Congress debates longevity of the Endangered Species Act
A move to rewrite the Endangered Species Act has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is expected to come before the U.S. Senate in February.
The cornerstone of the Endangered Species Act is protecting places where endangered species live. The proposal repeals protection of critical habitats, a change that could have numerous implications in Western North Carolina.
In the Nantahala National Forest, discovery of the endangered Indiana bat has changed logging practices — rerouting, scaling down and even outright halting some logging. Endangered bald eagles live along the shore of Fontana Lake in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — a factor that will influence whether to build a 34-mile road through the park along the shore of the lake. Discovery of the endangered elk toe mussel in the Tuckasegee River below the Dillsboro Dam could stop Duke Power from tearing out the dam and unleashing decades of accumulated sediment downstream — or could at least force Duke to dredge the sediment first.
The Endangered Species Act has provided key ammunition for environmental causes, prompting a local environmental group to lobby against the rewrite.
“We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to be good stewards of the land and leave behind a legacy of protecting endangered species and the places they call home,” said Tracy Davids, director of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, a Western North Carolina-based group that protects native wildlife. “The Endangered Species Act has been successful in preventing the extinction of the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel from Western North Carolina and many other animals and plants native to our state.”
Supporters of the rewrite say endangered species will still be protected, but the loopholes abused by overzealous environmental groups will be closed up.
“What was born of a desire to apply American ingenuity to the cause of saving species has become a tool not for species recovery, but for political, ideological, and fundraising goals,” U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., stated in a report proposing the rewrite. “Under the mantra of species protection, radical environmental organizations use the Endangered Species Act to raise funds, block development projects, and prohibit legal land uses of nearly every kind.”
Environmental groups manipulate the court system to get land designated as critical habitat for endangered species, imposing huge social and economic costs, according to supporters of the bill.
Rep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, said the only species the bill would hurt “is the fund-raising cash cow that litigious environmental groups have enjoyed for decades — and that species deserves to be endangered.”
Davids, director of Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, agreed it is a shame that environmental groups have to rely on the courts.
“If the federal agency responsible for enforcing the endangered species did its job, and actually enforced it then there would be no need for citizens to bring enforcement actions on their own,” Davids said. “We as citizens have a duty to hold our government accountable and enforce the law when they aren’t going to do it for us that is democracy in action.”
Democrats opposed to the rewrite attacked the bill as a symbol of misplaced values.
“The Republican majority has already dismantled nearly every government program for people, and now it appears they’re moving on to other species,” Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., said during debate of the bill on the House floor. “They constantly preach that God’s creations are precious, yet once again they are showing their hypocrisy that they would be so careless with the lives of God’s creatures.”
The bill passed in the House by 226 to 193. U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, who represents this part of WNC, voted for the bill.
Success of failure?
Opponents and supporters cannot seem to agree on whether the current Endangered Species Act has served it purpose.
Environmental groups claim the Endangered Species Act has kept more than 1,800 species from going extinct since its establishment 30 years ago. Only nine protected species have been declared extinct — indicating a 99 percent success rate.
“Unquestionably, the endangered species act has helped bring back the American Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, both of which occur in WNC,” said Bob Gale, ecologist with WNC Alliance. “Another success story in the mountains is a member of the Sunflower family known as Ruth’s Golden Aster, which occurs in the Occoe and Hiwassee Rivers. It depends on occasional flood scours to create suitable habitat, but dams on those rivers prevent this type of scouring.”
If the proper habitat had not been intentionally created — as required by the Endangered Species Act — the plant could likely have gone extinct, Gale said.
Supporters of the bill say that the Endangered Species Act has been unsuccessful, however. While only nine species have gone extinct, only 10 species — less than 1 percent — have recovered enough to be delisted. Another 21 percent are still declining despite their protection as endangered species, and only 6 percent are considered improving.
“Unintended consequences have rendered this a broken law that checks species in for conservation and recovery, but never checks them out,” Pombo, author of the bill, stated in a report on the need for a rewrite.
Davids objected to this theory.
“A species on the brink of extinction isn’t going to reverse after only 30 years,” Davids said.
Davids said writers of the bill are not legitimately concerned about species recovery.
“While they are complaining that species aren’t recovering, the new bill removes recovery as a goal at all,” Davids said.
Under current law, the Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of developing plans to protect endangered species according to the “best science available.” Under the new bill, the discretion would fall to the Secretary of Interior.
“The Pombo bill would allow a political appointee to determine what constitutes the best science to be used in endangered species decisions,” Davids said. “It allows for greater political manipulation of scientific decisions.”
Private property fray
In addition to repealing critical habitat protection, the new bill would secure compensation for private landowners hampered by endangered species regulations. Compensation would encourage landowners to fess up and cooperate rather than cover up endangered species, according to supporters.
“Under current law, landowners unlucky enough to discover such a critter lose the use of their land and face crippling regulations, costs, and uncertainty. It’s no wonder that most landowners prefer to ‘shoot, shovel, and shut up,’” U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. stated before the House.
Davids said such statements are misleading. The Endangered Species Act applies to private land only in the event a developer needs a federal permit — such as a permit from the Army Corp of Engineers to move a stream or a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to discharge chemicals. Davids said these are only the most enormous of projects.
Opponents claim the requirement to compensate developers would create a windfall.
“This provision would likely set up a cottage industry of speculation in areas with endangered wildlife. A developer could buy a parcel of land, create dummy plans for a development he has no intention of ever building, and then watch as the dollars roll in, courtesy of the American taxpayer,” U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., stated on his web site.
There is no limit on how many times a landowner can be compensated on the same tract.
“A developer might propose construction of a shopping center that will wipe out the habitat of an endangered species. Once the developer has been compensated for that use, he or she can propose an office park on the site and become entitled to compensation again,” Jamie Rappaport Clark with Defenders of Wildlife stated during testimony before the House Resources Committee.
Moderates of both parties pitched a compromise bill, one that would lift burdensome or far-reaching regulations of the Endangered Species Act without gutting it.
“I agree that the critical habitat designation as it exists is overly-broad, overly-restrictive and does not work well,” U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, stated before the House when introducing the compromise bill. “But the bill doesn’t replace that flawed system with any other habitat protection, leaving precious endangered species like the bald eagle vulnerable to extinction.”
The compromise failed by 10 votes.
Supporters of the compromise say it could have passed if they had more time. But the initial bill was scheduled for a vote in the House just one week after clearing committee. The short timetable prompted 23 moderate Republicans to ask for more time, calling the bill a “highly controversial piece of legislation which aims to make profound changes to current environmental law” in a joint letter to then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.