Perverse Incentives; Adverse Results

We’ve just posted on the main website a piece by Senior Fellow Bonner Cohen, who explains to the uninitiated why so many people are frustrated with the Endangered Species Act. The essay has been reprinted in the Miami Herald and other newspapers; I’ll excerpt a bit of it here:

In the 30 years since its enactment, the Endangered Species Act has emerged as one of the most powerful, and ineffective, environmental statutes on the books.

Of the some 1,260 species listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA, fewer than 30 have been taken off the list. And this is even worse than it looks. Some species were removed from the list because they became extinct; others, like the American alligator, were taken off because it was determined they were never endangered in the first place.

These meager results, however, are not the worst aspect of the ESA. In rural America, far away from urban skyscrapers and suburban malls, the ESA has imposed severe land-use restrictions on property owners…

Typical of the havoc the ESA has wreaked in rural America is the case of Ben Cone, Jr., whose father purchased 8,000 acres of timberless land on the Black River in North Carolina. Cone replanted the property with pines, carried out prescribed burns to control undergrowth, and selectively thinned his trees every few years to pay his property taxes and to turn a profit on his labor. Over time, his pines grew to such a height that they attracted the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which brought him into direct conflict with the ESA.

In testimony before Congress, Cone explained that “by managing [the property] in an environmentally correct way, my father and I created habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker. My reward has been the loss of $1,425,000 in value of timber I am not allowed to harvest under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. I feel compelled to massively clear-cut the balance of my property to prevent additional loss.”

…The best way to serve the interests of both people and wildlife is to replace the ESA’s rigid regulatory framework with voluntary, nonregulatory, incentive-based provisions….

This would be very similar to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture “protects” highly erodible land on the nation’s farms by offering to pay farmers to place some of their land in its Conservation Reserve Program for a set term of years and then paying the landowners for their cooperation. “If this can be done for habitats of nonendangered wildlife,” says R.J. Smith of the Center for Private Conservation, “it can also be done to protect the habitats of endangered species.”

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