Endangered Species Act:
by Robert Stokes
This article is not for those who are undecided about the merits of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It offers my thoughts on convincing elected officials to rein in that law-if they want our votes and campaign contributions.
Now is a good time to send that message. This fall, Washington residents will vote in many open seat races and contested primaries. Political newcomers need every vote and dollar, so they listen better than secure incumbents.
FUNDAMENTALS: I feel no embarrassment suggesting ESA should simply be repealed. Repeal would not bring back the Wild West. It would restore management of ESA-protected populations to the laws and agencies now governing other wildlife and natural resources. Those agencies have admirable records for rescuing endangered species and restoring other animal populations to abundance. Examples include the buffalo and whooping crane, as well as most species of recreationally harvested big game, waterfowl and upland birds.
Unlike ESA’s single-minded animal-first philosophy, and modest achievements, the significant accomplishments of other natural-resource management agencies were made by balancing wildlife preservation against equally legitimate values realized through natural resource use. For examples visit your local department of game (wildlife), or state or federal forest management agency.
Perhaps the most significant change produced by ESA repeal would be an end to ESA-based lawsuits. Threats of such lawsuits give environmentalists enormous leverage over natural-resource management discussions, whether or not they involve endangered species or even wildlife. That power should be withdrawn. The appropriate role of environmentalists in natural-resource policy debates should be openly discussed, and decided on Endangered Species ActABCs for opponents terms appropriate to each issue.
However, ask a politician to declare for or against ESA and expect him to change the subject. Even conservative, pro-resource use politicians feel pressure from organized environmentalists. They must also accommodate urban and suburban constituents with the typical TV image of nature. That image will not change by the next election, nor will categorical opposition to ESA play well against it.
BUY OUT-WATCH OUT: let politicians frame the discussion and they may offer some variation of the buy-out. Called economic incentives, compensation, or whatever, buy-outs let politicians accommodate both resource users and environmentalists-or at least appear to.
Making ESA implementing bureaucrats plead for appropriations to fund buy-out programs might encourage more moderation than the current law, under which they can simply mandate measures they desire, or that they are pressed to adopt by environmental lawsuits.
ESA doesn’t prohibit moderation, it just doesn’t require it. If ESA had an overall public interest test many current species protection measures would pass. Buy-outs would be a fair way to divide the cost of moderate measures between the general public (taxpayers) and directly effected parties, including landowners, but not limited to them.
The downside is that buy-outs could blunt the little organized opposition to ESA that currently exists. Many ESA-related costs will never stimulate political activism. ESA mandated salmon protection measures (sometimes costing thousands of dollars per fish) burden electricity consumers throughout the Northwest. Most consumers know their electric bills keep going up, but few know how much of the increase results from salmon protection. Even if they did, it would make more sense for them to lobby to protect their jobs or businesses, from which they receive all their income, rather than working to reduce costs that consume only a small part of their budget.
Buy-outs are often used to “solve” otherwise difficult disputes, usually by removing troublesome parties. Containerization drastically reduced the need for longshoremen. In return for union work rules permitting elimination of those jobs, the shipping industry bought out existing longshoreman with generous retirement benefits. Workers not yet hired as longshoreman could not strike or invoke labor laws. They got nothing.
Environmentalists understand the lesson that example teaches about “solving” disputes with natural-resource users. Expect them to collaborate with politicians of all stripes to target buy-outs on resource users that would otherwise organize political opposition to ESA, for example landowners subject to ESA-related restrictions.
SOUND SCIENCE-SOUND POLITICS: good politics goes beyond victory to build consensus. The first step on that longer path is achieving consensus on facts. Hence the importance of a sound scientific basis for policy.
As currently drafted and implemented, ESA does not rest on a sound scientific basis. The appearance of consensus within ESA science (aka conservation biology) is limited to those who share environmentalist assumptions and values, whether employed by ESA implementing agencies or private environmental advocacy groups.
Wildlife sciences lack the precision of disciplines like physics and chemistry. ESA exacerbates those inherent uncertainties by inviting, if not requiring, administrators to describe their policy decisions as scientific results. Among CONTINUED NEXT PAGE‘I feel no embarrassment suggesting ESA should simply be repealed. Repeal would not bring back the Wild West. It would restore management of ESA-protected populations to the laws and agencies now governing other wildlife and natural resources. Those agencies have admirable records for rescuing endangered species and restoring other animal populations to abundance. Examples include the buffalo and whooping crane, as well as most species of recreationally harvested big game, waterfowl and upland birds. The most important of those mislabeled policy decisions are definitions of subject populations and determinations of extinction risks.
ESA solves the problems this would raise for ordinary science by legislating its own rules for scientific investigation and reporting. Minimum standards of proof are abandoned in favor of the rule of “best scientific . . . data available.” If nothing better is available, “best science” can be unsubstantiated speculation, provided the speculator has an appropriate degree, and publishes his speculation in a moderately prestigious journal.
Responsible scientists acknowledge their ignorance usually exceeds their knowledge. Accordingly, they leave policy decisions to politically accountable administrators. Common ESA implementation practice (if not legal precept) is to resolve scientific uncertainties “in favor of the species.” For example, the spotted owl logging ban was not based on evidence that old-growth logging hurt spotted owls, but the absence of evidence it did not. Spotted owls were later found thriving in small dimension, second growth timber.
Incorporating pro-environmentalist value premises like “when in doubt, favor the species” into conclusions represented as scientific results accounts for the common, though scientifically nonsensical, position that “science proves” we must do this, or not do that-remove the Snake River dams (to save salmon), ban snowmobiles from alpine regions (to save Canadian lynx), terminate old growth logging (to save spotted owls), and so on.
The “Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning Act” was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2002 by Representative Greg Walden (R-Oregon). Walden represents the Klamath Basin of southwest Oregon, where ESA administrators had recently shut off irrigation water to 1400 farmers, triggering economic disaster and near riots. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences later repudiated the scientific basis for that decision. Walden’s “sound science” bill is intended to prevent recurrence of such disasters.
The thrust of the “sound science” initiative is to build into ESA implementing procedures the scientific standards we have learned to trust in other public policy areas. It’s a good start, but also an initiative that will be debated for years before yielding enacted legislation.
Sound science should not systematically favor one cause over others. However, moving from pro-environmentalist ESA science (conservation biology) to genuinely objective sound science can only help natural-resource users.
My respect and support goes to politicians who do the homework required to understand what would be required to make the transition from conservation biology to sound science, and who have the guts to challenge the environmental establishment that supports the status quo.*Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane.
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