Kill Endangered Species Reform

Copyright 1998 Investor's Business Daily, Inc.
March 24, 1998

Senate leaders for some time have been weighing whether to update the 1973 Endangered Species Act. But the bill they have before them is not the way to do it. It would be far better to start from scratch than renew the '73 act's failed methods.

Billed as property rights protection, and pushed by Sens. Dirk Kempthorne, RIdaho, and John Chafee, R-R.I., the measure is anything but.

Instead, it repeats and extends the flaws of the current law, casting Uncle Sam as the hero of endangered species. It will let federal bureaucrats continue to infringe on private property rights - while saving few if any species.

For instance, bureaucrats will become local zoning czars - telling localities who can build what and where.

And the new, broader habitat conservation plan in the bill puts thousands of acres of private property at risk of losing their value.

Already, the Interior Department has tried to prevent logging on Pacific Northwest land more than 11/2 miles from where a pair of protected Northern spotted owls nest. The timber company that owned the land objected, started harvesting and ultimately was paid several million dollars by the government for the property.

The reform bill would etch in stone this dubious regulatory reach, but without assuring any compensation for affected landowners. And an increased number of exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act would give the government more power to withhold information about its reach from concerned property owners.

The act's history shows it has failed at great cost to humans and wildlife. Forget the human cost for a moment, though.

In this space in May, we detailed the extent of that failure. A recent update adds to the picture of failure. Since the Endangered Species Act came into being, 1,126 species have been listed. Only 20 species' status has officially improved. And 27 other species have been pulled from the list. Of those, seven became extinct, and nine were improperly listed. Just 11 species have recovered under the ESA.

A baseball player with that batting average would be working in the fast food industry. This is not to say the act hasn't scored any hits. It has. The Aleutian Canada goose has rebounded under the ESA as has the greenback cutthroat trout.

But the evidence also points to factors other than the ESA aiding in these species' survival.

Even the bald eagle, which is ESA backers' best public relations tool, can't credit the law for its comeback. The federal government's banning of DDT in 1972 had at least as much to do with the bird's survival.

In short, the environmental crowd has no empirical leg to stand on. Yet that hasn't stopped green types from scaring lawmakers from any course but the one they prescribe.

Surveys conducted for the Competitive Enterprise Institute over the past few years show the public doesn't buy into the command-and- control approach to saving species. Given three choices, the share choosing incentives rather than current regulation jumped from 35% in '95 to 49% in '96. Only 11% of poll respondents backed current regulation those two years. Another third both years backed regulation, but with compensation.

The "save-everything" mind-set driving federal species protection ignores nature and common sense. Some species will fade in due course, no matter what man does to kill or save them.

Some instances will crop up in which an apparently insignificant species actually plays a much more vital role than thought. These deserve a closer look.

But listing the same types of fish, for example, simply because they swim in different rivers shows what happens in marriages between zealots and bureaucrats. Listing some rats, bugs and plant life is more evidence of the lack of common sense in current environmental law.

Big timber interests and developers favor the KempthorneChafee bill for the predictability it gives them. And there's something to be said for that.

But we'd prefer to see a new law that respects the bedrock property rights of all.

With such well-defined rights, the commercial and environmental interests would have to negotiate a plan that's acceptable to both - not to federal bureaucrats.

The Kempthorne-Chafee bill's backers think the bureaucrats can do it better. History shows they can't.

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Copyright © 1998 Steven J. Milloy. All rights reserved. Site developed and hosted by WestLake Solutions, Inc.