The Butterfly Problem

Because the government doesn't have the means to preserve endangered species, let alone a coherent plan its decisions are haphazard—and private landowners often find themselves paying for the preservation of species they've never heard of

As a practical matter, endangered species almost always win in conflicts with development—an outcome that flows from the act's grounding in the Noah Principle. Yet the Noah Principle makes choices next to impossible, and in this regard the Endangered Species Act must be changed. In the eyes of the law all species are equal, because each is of incalculable worth. Americans are willing to set aside some human concerns to save the bald eagle and the grizzly bear. But no one has demonstrated that they will give their informed consent to laws that grant the same privileges to the Kretschmarr Cave mold beetle. Indeed, a casual glance through the magazines of the environmental movement reveals a marked preference for charismatic megafauna over creepy-crawlies; the pages of Sierra and National Wildlife are devoted to lush color photographs of mammals and birds. As a result, funding for species preservation is awarded with blithe disregard for the principle of equality. On the infrequent occasions when the Noah Principle is invoked, it creates contempt for the law. If society prefers charismatic megafauna, priority should be given to them without apology. If biologists think otherwise, it should fall to them to change public preferences.

More important, the claim of incalculable value forces all sides into acting as if cost meant nothing. Powerful interests don't want endangered species anywhere near them, yet the law states with great specificity that their wishes are not to be heeded. The situation invites hypocrisy. Thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are at stake, and economic considerations WILL be heard. Unable to get in the front door legitimately, money and influence sneak in through the back. (The same Congress that declared endangered species to be of "incalculable" value evaded the intent of the act by allocating little for their welfare, and subsequent Congresses have not done much better.) Many species never make it onto the list for fear of the consequences—not to the species but to the economic and political forces that may be crimped if they are listed. And little wonder, for those who cannot prevent listing are forced, actively or passively to restore the species for the enjoyment of the rest of society. Compensating them for their costs may not, as some economists claim, be the easiest resolution. But it would stop the law from turning property owners into the enemies of the endangered species on their land. Without the support of property owners, the "incalculable" value of species will eventually become a chimera.

The thought of deliberately consigning any species to extinction, let alone thousands of them, is repugnant, and no one we spoke to liked it. (Asked if he would like to see the silverspot vanish, Schroeder looked surprised. "Of course not," he said.) But we will inevitably cause extinctions; we cannot hide from it. Taking responsibility for our actions is a better course than letting species die of our indecision. To pretend that we are acting to save everything is intellectually dishonest. It turns the hard choices over to the forces of litigation and bureaucratic inertia. Clinging to the Noah Principle may make us feel good, but it ensures that the nation's biological heritage will be managed, as Lewis Carroll would have had it, by Helter and Skelter.

Last June we drove down the coastal highway to Richard Schroeder's proposed golf course. We found it just north of a gas station and across from a driving range, as Schroeder had said. A dirt road led into the property; we took it, rocking through the ruts left by four-wheel-drive vehicles. In a moment we came to a cow pasture: prime butterfly territory. Dotted with the bright-yellow blossoms of Scotch broom, the field was a sad sight—if you were interested in butterflies. The owner, one of Schroeder's neighbors, wants to retire after decades on the farm. He is waiting for the shrub to take over. Then, maybe, the land can be sold for condominiums.

It was too early in the season to see silverspots. We looked anyway—but of course we didn't find them.

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