April 30, 1992
"The Incentive is to Destroy, Not Save, Species - An Act in Need of an
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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ENVIRONMENTALISM has now grown into early adolescence, with a mixture of self-righteousness,
urgency and budding wisdom characteristic of that age. But when the Endangered
Species Act was passed in 1973, environmental consciousness was barely an infant.
Little wonder that the law is ill-suited for today's mature environmental problems.
The act implicitly takes a rather child-like view of the relation between man
and nature: the view that the actions of Man (with a capital letter, of course)
will sometimes threaten the wild Eagle, or the fierce Alligator. So we'll make
a list of animals that are endangered, and no one will be allowed to hurt them
or bother them ever, ever again.
I'm exaggerating the naivete of the act, but not by much. The January cover
story of the Atlantic Monthly describes how the act was intended to save "charismatic
mega-fauna," not beetles.
But that concept of conservation is simple-minded. Human action doesn't just
occasionally threaten a few photogenic animals; it endangers entire ecosystems,
each one containing tens of thousands of birds, fish, plants, fungus, insects
and bacteria. The world may hold 100 million different species, although only
1.4 million have been named.
The Endangered Species Act requires protection of every species -- no matter
the economic cost. As described by Mercury News reporters Scott Thurm and Bert
Robinson in their two-part series Sunday and Monday, that absolute requirement
creates the potential for epic regulatory and legal battles. Moreover, by adding
to the list of endangered species one at a time, in no special order, the current
law offers little assurance that it will protect the most species in the fastest
About 600 species currently inhabit the endangered species list. Another 600
species qualify for listing (although they are not listed) and backlogs of 3,000
species are under consideration. However, the government has been adding to the
list at a rate of only 100 species per year.
While arguments continue over what to put on the list, 217 species once thought
eligible for protection have disappeared since passage of the act, according to
Thurm and Robinson. In the United States alone, perhaps 4,000 species will become
extinct by the end of the decade.
Meanwhile, the Endangered Species Act itself is offering a strong economic
incentive to destroy endangered species and their habitat. Richard Stroup, a senior
associate at the Political Economic Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., offers
an analogy to help explain why:
"Suppose the U.S. had a law requiring that anyone who discovers an Old
Master painting cannot own it but must keep it on the premises and make sure that
it is not stolen or damaged; whatever the expense, the owner must bear it. A federal
agency will check regularly to see how well the owner carries out that obligation."
To rephrase, if land developers or farmers or logging companies suspect or
know that their land may provide habitat for an endangered species, they also
know that discovering such a species may completely bar them from using their
land. The threat of financial ruin creates a strong economic incentive to send
in the bulldozers or the plows or the chainsaws right away.
When the Endangered Species Act comes up for renewal this year, I fear that
these issues will be sidestepped. Instead, one camp will argue for keeping the
act in its current form, while opponents argue for taking economic costs of environmental
protection into account. But both these views rely on the approach of developing
an endangered list, one species at a time, and threatening to wallop anyone who
injures a protected plant or insect or animal.
I'm not opposed to those provisions, but they aren't nearly enough. It is certainly
not possible to save every species from extinction, and may not be desirable even
if possible. But a sensible reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act would
protect interrelated species by the bushel, not one by one. That means identifying
and protecting especially diverse ecosystems, now, right away.
In addition, a revised act should focus on helping species to get off the endangered
list, not just to get on it. Only 17 species have ever been removed from the endangered
species list, and eight of those left feet-first (for the species that had feet)
-- via extinction.
Among other steps, helping endangered species to recover means rewarding private
landowners who support those species. For example, 3,000 pairs of northern spotted
owls remain. If a bounty of $5,000 were offered to every private land owner with
a nest of the owls, I suspect their number would increase rapidly.
More generally, if society believes that an owner's ability to use land should
be restricted because of an endangered species, then society owes that person
(or company) compensation and the chance for a plan that can balance economic
and environmental concerns. Otherwise, an economic incentive remains for the destruction
of sensitive habitat.
The current version of the Endangered Species Act tries to help preserve a
global biodiversity of 100 million species, one species at a time, using all sticks
and no carrots. It's no slur against the noble intentions of the act to note that
it needs an overhaul.
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