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Guest opinion: ESA needs to be friendlier to people
WASHINGTON - In the 30 years since its
enactment, the Endangered Species Act has emerged
as one of the most powerful, and ineffective,
environmental statutes on the books.
Of the 1,260 species listed as "endangered" or
"threatened" under the ESA, fewer than 30 have
been taken off the list. And this is even worse
than it looks.
Some species were removed from the list because
they became extinct; others, like the American
alligator, were taken off because it was
determined they were never endangered in the first
place. These meager results, however, are not the
worst aspect of the ESA. In rural America, far
away from urban skyscrapers and suburban malls,
the ESA has imposed severe land-use restrictions
on property owners.
Farmers, ranchers and other landowners who
harbor endangered species on their property often
lose the economic use of their land. In effect,
they are punished for creating the very habitat
endangered species need to survive.
Typical of the havoc the ESA has wreaked in
rural America is the case of Ben Cone Jr., whose
father bought 8,000 acres of timberless land on
the Black River in North Carolina. Cone replanted
the property with pines, carried out prescribed
burns to control undergrowth, and selectively
thinned his trees every few years to pay his
property taxes and to turn a profit on his labor.
Over time, his pines grew to such a height that
they attracted the endangered red-cockaded
woodpecker, which brought him into direct conflict
with the ESA.
In testimony before Congress, Cone explained
that "by managing (the property) in an
environmentally correct way, my father and I
created habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker.
My reward has been the loss of $1.425 million in
value of timber I am not allowed to harvest under
the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. I
feel compelled to massively clear-cut the balance
of my property to prevent additional loss."
In another celebrated case, residents of
wildfire-prone Riverside County, Calif., were
prevented by the ESA from clearing firebreaks on
their land lest they disturb the habitat of the
endangered Stephens' Kangaroo rat. When the
inevitable fires came, people's homes and the
rat's habitat went up in flames.
No government power
The best way to serve the interests of both
people and wildlife is to replace the ESA's rigid
regulatory framework with voluntary, nonregulatory,
incentive-based provisions. Under such a law, the
government would have no power to take or regulate
private property to protect endangered species
and/or their habitat. If the government wanted to
protect species and habitat on private lands, it
would have to work out mutually compatible,
voluntary, contractual arrangements with
This would be very similar to how the U.S.
Department of Agriculture "protects" highly
erodible land on the nation's farms by offering to
pay farmers to place some of their land in its
Conservation Reserve Program for a set term of
years and then paying the landowners for their
"If this can be done for habitats of
nonendangered wildlife," says R.J. Smith of the
Center for Private Conservation, "it can also be
done to protect the habitats of endangered
The cost of such an approach would be far less
than the present litigation-ridden regulatory law
that has also failed so completely in fulfilling
its primary purpose - to protect species.
The greatest advantage to a voluntary,
nonregulatory program is that it would eliminate
the perverse incentives of the current law that
have turned rural landowners and endangered
species into mortal enemies. No longer afraid of
losing their livelihoods for the sake of
endangered species, landowners would become
willing partners in helping wildlife.
Bonner R. Cohen is an adjunct fellow with
the National Center for Public Policy Research, a
conservative think-tank that promotes free-market
approaches to policy issues, 777 N. Capitol St.
NE, Suite 803, Washington, D.C. 20002.
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