Species Act Pits Property Rights against Nature

Article excerpt

THE political battle over the Endangered Species Act reaches far beyond the wisdom or cost of saving this or that plant or animal.

It involves deep philosophical questions of mankind's place in nature and the rights of a free society - the responsibilities that come with the power to exploit natural resources and the freedom to use private property for economic gain with as little government interference as possible. It features a power struggle over what is arguably the strongest legislative armament in the environmental movement's arsenal. And it illustrates a growing gap between rural and urban America.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed into law in 1973 and amended several times since, is up for reauthorization by Congress in 1992.

A growing list of proposed legislation relates to endangered species, ranging from "biodiversity protection" bills to a "community stability" act that would help small towns faced with economic uncertainty due to government-ordered protection for at-risk species.

A coalition of environmental groups argues that ESA needs to remain in force, if not be strengthened.

Acknowledging that they have let environmentalists take the lead in public opinion, communities dependent on natural-resource industries, private-property-rights advocates, and industry groups, are fighting back with sophisticated and effective public-relations efforts.

The Bush administration has yet to make known its position on ESA reauthorization. But in interviews and speeches Interior Secretary Manual Lujan has said "it's just too tough an act" because it does not allow economic and social impact to be considered in deciding whether to list species as endangered or threatened.

"My perception of the political climate these days is that the Endangered Species Act has essentially become a lightning rod - both for criticism from economic interests who perceive that environmental regulations have gone too far and for environmentalists who argue that we need to strengthen environmental regulation," says Daniel Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis and Clark College who has written on the law. "One of the first things everybody points to is the Endangered Species Act."

One reason for this, some observers say, is that the law is being used more broadly than when it was first passed.

"The 1973 act front-loaded all of the biological and regulatory issues at the beginning of the statute and allowed the consideration of social and economic factors to occur - if at all - at the very end," says Mark Rey, executive director of the American Forest Resource Alliance, which represents forestland owners and forest-products businesses. "That was not unreasonable, given that Congress was responding to the last few of something in a limited and particular area which were being threatened by ... development."

"What we're seeing now is radically different," Mr. Rey asserts. "We're dealing in many cases with thousands of remaining individuals {of an endangered species} spread across two or three or four states and that are in conflict, not with some new activity, but with some on-going activity that in some cases has formed the economic mainstay of the region" for generations.

Environmentalists acknowledge they use the act to fight for broad natural-resource protection. Developers and landowners, galvanized by such pressure from preservationists, are turning the game around to their favor.

"We're blatant about copying their concept," says Chuck Cushman of the newly-formed League of Private Property Voters of the environmental movement's ability to generate thousands of letters, faxes, and phone calls to lawmakers. Together with the groups from which it sprung (the National Inholders Association and the Multiple Use Land Alliance), Mr. Cushman's new organization has a computer file with 1.4 million supporters on it. …