Improve the ESA with Property Rights Protections

The National Center’s environmental and regulatory project held a briefing on Capitol Hill today, in conjunction with the Capital Research Center.

Happily, Hill interest in the possibility of improving the Endangered Species Act in a manner that protects property rights appears to be high. We reserved a room in the Senate’s Russell building that holds 50 people, yet 60 people showed up. Wonderful — though next time, we’ll have to order more box lunches.

“Improve the ESA by Protecting Private Property Rights” Say Panelists at Capitol Hill Briefing on the Endangered Species Act

Washington, D.C. – At a standing room-only briefing on Capitol Hill today, several leading policy organizations advised that strong property rights protections should be included in any Endangered Species Act reform effort.

The lunch briefing was sponsored by The National Center for Public Policy Research and the Capital Research Center.

Pointing out that over 99 percent of the species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA have failed to recover, and the devastation the Act has inflicted on private property owners, regional economies and public works projects, panelists at the event stressed that protecting property rights would not only bring relief to American landowners, but would also better protect species.

“While the Endangered Species Act has failed miserably at saving rare plants and animals, it has excelled in making life miserable for many in the human population,” said Peyton Knight, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the National Center, and a panelist.

“ESA-related costs are paid in an inequitable way,” added Knight. “Although Congress determined in 1973 that the preservation of endangered species was in the interest of the U.S. as a whole, Congress did not arrange for the nation as a whole to bear the costs of recovery. Instead, these costs are largely borne by the private landowners on whose property rare species are found, regardless of the ability of any particular landowner to bear these costs.”

Approximately 90 percent of all endangered or threatened species habitat is found on non-federally owned land.

The ESA’s structure works against its success. The law pits species against landowners — often the very owners of the land on which rare species live. This adversarial relationship works against the interests of both and often is referred to as the “perverse incentive” problem within the Act, because those who harbor endangered species on their property, or merely own land suitable as habitat for such species, can find themselves subject to crippling land use restrictions. To avoid such restrictions and the losses in property values that accompany them, some landowners choose to preemptively sterilize their land to keep rare species away.

“The ESA is bad for people and bad for species. Leading environmentalists, federal and state wildlife officials, and defenders of property rights have all agreed that the ESA is destructive of wildlife and habitat because its perverse incentives — penalizing good private stewardship — cause private landowners to be fearful of protecting endangered species,” said panelist R.J. Smith, National Center Senior Fellow.

“There has been wide agreement on this for over a decade. Yet few in Congress have demonstrated the courage and statesmanship to cut through this Gordian Knot and reform the ESA so that it will actually protect endangered species by protecting landowners. It’s time for a change,” added Smith.

The panel, which in addition to Peyton Knight and R.J. Smith from The National Center for Public Policy Research, included Terrence Scanlon and David Hogberg of the Capital Research Center and Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agreed that, at a minimum, the “perverse incentives” problem should be addressed. This can be done by fairly compensating property owners who lose the right to use their land due to restrictions under the Endangered Species Act.

“If the government takes a person’s land to build a highway, the property owner is compensated,” said Knight. “If the government takes the use of a person’s land to protect a rare species, however, the property owner is not compensated. This inequity must be addressed.”

Last year, the House of Representatives approved an Endangered Species Act reform bill that promises to provide such restitution to landowners. The Senate has yet to put forward any comparable measure.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a non-partisan, non-profit educational foundation founded in 1982 and based in Washington, D.C.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.