The Endangered Species Act; It Should Be as Dead as the Dodo

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 26, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Endangered Species Act; It Should Be as Dead as the Dodo


Byline: Michael De Alessi, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On Dec. 28, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) turns 30. But before celebrating the grand anniversary of this landmark federal legislation, we should ask ourselves a sobering question. What has the ESA really accomplished in the past three decades?

The answer gives little cause for celebration.

For starters, the ESA has done precious little to help endangered animals. Since the act's passage, seven American species have gone extinct. Meanwhile, while more than 1,260 species have been listed as "endangered" or "threatened," only 10 North American species have "recovered," often due to efforts unrelated to the ESA.

Even worse, the ESA has often backfired, prompting needless destruction of wildlife habitat as it expanded from its initial mission of helping endangered species to blocking economic activity across the country.

Based on the assumption that species are threatened as "a consequence of economic growth and development," the ESA gives the authority to limit activities on both public and private land. This loggerheaded notion - that conservation and commerce are incompatible - has dominated the application of ESA since it was passed in 1973.

Indeed, in ESA's first year, a tiny fish called the snail darter was discovered in an area that would be flooded by a dam being built on the Little Tennessee River. A lawsuit was promptly filed, halting construction. Eventually, a special congressional dispensation let the nearly completed dam go forward, but the case left little doubt about the strict-enforcement power of the ESA.

ESA restrictions create a perverse incentive that has led landowners to destroy habitat that might one day provide an attractive home for endangered species. For example, a study by economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael found that owners of forests that would evolve into endangered red-cockaded woodpecker habitat (they prefer old-growth trees) tend to cut their trees ahead of schedule to avoid attracting the birds.

Because more than 700 endangered or threatened species are found on private land, meaningful conservation will clearly require the cooperation of private landowners. The ESA finally recognized the problems it creates with the establishment of the Safe Harbor program, which indemnifies landowners who don't already have endangered species on their land from further restrictions.

The Safe Harbor program does begin to address the fact that endangered species on private land are a liability. But reducing liability isn't enough. To really turn around endangered species conservation, landowners need to view endangered species as assets. …

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The Endangered Species Act; It Should Be as Dead as the Dodo
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