California, as much or more
than any other state, has witnessed first-hand the
Endangered Species Act's (ESA) shortcomings.
The Golden State has the second highest number
of listed endangered species in the nation, from
the captivating California condor to the
less-than-charismatic Delhi Sands flower-loving
It's not too surprising, then, that California
leads the lower 48 states in acres of officially
designated critical habitat. Nearly 20 percent of
the state's approximated 100 million acres is in
the regulatory clutches of this designation.
Despite the state's obvious stake in the act,
little has been done by state officials to move
reform legislation through the U.S. Senate.
Californians, with untold sums and resources tied
up in compliance or lawsuits over land use due to
the restrictions of the act, deserve real reform
and should demand action from their elected
Even with the act's unsuccessful track record,
the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated
critical habitat for the California red-legged
frog. The estimated economic impact of this
designation in San Luis Obispo County alone is
$165 million. Projected costs for the entire
state, such as regulatory costs imposed on
homebuilders that are passed on to home buyers,
are $497 million over a 20-year period.
What are we getting in return for all that
money? The answer, unfortunately, is not much.
Officials within the Fish and Wildlife Service,
over successive administrations, have criticized
the critical habitat provision as ineffective and
In 1999 congressional testimony, Jamie
Rappaport Clark, then the service's director,
"... in 25 years of implementing the ESA, we
have found that designation of 'official' critical
habitat provides little additional protection to
most listed species, while it consumes significant
amounts of scarce conservation resources. We
believe that the critical habitat designation
process needs to be recast as the determination of
habitat necessary for the recovery of listed
species. This 'recovery habitat' should be
described in recovery plans."
For a federal agency to say that its program
provides little benefit, while consuming huge
resources, translates in normal English to a
program that is useless, at best. After leaving
public service for a post as executive vice
president of the environmental organization
Defenders of Wildlife, however, Clark changed her
tune. When she testifies now, she calls critical
habitat "a crucial tool for ensuring the survival
and recovery of imperiled species."
Like many aspects of the Endangered Species
Act, critical habitat is driven by litigation,
providing an endless supply of slam-dunk lawsuits
to activist groups that can bag taxpayers' dollars
in the form of attorney's fees.
Critical habitat is not the only outdated
provision of the act. After more than three
decades of implementation and billions spent in
taxpayers' dollars, Fish and Wildlife Service
documents reveal that only 10 -- or less than 1
percent -- of the act's roughly 1,300 listed
species have recovered. Of those that remain under
its care, just 6 percent are classified as
improving, and a staggering 70 percent are
classified as either "in decline" or of "unknown"
No wonder the U.S. Office of Management and
Budget (OMB) recently assessed the endangered
species program as "not performing."
Furthermore, many costs have skyrocketed beyond
what recovery plans intended. For example, the
decurrent false aster's (a plant) recovery plan
anticipated recovery by 1997 at a cost of $58,000.
In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced
it will finally review its status, after spending
more than 800 percent of what was originally
projected. Similarly, the least tern's recovery
plan anticipated the bird could be recovered by
2005, at a cost of $1.75 million to $2 million. By
fiscal 2004, least tern expenditures had exceeded
These are just a few of the act's shortcomings,
but they more than justify the Office of
Management and Budget's assessment that the
program is "not performing," and are just some of
the reasons that the House of Representatives,
with a strong bipartisan vote, passed HR3824, the
Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act.
HR3824 provides many long-needed improvements,
including eliminating wasteful critical habitat
provisions. Instead, it identifies habitat in
recovery plans -- just as Defenders of Wildlife's
Jamie Clark testified was needed when she was with
the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But HR3824 also accomplishes much more. It
requires timely, comprehensive recovery plans and
allows affected parties, including property
owners, to have a say in those plans to reduce
conflict. When conflict is unavoidable, it
requires compensation for private property owners'
loss of property or the use thereof. Further, it
provides commonsense exemptions for emergencies
and national security while strengthening
scientific standards, improving reporting and
mandating transparency in decision-making.
To work, the Endangered Species Act must
refocus on recovery instead of conflict. For
HR3824 to work, the U.S. Senate must pass
corresponding legislation. Endangered species, and
Californians, deserve better. Ignoring the need to
improve the Endangered Species Act is a
dereliction of congressional duty and an
unrecorded vote to perpetuate a failing
Richard W. Pombo represents the 11th
Congressional District, including San Joaquin,
Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, in
the House of Representatives. He is the chairman
of the House Resources Committee.