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Wildlife Law is an 800-Pound Gorilla

Paula Easley / Comment / Anchorage Daily News / February19, 2005

Most Americans care about saving endangered species. That doesn't mean they know how it's done -- practically no one does -- or whether they consider the Endangered Species Act successful. Truth is, the ESA is a dismal failure. How do I know? I've become fairly expert on the law's intricacies during its three decades of existence. And, since experts are more revered the farther away from home they are, I flew to the nation's capital to write this. So, pay attention.

We've all heard how the ESA has been disastrous for economic development and community expansion projects; for crucial military training operations; for large and small rural landowners. The lost freedoms and emotional burdens people have borne to comply with rules that trump everything are unimaginable in a free nation. Without quantifying private sector expenditures (an impossible task), federal agency costs are in the billions -- perhaps justifiable if they actually saved species.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which often represents landowners seriously damaged by ESA requirements, observed: "If a private corporation spent billions of shareholder dollars, yet had a failure rate of 99.9%, the principals of the corporation would be fired, taken to court and probably carted off to prison for misuse of funds. Yet, the same thing can happen in government, and people seem to turn a blind eye to the problem!"

So why aren't the ESA's ills better understood? Do the media explain what goes on? Are urban Americans oblivious to life outside their species-free "blue" zones? Our ignorance may be part of the problem, but we know enough to realize the ESA is the most controversial environmental law ever enacted. If it is a national priority, let's either craft a version the public can support or ditch it altogether.

The ESA program has wallowed in a regulatory and litigation quagmire for so long few lawmakers have relished reauthorizing it. Rest assured not one Congress member wants to be flooded with millions of angry phone calls, e-mails and faxes opposing or supporting particular bills while they themselves try to learn the issue. Some say repeal it and start over; some want major changes; some think it can simply be tweaked; others like it just the way it is, thank you.

Conflict over ESA requirements is wide-ranging. Should states or the feds run the program? Should all endangered flora and fauna be saved? How can skulduggery be prevented? Should government be able to confiscate people's property through regulations? Can the endless barrage of lawsuits be eliminated? Should the program be punitive or cooperative? Whose science can be trusted? Should protection also be given distinct populations, races and subspecies? Do critical habitat designations help species recover?

So here we are at a unique time in history when influential congressional leaders plan to propose remedies the American people will get behind. The unacknowledged reality is that some 80 percent of species habitat is privately owned. It is undeniably wrong for rural residents (primarily Westerners) to be conscripted into national zoological service, plus be penalized for providing the healthy, species-bearing habitat in the first place. They could use a little help.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle face a difficult task and should be commended -- not summarily attacked by the media or threatened by special interests for their efforts. Responsible media analyses and reporting are absolutely critical during the ESA debates. If we educate ourselves, we can recognize and avoid being manipulated by propaganda and media scare tactics (which have already started).

Following three days of Washington meetings with a diverse coalition of organizations (representing small landowners, farmers, ranchers, fishers, miners, loggers, recreationists and local governments), their leaders agreed that if ESA reauthorization is to occur, it can't be an 800-pound gorilla let loose to bungle development projects, take people's property and wreak havoc on communities. That was not the ESA's stated purpose.

If Congress wants federal agencies to control activities on state and local lands, it should openly debate the issue and vote on it -- not use the guise of saving species to con unsuspecting Americans into submission. If Congress wants wildlife and insects to have greater rights than humans have, it should specifically vote on that too.

Our grass-roots coalition has identified principles that must be included in new legislation. Recovering species without endangering peoples' livelihoods must be the primary goal of legislation. Done right, a cooperative approach would generate support among all Americans, urban and rural. For periodic updates on legislation, send me an e-mail.

Paula Easley, an Anchorage public policy consultant, is vice chair, Nationwide Public Projects Coalition; president, Alaska Land Rights Coalition; and board member, Resource Development Council of Alaska. E-mail, paulaeasley@yahoo.com.


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