Printer Friendly

Fortify the act.

IN THE PAST TWO decades, the United States has played two sharply contrasting roles in the world's quest to maintain biodiversity. We stand alone among leading powers in not signing the biodiversity treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit--keeping the good company of Iraq, Albania, Kiribati, Tajikistan, and a handful of others, while Canada, France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and most of the rest of the world are signatories. And yet, we adopted the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which is generally regarded throughout the globe as the most farreaching, progressive, and enlightened law to protect biological diversity.

Which view of the United States is correct? Are we a leader, whose actions are a model for the rest of the world, or have we abdicated any pretense of leadership? The answer may well be determined by what Congress and the Clinton Administration do with the Endangered Species Act this year.

In December the act will be 20 years old. Although it has generated little controversy throughout most of its history, the law is now at the center of a storm. The debate over the future of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest is only the most visible of a number of conflicts nationwide. During his confirmation hearing, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt fielded more questions about endangered species than nearly any other subject. Congress seems poised to examine the act more closely than ever before. Will the law be around for another two decades, and how might it be changed?

It is useful to take stock of the accomplishments of the past 20 years, before answering those questions.

* The American alligator, which poachers hunted nearly to extinction, has recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list.

* The whooping crane, once reduced to only 15 birds, now has a winter population on the Texas coast nearly ten times that number and supports a local tourist business there. The road to the whooper's recovery reached another milestone in recent months when a flock was introduced in Florida.

* Nesting bald eagles in the Lower 48 have risen from fewer than 800 pairs in 1974 to more than 3,000 today.

* By the early 1970s, only 19 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons existed in the United States. That number has now increased to 700.

* The number of sea turtles drowning in shrimp nets has decreased as a result of new gear requirements that shunt the creatures out of harm's way.

* Gray whales have rebounded to their historic abundance and have recently been taken off the endangered list.

* The status of the Aleutian Canada goose, which breeds in the harsh environment of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and summers in the fertile valleys of the Pacific Northwest, has improved from endangered to threatened.

* Black-footed ferrets and California condors, successfully bred in captivity, were recently reintroduced into the wild, doubling each species' numbers.

* The red wolf, another species that once survived only in captivity, has been reintroduced at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An earlier reintroduction at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina has been remarkably successful.

* The gray wolf, extirpated from most of its former range, is returning to Montana, Idaho, Washington, and--if recent reports prove correct--Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

These are but a few of the successes that the Endangered Species Act has helped to make possible. With so many achievements, one might expect that the act's 20th anniversary would be cause for celebration. Instead, this year will be the most challenging one the act has ever faced. A host of business, development, resource extraction, and ideological interests have targeted the law for radical change or extinction.

Bills from both supporters and opponents are anticipated. The act's expected champions in Congress are Reps. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), the latter a steadfast proponent since 1973. In the last congress, Studds and Dingell introduced a bill that would have increased funding, aided species conservation before listing, encouraged more effective recovery planning, and otherwise strengthened the law. Studds and Dingell may introduce an expanded version of this bill.

Opposition is expected to be led by Rep. Billy Tauzin (D-La.). He and Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas) introduced a bill last year reflecting the anti-conservation agenda of the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, a group that includes the American Farm Bureau Federation; Chevron, U.S.A.; the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association; and about 60 counties, water districts, private utilities, and others.

Tauzin's bill would have abandoned the goal of recovering endangered flora and fauna, giving the Interior Secretary the choice of maintaining a species in its imperiled state. The Secretary could even decide to take no action, allowing a species to continue its slide toward extinction.

Although habitat loss is the primary cause of endangerment for most of the country's imperiled wildlife, the proposed "reform" legislation would have reduced habitat protection by narrowing the activities considered harmful. It would have added procedural hurdles to the listing process, virtually guaranteeing a standstill. By contrast, the bill would have allowed key provisions to be waived when the federal government entered into a cooperative management agreement with private, state, or local authorities.

Tauzin's proposal would have eliminated the current authority of citizens to enforce the act against all violators and would have required compensation when the value of land was affected by the act's restrictions. This rule would have far exceeded any provisions in the Constitution, which does not require compensation for every action by the government that affects the value of land, particularly where the purpose is to protect public property, such as wildlife. To date, no landowner has brought--much less won--a claim that land has been "taken" as a result of any requirement imposed by the act.

Finally, the proposed "reform" legislation would have either created or authorized a host of new exemptions. Tauzin's proposal, expected to be introduced in the new Congress, was a thinly veiled attempt to render the act toothless. A constructive approach would focus on its true requirements. The Endangered Species Act has been an important and beneficial law, but 20 years of experience have revealed some crucial needs.

Strong incentives for conservation on private land must be created. The act relies heavily on penalties to deter harmful conduct and virtually not at all on rewards for beneficial conduct. We have incentive programs to encourage farmers to restore wetlands, to encourage forest landowners to manage their property to satisfy multiple benefits, and to reward utilities for cutting air-pollution emissions more than the law requires, but we do not have comparable programs to encourage private owners to take actions on their lands to aid in the recovery of imperiled wildlife.

We need to focus more attention on species before they reach the crisis stage; preventive medicine is cheaper than emergency-room care. In recent years, most of the species added to the endangered list have been plants, and roughly half of them were reduced to populations of a hundred individuals or fewer by the time of listing. Many options may have disappeared if we wait to address the needs of these species, and the remaining choices may prove to be expensive, controversial, or risky.

We must encourage local communities to incorporate the needs of species headed for the endangered list into broader development plans. The upfront costs of this sort of novel planning are often so high that local communities are unable or reluctant to start the process until the species is listed. A program to advance money to local communities could overcome this obstacle. Such a measure was included in last year's Studds-Dingell bill.

It is in everyone's interest to increase the resources available for endangered species conservation. Florida has an annual $300 million allocation to acquire land for conservation. That one state program is bigger than the entire land-acquisition budgets of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service combined. More resources will mean speedier recoveries, the ability to devote more attention to preventive action, and a reduction in conflicts with private landowners.

If the United States had an amount of money equal on a per-capita basis to the total spent by Florida each year on acquiring land for conservation, the country would have more than enough to recover every currently endangered species and every species likely to be listed in the future. That conclusion follows from a report of the Interior Deparment's inspector general that estimated the total cost of recovery at $4.6 billion. That amount is only half the cost of the superconducting supercollider being built in Texas and less than 4 percent of the cost of the savings-and-loan cleanup. It is clearly within our means. All we need is the will and the desire to once again become a world leader in the urgent task of conserving biological diversity.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Parks Conservation Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:the Endangered Species Act
Author:Bean, Michael J.
Publication:National Parks
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:NPCA announces 1993 award recipients.
Next Article:Bringing back the pack.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters