Fixing the Endangered Species Act.


In a 1934 essay by Aldo Leopold, titled "Conservation Economics" (Flader and Callicott 1991, 193-202), we can find some direction for improving on the command-and-control approach embodied in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as it stands in 1999. Leopold's insights, as usual, are telling. He began the essay by noting that in his day the accepted theory of the birth of the moon was that a large planet had passed near enough to pull a large piece of the earth into space, creating a new heavenly body. He compared the birth of conservation programs to that process:

Conservation, I think, was "born" in somewhat the same manner in the year A.D. 1933. A mighty force, consisting of pent-up desires and frustrated dreams of two generations of conservationists, passed near the national money-bags whilst opened wide for post-depression relief. Something large and heavy was lifted off and hurled forth into the galaxy of the alphabets. It is still moving too fast for us to be sure how big it is, or what cosmic forces may rein in its career.... [Conservation's] history in America may be compressed into two sentences: We tried to get conservation by buying land, by subsidizing desirable changes in land use, and by passing restrictive laws. The last method largely failed; the other two have produced some small samples of success. The "New Deal" expenditures are the natural consequence of this experience. Public ownership or subsidy having given us the only taste of conservation we have ever enjoyed, the public money-bags being open, and private land being a drug on the market, we have suddenly decided to buy us a real mouthful, if not indeed, a square meal. Is this good logic? Will we get a square meal? These are the questions of the hour. (Flader and Callicott 1991, 193-194) These are still the questions of the hour. To extend Leopold's analogy, beginning in 1970 conservation was hurled into a higher orbit with even greater infusions of government cash and regulation. To the "galaxy of the alphabets" were added the EPA, ESA, CIRCLA, RPA/NFMA, and a host of others. The big difference in the years since 1970, as compared to the years from 1933 to 1970, is that government-sponsored conservation rediscovered a new and stronger drug--direct command-and-control regulation, despite Leopolds claim that that method had largely failed. It continues to fail today.

To overcome the failure of endangered-species policy, I propose eight guiding principles, four of them political and four ecological. They are natural extensions of the lessons learned since 1933 and, in fact, reaffirm many of the principles Leopold promoted as he tried to direct the development of a positive political ecology. Adherence to these principles would dramatically alter existing management systems, and the ESA would be replaced with pragmatic, effective, intellectually honest policy.

The biological principles are as follows:

* Preserving habitat is a more important and achievable goal than saving all species.

* Global extinctions are more serious than local extinctions, which are more serious than local population extinctions.

* Preventing ecological wrecks is more feasible and efficient than rescuing them.

* Managing nature protects biological integrity better than does "natural regulation."

The political principles are these:

* Conserving habitat and species requires enlisting private-property owners on the side of conservation.

* Positive incentives are more effective than penalties, if only because penalties are ex post facto.

* Decentralizing biodiversity activities is more effective than centralizing them. That is, twenty competing answers are better than one, especially inasmuch as no one knows which one is right.

* Depoliticizing biodiversity changes incentives for private individuals, public officials, and interest-group representatives and thereby improves the chances of spending funds effectively and creates more private support for conservation.

The foregoing principles lead away from the idealism and moralism of much of the endangered-species debate and inject pragmatism into the discussion. Although they are consistent with noble goals, they suggest policies that allow for experimentation and creativity.

These principles cannot be adopted under existing endangered-species legislation because they require a more decentralized framework in order to operate effectively. If Congress will allow more decentralization and innovation, if politicians, interest groups, and agency personnel will move beyond what Leopold called "unending insistence on grooves of thought" (Flader and Callicott 1991, 151), then effective policies can be crafted.

Biological Strategies

Include Habitat in the Species Equation

Suzanne Winckler (1992) was correct when she wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, "It makes little sense to rescue a handful of near-extinct species. A more effective strategy would focus on protecting ecosystems that support maximum biological diversity" (74). This exhortation goes beyond the obvious point that protecting more habitat is preferable to protecting less. It implies, at least, that before public funds are spent on protecting a particular species an assessment of the appropriate and available habitat should be made. Such an approach would indicate, for example, that it makes sense to spend money to rescue the whooping crane because appropriate and possibly adequate summer and winter habitat exists and within that habitat are the species on which the crane preys. It would not make sense, however, to make heroic efforts to save the California condor in the wild, because its habitat requirements are not likely to be met again. Similarly, efforts to singularly protect the lynx or wolverine in the northern Rockies would be judged bad policy inasmuch as those species were historically rare precisely because the habitat is not well suited to them.

This approach is not opposed to the targeted, private actions of organizations such as the Nature Conservancy that purchase small parcels of land in attempts to protect microclimates that are home to species particularly adapted to those microclimates. Those efforts are laudable and possibly important but seem better suited to private rather than public action. Microclimates are vulnerable even to small changes in climate or weather patterns. Limited public funds should be spent where they are most likely to have lasting effects.

Rank Global, Local, and Population Extinctions

The principle of ranking global, local, and population extinctions represents simply a recognition that resources are scarce and that the nation cannot afford to indulge the noble impulse to save every population, every subspecies, or even every species. Policy makers must make tough choices, and in doing so they should rank their priorities. Charles Mann and Mark Plummer (1992) quote Gardner Brown, a University of Washington economist, on this issue:

We can't save every species out there, but we can save a lot of them if we want to, and save them in ways that make sense economically and scientifically. To do that, we have to make some choices about which species we are going to preserve. And nobody wants to do that! Nobody! (66) Mann and Plummer asked if nobody wanted to make choices "because they are dismayed by the prospect of playing God?" Brown responded, "Oh, sure. But in this case God is just sitting on his hands, which is a pretty dangerous thing for him to do."

As the nation sits on its collective hands, species will continue to disappear at a more rapid rate than necessary, and they will continue to do so as long as the legislative mandate remains "save everything." A much more realistic if less emotionally satisfying rule dictates that policy makers establish priorities and make trade-offs (Easter-Pilcher 1996; Czech and Krausman 1998). In fact, despite the rhetoric about the incalculable value of every species, priorities are being established and trade-offs made under existing policy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has chosen to spend its money on a few species--particularly visible, charismatic ones.

Favor Prevention over Rescue

Almost everyone who writes about endangered-species policy calls for earlier conservation efforts than those adopted under the ESA. Under the current process, populations often fall to nearly irreversible lows before they are nominated for listing as endangered. Immense biological and ecological problems attend the effort to recover a species that is nearly gone. The management problems are also intensified when dealing with a species approaching extinction. Tim Clark, Richard Reading, and Alice Clarke (1994) explain:

As a species continues to decline and approach extinction, management options narrow, costs rise sharply, and the sense of urgency grows nerve-rackingly high. Fear of failure can become paralyzing; flexibility for experimentation approaches nil. As a result, the context of the recovery program deteriorates into a politically charged and conflict-laden mess with little room for maneuvering. Simply starting conservation before a species is severely endangered would alleviate much of the pressure, keep more options open, and reduce the costs. (424-25) More options at less cost ought to be the motto of species preservation. Choosing such a path would require tough choices, but it makes little sense to spend large sums of public money on a species or habitat that is nearly gone if the opportunity cost is to allow other species to slide into a steeper decline.

Manage Nature

In his book about "reinventing nature," William Cronon (1995) explains that "many popular ideas about the environment are premised on the conviction that nature is a stable, holistic, homeostatic community capable of preserving its natural balance more less indefinitely if only humans can avoid "disturbing it" (24). This assumption, which he calls "problematic," descends from the work of botanist Frederic...

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