be applied to archaeological resources, Stroup and Brown argue—or to anything that has value and needs protection. Why rely simply on the good will of frail human beings, they seem to ask, when you can enlist their interests?