The Endangered Species Act: Bad
for People, Bad for Wildlife
by Bonner Cohen
In the 30 years
since its enactment, the Endangered Species Act has emerged as
one of the most powerful, and ineffective, environmental statutes
on the books.
Of the some 1,260
species listed as "endangered" or "threatened"
under the ESA, fewer than 30 have been taken off the list. And
this is even worse than it looks. Some species were removed from
the list because they became extinct; others, like the American
alligator, were taken off because it was determined they were
never endangered in the first place.
These meager results,
however, are not the worst aspect of the ESA. In rural America,
far away from urban skyscrapers and suburban malls, the ESA has
imposed severe land-use restrictions on property owners. Farmers,
ranchers, and other landowners who harbor endangered species
on their property often lose the economic use of their land.
In effect, they are punished for creating the very habitat endangered
species need to survive.
Typical of the havoc
the ESA has wreaked in rural America is the case of Ben Cone,
Jr., whose father purchased 8,000 acres of timberless land on
the Black River in North Carolina. Cone replanted the property
with pines, carried out prescribed burns to control undergrowth,
and selectively thinned his trees every few years to pay his
property taxes and to turn a profit on his labor. Over time,
his pines grew to such a height that they attracted the endangered
red-cockaded woodpecker, which brought him into direct conflict
with the ESA.
In testimony before
Congress, Cone explained that "by managing [the property]
in an environmentally correct way, my father and I created habitat
for the red-cockaded woodpecker. My reward has been the loss
of $1,425,000 in value of timber I am not allowed to harvest
under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. I feel compelled
to massively clear-cut the balance of my property to prevent
In another celebrated
case, residents of wildfire-prone Riverside County, Calif. were
prevented by the ESA from clearing firebreaks on their land lest
they disturb the habitat of the endangered Stephens' Kangaroo
rat. When the inevitable fires came, people's homes and the rat's
habitat went up in flames.
The best way to
serve the interests of both people and wildlife is to replace
the ESA's rigid regulatory framework with voluntary, nonregulatory,
incentive-based provisions. Under such a law, the government
would have no power to take or regulate private property in order
to protect endangered species and/or their habitat. If the government
wanted to protect species and habitat on private lands, it would
have to work out mutually compatible, voluntary, contractual
arrangements with landowners.
This would be very
similar to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture "protects"
highly erodible land on the nation's farms by offering to pay
farmers to place some of their land in its Conservation Reserve
Program for a set term of years and then paying the landowners
for their cooperation. "If this can be done for habitats
of nonendangered wildlife," says R.J. Smith of the Center
for Private Conservation, "it can also be done to protect
the habitats of endangered species." The cost of such an
approach would be far less than the present litigation-ridden
regulatory law that has also failed so completely in fulfilling
its primary purpose -- to protect species.
The greatest advantage
to a voluntary, nonregulatory program is that it would eliminate
the perverse incentives of the current law that have turned rural
landowners and endangered species into mortal enemies. No longer
afraid of losing their livelihoods for the sake of endangered
species, landowners would become willing partners in helping
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Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow of The National Center for
Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].