Fixing the Endangered Species Act

By Simmons, Randy T. | Independent Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Fixing the Endangered Species Act


Simmons, Randy T., Independent Review


In a 1934 essay by Aldo Leopold, titled "Conservation Economics" (Flader and Callicott 1991, 193-202), we can find some direction for improving on the command-and-control approach embodied in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as it stands in 1999. Leopold's insights, as usual, are telling. He began the essay by noting that in his day the accepted theory of the birth of the moon was that a large planet had passed near enough to pull a large piece of the earth into space, creating a new heavenly body. He compared the birth of conservation programs to that process:

   Conservation, I think, was "born" in somewhat the same manner in the year
   A.D. 1933. A mighty force, consisting of pent-up desires and frustrated
   dreams of two generations of conservationists, passed near the national
   money-bags whilst opened wide for post-depression relief. Something large
   and heavy was lifted off and hurled forth into the galaxy of the alphabets.
   It is still moving too fast for us to be sure how big it is, or what cosmic
   forces may rein in its career....

   [Conservation's] history in America may be compressed into two sentences:
   We tried to get conservation by buying land, by subsidizing desirable
   changes in land use, and by passing restrictive laws. The last method
   largely failed; the other two have produced some small samples of success.

   The "New Deal" expenditures are the natural consequence of this experience.
   Public ownership or subsidy having given us the only taste of conservation
   we have ever enjoyed, the public money-bags being open, and private land
   being a drug on the market, we have suddenly decided to buy us a real
   mouthful, if not indeed, a square meal.

   Is this good logic? Will we get a square meal? These are the questions of
   the hour. (Flader and Callicott 1991, 193-194)

These are still the questions of the hour. To extend Leopold's analogy, beginning in 1970 conservation was hurled into a higher orbit with even greater infusions of government cash and regulation. To the "galaxy of the alphabets" were added the EPA, ESA, CIRCLA, RPA/NFMA, and a host of others. The big difference in the years since 1970, as compared to the years from 1933 to 1970, is that government-sponsored conservation rediscovered a new and stronger drug--direct command-and-control regulation, despite Leopolds claim that that method had largely failed. It continues to fail today.

To overcome the failure of endangered-species policy, I propose eight guiding principles, four of them political and four ecological. They are natural extensions of the lessons learned since 1933 and, in fact, reaffirm many of the principles Leopold promoted as he tried to direct the development of a positive political ecology. Adherence to these principles would dramatically alter existing management systems, and the ESA would be replaced with pragmatic, effective, intellectually honest policy.

The biological principles are as follows:

* Preserving habitat is a more important and achievable goal than saving all species.

* Global extinctions are more serious than local extinctions, which are more serious than local population extinctions.

* Preventing ecological wrecks is more feasible and efficient than rescuing them.

* Managing nature protects biological integrity better than does "natural regulation."

The political principles are these:

* Conserving habitat and species requires enlisting private-property owners on the side of conservation.

* Positive incentives are more effective than penalties, if only because penalties are ex post facto.

* Decentralizing biodiversity activities is more effective than centralizing them. That is, twenty competing answers are better than one, especially inasmuch as no one knows which one is right.

* Depoliticizing biodiversity changes incentives for private individuals, public officials, and interest-group representatives and thereby improves the chances of spending funds effectively and creates more private support for conservation. …

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