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Guest opinion: ESA needs to be friendlier to people

WASHINGTON - In the 30 years since its enactment, the Endangered Species Act has emerged as one of the most powerful, and ineffective, environmental statutes on the books.

Of the 1,260 species listed as "endangered" or "threatened" under the ESA, fewer than 30 have been taken off the list. And this is even worse than it looks.

Some species were removed from the list because they became extinct; others, like the American alligator, were taken off because it was determined they were never endangered in the first place. These meager results, however, are not the worst aspect of the ESA. In rural America, far away from urban skyscrapers and suburban malls, the ESA has imposed severe land-use restrictions on property owners.

Landowners losing

Farmers, ranchers and other landowners who harbor endangered species on their property often lose the economic use of their land. In effect, they are punished for creating the very habitat endangered species need to survive.

Typical of the havoc the ESA has wreaked in rural America is the case of Ben Cone Jr., whose father bought 8,000 acres of timberless land on the Black River in North Carolina. Cone replanted the property with pines, carried out prescribed burns to control undergrowth, and selectively thinned his trees every few years to pay his property taxes and to turn a profit on his labor. Over time, his pines grew to such a height that they attracted the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which brought him into direct conflict with the ESA.

In testimony before Congress, Cone explained that "by managing (the property) in an environmentally correct way, my father and I created habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker. My reward has been the loss of $1.425 million in value of timber I am not allowed to harvest under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. I feel compelled to massively clear-cut the balance of my property to prevent additional loss."

In another celebrated case, residents of wildfire-prone Riverside County, Calif., were prevented by the ESA from clearing firebreaks on their land lest they disturb the habitat of the endangered Stephens' Kangaroo rat. When the inevitable fires came, people's homes and the rat's habitat went up in flames.

No government power

The best way to serve the interests of both people and wildlife is to replace the ESA's rigid regulatory framework with voluntary, nonregulatory, incentive-based provisions. Under such a law, the government would have no power to take or regulate private property to protect endangered species and/or their habitat. If the government wanted to protect species and habitat on private lands, it would have to work out mutually compatible, voluntary, contractual arrangements with landowners.

This would be very similar to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture "protects" highly erodible land on the nation's farms by offering to pay farmers to place some of their land in its Conservation Reserve Program for a set term of years and then paying the landowners for their cooperation.

"If this can be done for habitats of nonendangered wildlife," says R.J. Smith of the Center for Private Conservation, "it can also be done to protect the habitats of endangered species."

The cost of such an approach would be far less than the present litigation-ridden regulatory law that has also failed so completely in fulfilling its primary purpose - to protect species.

The greatest advantage to a voluntary, nonregulatory program is that it would eliminate the perverse incentives of the current law that have turned rural landowners and endangered species into mortal enemies. No longer afraid of losing their livelihoods for the sake of endangered species, landowners would become willing partners in helping wildlife.

Bonner R. Cohen is an adjunct fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think-tank that promotes free-market approaches to policy issues, 777 N. Capitol St. NE, Suite 803, Washington, D.C. 20002.

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