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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1995

Empowering Species

The best way to save endangered species may be to help them pay their own way

by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer

MANY of the battles to come, as a Democratic Administration faces a Republican Congress, will be the sort of meanspirited partisan scuffles that Americans love to deride. But sometimes the smoke and dust of the fray will conceal a matter of principle, even philosophy--as in the case of the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act.

Like many laws, the act must periodically be reauthorized, which is to say that the federal government must occasionally renew its own authority to fund the act's enforcement and administration. Reauthorization was scheduled for 1992, but Congress postponed action indefinitely--its members did not want to touch the issue in an election year. In the meantime, frustration with the law has been building. The inevitable debate will probably take place this year, perhaps within the next few months. It will be bloody, as they say inside the Beltway. At issue will be the nation's biological heritage, more or less, and a vision of its economic future. Conflict will be engaged by the usual operatives: lobbyists representing some of the nation's most powerful interest groups.

Opponents call for narrowing the scope of the law, claiming that society is spending billions to protect the Penland beardtongue, the fat pocketbook mussel, the giant kangaroo rat, and a cavalcade of other creatures with absurd-sounding names. The Endangered Species Act, in their view, threatens to usurp so much private property and capsize so many jobs that it may wreck our very economy. Proponents declare the law inadequately enforced and demand that its protections be extended to more species at a faster rate; otherwise, they claim, we risk trashing our biological life support system. Weaken or fortify?--that is the tenor of the debate. One question is rarely addressed: Can the law be more responsive to the concerns of both sides?

*  *  *

The Endangered Species Act orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior, to protect species recognized as endangered, without regard to cost. The goal is to banish extinction from the United States. Unfortunately, the present system has failed utterly to do this. Species are going extinct anyway, and the threats are multiplying. For every species that Fish and Wildlife has successfully removed from the endangered list in the past two decades, it has added more than one hundred others.

This outcome would have surprised the members of Congress who passed the law, in 1973. Implicit in the debate over the act was the assumption, still held by many conservationists today, that endangered species could be saved without sacrifice: if development affects a species here, we can just move the development or the species someplace else. Since then it has become clear that the reasons species become endangered are not always trivial, and that saving them is not so simple.

Anyone who has walked in the western parts of Albany, New York, can see the problem. A hundred years ago the area hosted one of the world's largest populations of the Karner Blue butterfly, a lovely little bug that appeared on the endangered list at the end of 1992. The former haunts of the butterfly have been taken over by an interstate highway, a power substation, a campus of the State University of New York, and several hundred middle-class homes. In other words, the butterfly was endangered by the satisfaction of ordinary human desires to drive around, switch on lamps at night, learn about interesting things, and live in a nice home.

Because human interests cannot be ignored, not all species can be saved. Yet the current system demands the unattainable: all species must be saved, and human interests must be ignored. Amplifying this dissonance has been an unwillingness in Congress to award the Fish and Wildlife Service more than a paltry budget to enforce and administer the law. As a result, the agency has been driven to impose conservation tasks on those private-property owners who are unlucky enough to have land that sustains endangered species. To be safe from possible prosecution, they must verify that using their property will cause the creatures no harm. Endangered species thus become a liability that encourages otherwise responsible citizens to call in the bulldozers at the first glimpse of an endangered bird or lizard.

Both sides of the debate recognize these flaws, but they disagree on how to remedy them. Supporters of the law cling to its impossible goal, calling for increased budgets and stricter enforcement. This would turn Fish and Wildlife Service biologists into ecological mandarins, making choices for entire regions which must favor the interests of other species and not people. Such overbearing regulation would increase the incentives for landowners to destroy pristine land, with predictably disastrous environmental consequences.

Not that opponents have a better answer. Many call for compensating landowners for any decrease in the value of their property brought on by species protection. But this amounts to little more than replacing ecological mandarins with economic mandarins, whose decisions would be equally predictable and equally disastrous.

*  *  *

What will it take to do a better job of saving our natural heritage? The foremost change must be to recognize that our values are manifold. If we valued only trees and streams, we wouldn't hesitate to save them, no matter what the cost. If we wanted only cement and steel, any part of nature beyond the minimum necessary to sustain life would become expendable. If the past is any guide, the debaters in Washington will blindly favor one side or the other. Progress will be possible only if the unrealistic demands of the Endangered Species Act are scaled back and supplemented with a way of satisfying some of the needs of affected landowners.

The demands of the current law should not be eliminated entirely, though. Even if a species fails a strict cost-benefit test, few people would support its extinction without pausing to reflect. Protecting species is a task that deserves a place in the political life of our country, alongside other basic values such as protecting health, maintaining the nation's defense, and fostering education.

In other words, a balance must be struck. Part of that balance should be for landowners to concede that our ecological inheritance is important enough to justify some regulation of their land. Another, equally important part of the balance should be for conservationists to concede that development plans that threaten species are reflections of the human desire to have stores, roads, schools, homes, and the like. The two concessions point in the same direction: neither species nor developers should win all the time. The question is when and where each should prevail.

Moneyed interests, of course, will always threaten species and other environmental assets that cannot pay their way. The most appropriate counterweight is not to outlaw human nature but to award some money to environmental protection. Merely throwing money at the current system, however, will only exacerbate the problems inherent in the Endangered Species Act.

One solution would be to create an Endangered Species Trust Fund, to promote conservation in ways more compatible with American values and culture. The fund could underwrite a variety of programs, from ecological research to educational advertising to conservation assistance to outright land purchase. It could encourage landowners to share their land with species in trouble. The state of Wisconsin, for example, already has such a program, which covers seven species on the federal endangered list. Landowners agree to a nonbinding protection plan, and are rewarded with a picture of the species, a certificate of appreciation, ongoing species management help, and, most important, the belief that they are voluntarily doing the right thing. According to the state, most landowners happily go along, although the program is unlikely to deter big development plans.

Not all species can be protected by voluntary programs, of course, and where necessary the trust fund could help subsidize conservation efforts by landowners. One possible model is a program sponsored by the Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based conservation group, which offers a $5,000 "bounty" to each landowner who has an established wolf den on his or her property. The trust could also promote commercial practices that are environmentally friendlier but costlier than current practices. As the Soil Conservation Service does for farmers and soil conservation, a Biological Conservation Service, funded by the trust, could encourage foresters, ranchers, and miners to modify their activities, thus reducing--though not eliminating--harm to endangered species.

In critical cases the trust fund would have the tools to restrict land use greatly, albeit in a noncoercive manner. It could take a lesson from The Nature Conservancy, which protects some biologically valuable land by paying for a conservation easement--a legal contract that forbids developing a piece of property but allows the landowner to earn income through ecologically benign activities, such as certain types of agriculture. As a final resort, in places where almost any human activity threatens the other inhabitants, the trust fund could buy land and protect it as a biological preserve.

Such an effort would be expensive, but it could go a long way toward removing our natural heritage from the mire of partisan bickering. Indeed, the idea of a trust fund has quietly attracted interest from environmental organizations and from advocates of property rights. Combined with a scaled-back Endangered Species Act, the fund could help the nation provide environmental protection with less social conflict. Isn't that what it means to make the law responsive to the people and the causes it serves?


Charles C. Mann is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a co-author, with Mark L. Plummer, of Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species.

Mark L. Plummer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle.


Copyright 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1995; Empowering Species; Volume 275, No. 2; pages 22-26.

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