Criticism of the ESA--from both sides
The Endangered Species Act is far from perfect. At times alienating
both conservation biologists and property owners, can the ESA meet
its goals—to protect species and the habitats that support
them—without self-destructing? Outlined below are a few of the
arguments attacking the Endangered Species Act.
Is the Endangered Species Act biologically unsound?
According to some conservation biologists, the Endangered Species Act
really only serves to protect "charismatic megafauna," those
high-profile species, rather than overall biodiversity (Rohlf). They
claim the Act overlooks the interactivity and interconnectedness of
biodiversity, particularly overlooking certain keystone species.
Although the term "higher" life form was stricken from the Act in
1970s, the mood remains.
Instead, the Act tends to focus on the immediacy of threats to a
species, what many deem the "emergency room" approach to
biodiversity conservation (Scott et al). This approach "expends
inordinate effort and resources on a few species that, by the time
they are finally listed as endangered or threatened, may be too far
gone to save" (Rohlf). Emergency efforts are not taken until
community numbers are dangerously low, funding is insufficient to
gather necessary data, recovery plans are not developed soon enough
or not enacted at all. The language of the Endangered Species Act
also give the USFWS and NOAA Fisheries substantial latitude to make
listing decisions as they see fit, without outside input.
Because of these shortfalls of the Endangered Species Act, many
conservation biologists have argued for expanding the Act to protect
not just threatened species, but threatened ecosystems, communities
and habitats as well. Rohlf suggests that habitat protection
approach has greater potential to trigger actions before populations
are endangered. “It should also be able to deal better with
metapopulation dynamics and to lead to region-wide planning of
systems of reserves that could maintain viable populations of most
species," he explains. But there is one problem: there is little
consensus surrounding the actual definitionof
or established taxonomy for ecosystem, community, habitat, and
other biological buzzwords. This, too, leads to an often unwelcome
mingling of science and politics, "injecting political and economic
considerations into a process of making what by law are supposed to
be biological decisions" (Rohlf). Orains suggests a system that
identifies and provides clear criteria for delineation of all
communities that occur repeatedly across the landscapes and seascapes
of the United States. He also suggests the system have predictive
power for describing relationships among species and communities, and
"the system must correspond sufficiently well to distributions of
species that protecting representatives of the types has a high
probability of maintaining the nation's biological diversity."
he warns that any classification system of ecological units is sure
to be highly contentious: "the coarser the classification, the
fewer the sites that need to be protected."
"One of the clear weaknesses of the ESA is," according to Environmental Defense's Michael Bean [via Curtis and
Davison], "that 'it has
not promoted a happy marriage' between its goals and the goals of
these smaller landowners; 'more often, it has prompted the sort of
bitter acrimony more typical of a nasty divorce.'" Although the
private property rights movement began to gain strength in the early-
to mid-1990s, "its inspiration dates to the early 1980s, when the
list of endangered and threatened species began to interfere with
activities on privately owned lands" (Burgess). Private property
owners argued that the law was insensitive to people. The case of
the northern spotted owl, listed in 1990 and citing loss of
old-growth habitat as the primary threat, sparked a bitter
controversy between loggers and mill owners and environmentalists in
California and the Pacific Northwest. The logging industry blamed
the owl's listing for a loss of between 30,000 and 168,000 jobs.
Environmentalists countered that logging jobs have been declining
since the turn of the century and that the Endangered Species Act is
certainly not to blame. This assertion was corroborated by a study
done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that suggest that the
decline in jobs was already in progress because of dwindling
old-growth forest harvests and the automation of the lumber industry.
Despite what many landowners view to be an unyielding law,
presidential administrations in the last ten years have enacted
legislation intending to "allay fears about the regulatory
consequences of having listed species on their land and to encourage
the conservation of these species." In addition to Habitat
Conservation Plans, two other approaches are the "no
surprises" and "safe harbors" policies. The "no surprises"
rule assures private landowners that if 'unforeseen circumstances'
arise, the USFWS or NOAA Fisheries 'will not require the commitment
of additional land, water or financial compensation or additional
restrictions on the use of land, water, or other natural resources
beyond the levels otherwise agreed to in the conservation plan,
without the consent of the permittee.' The "safe harbor”
provision encourages voluntary species management by assuring the
landowner that no additional regulatory restrictions will be imposed
in the future if the lands are returned to a pre-determined baseline
condition (Curtis and Davison).
According to Rohlf, the USFWS "refused to
expressly incorporate species' importance within ecosystems as a
listing priority when it rewrote its listing priority guidelines in
"This is not a scientific issue; it is a moral issue. The
deprivation and oppression of thens of thousands of timber-dependent
families cannot be justified by any science known to man. Logging is
not a job; it is who we are....You may not know what it is like to
see everything you a hve worked for all your life sacrificed to the
god of environmentalism; but I do. You may not know what it is like
to go to bed hungry; but I do. The Endangered Species Act is
referred to as the 'pit bull' of environmental laws for good reason.
It is vicious, cruel and unrelenting."
-Barbara Mossman, spokesperson for the American Loggers Solidarity