To Save Wildlife, Scrap the Endangered Species Act

Opinion/Editorial by David A. Ridenour, Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research and Director of the Environmental Policy Task Force

Published July 1995

Congress will soon begin the daunting task of revising the Endangered Species Act. But before it can devise a species plan that will work for all species -- both human and wildlife -- it must first admit that the Act has failed.

There are currently over 950 plants and animals listed as either "endangered" or "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act and another 4,000 other species are either candidates for future listing or are in the process of being listed. Despite the passage of 21 years since the Act's inception and the expenditure of incalculable billions of dollars in the name of species protection, only 27 species have managed to make their way off the "endangered" list. Of these, seven were delisted due to extinction and the remaining delistings were due to "data error" (meaning the species was wrongly listed in the first place), court orders, or species improvement unrelated to the ESA.

The Endangered Species Act has therefore failed at its central mission -- protecting and recovering endangered and threatened species. Unfortunately, many lawmakers don't seem to recognize this fact, content to simply tinker with the existing, fundamentally flawed law.

The "Endangered Species Act Reform Amendments of 1995," recently introduced by Senators Slade Gorton (R-WA), J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the latest example of piecemeal reform that simply won't work. According to its sponsors, the measure is intended to "bring people back into the equation" -- a laudable goal, to be sure -- but one their proposal will never achieve. In the name of injecting "balance to an Act that does not now have balance," the Senators have proposed granting the Secretary of Interior sweeping new authority to determine what level of protection is appropriate on a species-by-species basis. This would permit the Secretary to weigh human factors (including cultural and economic impact) of species recovery plans before imposing them. Unfortunately, "balance" is not what we need to protect wildlife: What we need is a genuine desire by all Americans to tread lightly on the planet and protect endangered and threatened species.

By continuing to accept government as the ultimate arbiter between landowners and wildlife, by continuing to treat private property as the government's to regulate, the Gorton-Johnston-Shelby proposal continues to lock species and human beings into an adversarial relationship. Landowners would continue to live in fear that some federal bureaucrat could identify their land as habitat for an endangered species and place restrictions on its use, diminishing the land value. Landowners would continue to have an incentive to make sure their land is as inhospitable to wildlife as possible (to avoid habitat designation) and to extract whatever resources their land possesses quickly while they still have access to them.

What must be done if we are to protect both wildlife and the rights of private property owners is scrap the current Endangered Species Act and replace it with a voluntary, incentive-based system. Such a system might include:

Tax for Nature Swaps: Incentives could be offered to private property owners to create rather than destroy wildlife habitat by offering them tax credits. Losses in federal tax receipts resulting from such tax breaks could be made up from profits generated from publicly-held natural resources.

Advice and Information: The federal government's role in species protection could be changed from a coercive role to an advisory one, thereby fostering cooperation rather than confrontation. Government could offer information resources to encourage and assist landowners with their own conservation efforts.

Cash for Species: Cash payments could be provided to landowners for their conservation efforts (much like our current farm program), ending the unfunded federal mandate for species protection and strengthening private property rights in the process. Again, the costs could be made up through profits from publicly-held natural resources.

Rewards for Responsibility and Innovation on Public Lands: Efforts to preserve species on public lands could be enhanced by rewarding those who improve habitat with such incentives as favorable lease terms. Leasing some of these lands to conservation groups could also be considered.

Privatization: Greater "pride of ownership" -- and thus environmental stewardship -- could be fostered by giving individuals greater control over their own land and greater ownership of all lands (by selling off some surplus federal land).

Conservation through Commerce: Private breeding of endangered and threatened species could be encouraged by reducing government interference. The development of private, for-profit wildlife and hunting reserves and captive breeding programs in recent decades led to the recovery of such species as alligators in Florida and Bighorn Sheep in Wyoming. As Congress begins debating Endangered Species Act reform, it should remember why reforms have been proposed in the first place -- to correct an injustice to individual landowners who have been forced to shoulder the costs of the ESA. The goal of reform ought not be limiting the injustice of the ESA to a small enough group of people that their complaints can simply be ignored, but to eliminate the injustice altogether. Any reform that does not attempt to do so is unethical and doomed to failure.

Politicians are understandably reluctant to propose the kind of bold reform the Endangered Species Act needs, given the opposition of the environmental establishment. But before Congress dismisses such reform it should consider this: Any attempt to modify the current law -- even piecemeal reform -- will subject it to the environmental establishment's wrath. Worse, when half measures prove detrimental to wildlife and property rights -- which they inevitably will -- politicians will pay the price a second time.

Some sound advice for Congress: Get Endangered Species Act reform right the first time.

--The Environmental Policy Task Force is a project of The National Center for Public Policy Research * 20 F Street, NW #700 * Washington, D.C. 20001 * Tel. (202) 507-6398 * (301) 498-1301 * E-mail: [email protected] * Web:

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