Congress has the obligation to correct any statute that produces harmful, unintended consequences. That is reason for Congress to fix the Endangered Species Act.
But a more basic reason for reform exists: Twenty-three years with the Endangered Species Act has shown what works and does not work for endangered species. The law should be changed accordingly.Changed - not scrapped. No responsible party argues for gutting the ESA. However, responsible parties correctly argue that species protection can be achieved more efficiently and at less cost to landowners than the law currently provides.
One lesson we have learned with the ESA is that its characteristic approach to compelling landowner compliance is self-defeating. Threatening landowners with criminal prosecution for failing to provide habitat is almost calculated to harm protection efforts. By using the "stick" instead of the "carrot," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service simply discourages landowners from protecting listed species or providing needed habitat.
In fact, current enforcement efforts virtually guarantee the opposite. Through-out the country, landowners have been prevented from clearing brush from fences, building vacation or retirement homes or harvesting their trees. All of this occurs in the name of "species recovery."
Saddling landowners with the high costs of developing and implementing habitat conservation plans is more likely to force ranchers, woodland owners, builders and others to eliminate habitat altogether or face the dismaying prospect of losing valuable use of their property while paying for species recovery.
This is fine if the objective is to frustrate landowners. But it is not fine if the objective is to protect endangered species, which requires the willing cooperation of landowners.
For example, about 57 percent of the nation's forest lands, home to many species of birds, animals and plants, is in the hands of about 10 million family woodland owners, most holding less than 50 acres.
Doesn't it make more sense to encourage these woodland owners to identify and conserve habitat rather than put their property's value at risk for doing so?
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt admits the problem but ignores the solution. He has applied a number of creative Band-Aids to ESA controversies. But Band-Aids are not enough to protect landowners from costly, arbitrary enforcement. The law can be changed to improve the consultation process between landowners and the Fish and Wildlife Service, to ensure that recovery plans are less cumbersome and costly, and to enhance the role of local authorities in devising and implementing such plans.
It's time to end the rhetoric that has arbitrarily divided Americans into two camps. Let's come together where social and economic needs can be balanced with the goal of species conservation.