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April 30, 1992
"The Incentive is to Destroy, Not Save, Species - An Act in Need of an Overhaul"
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 time.

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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