Print Edition - 2018-07-29 | Free the Words
- Proposals by the Trump administration threaten the effectiveness of the 45-year-old law
Jul 29, 2018-
We live in the age of extinction, a quiet catastrophe that surely ranks as one of the great ecological and moral crises of our time. The best tool for saving America’s imperiled animals and plants is the Endangered Species Act, first passed by Congress in 1973. But you wouldn’t know it from what’s been happening recently in the nation’s capital.
Last week, the Trump administration proposed major changes to the law. Although some offered welcome clarifications and efficiencies, others would strike at the core of the law that now protects more than 2,000 threatened and endangered species, from the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale, to the Florida perforate cladonia, a two-inch lichen found only in the state.
Among the most worrisome is a proposal that would allow cost considerations to influence whether a species qualifies for protection or should be left to its fate. Decisions are now based on the best available science, and references to economic impacts are prohibited. Introducing cost criteria would circumvent the science that keeps the listing process honest. The plan also would give the administration the discretion to scale back protections for some species listed as threatened in future determinations.
The administration’s proposal joins legislative efforts to retool the law. In examining them, we should ask two questions: Will these changes increase populations of endangered species, or at least slow their decline? And will they advance cooperation and reduce conflicts between the federal government and states, industries and landowners? Almost none of these recent proposals pass this test.
Several weeks ago, Senator John Barrasso, a Republican of Wyoming, introduced perhaps the most comprehensive proposal in over a decade to retool the law. His bill promotes the longstanding desire of many, mostly Western, states to claim control over endangered species management. If it were to become law, the bill would hurt efforts to save many species.
Consider the monarch butterfly, whose Eastern populations have declined by more than 90 percent. The Fish and Wildlife Service is now determining whether the butterfly qualifies as threatened or endangered, a decision it expects to reach next summer based on the best available peer-reviewed science.
But under the Barrasso plan, the agency would be required to give more weight to state-produced data—regardless of whether it is the best science. The federal government would also have to consult with every governor, state agency and county across the butterfly’s 49-state range in developing a recovery plan. It would be the death of the monarch’s recovery by a thousand bureaucratic cuts.
This is not to say that the law should not be updated, or that its critics don’t have legitimate complaints. Congress last revised it 30 years ago, and there are many ways to improve the law to reduce the compliance costs to industries like mining and logging, as well as developers and landowners. But specific answers to these concerns are largely unaddressed in this push to weaken the law.
Some positive things are already happening. In 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service developed a plan to manage its program that lists species for protection, the most litigated part of the law. It specifies dates for the agency to make listing decisions for more than 350 species through 2023. Support for this is broad, ranging from environmental groups to ranchers to energy developers because it adds certainty to the process. The Barrasso bill would codify it, creating a listing program that is less controversial and more science-based. This is common sense.
In addition, Congress should give states and landowners financial and legal incentives to help species recover. It should also direct federal agencies to develop clear standards for listing species, with objective and legally defensible criteria, such as population size and rate of decline. Incentives could be created to attract private capital to finance large-scale restoration projects and engage pharmaceutical companies to develop cures for diseases that threaten species, like white-nose syndrome in bats.
The law has long enjoyed broad public support and has a strong track record of success. Well-known examples include the bald eagle and gray wolf, and there are other, lesser-known achievements, like the recovery of the Hidden Lake bluecurls, a California plant removed from the list this month.
We should celebrate these successes, as well as the economic benefits that can result from saving species. When the law was passed in 1973, few whales were left along the East Coast after centuries of whaling. Humpbacks have since returned to the waters off New York City, and whale-watching cruises leave Rockaway almost every summer day. In Massachusetts, the whale-watching industry contributes about $111 million to local economies each year, more than the commercial catch of finfish in the state.
Saving rare species was never going to be easy, but it doesn’t need to be as hard as Congress and others have made it. Protecting vulnerable plants and animals should always be the priority. But we also need to develop incentives to encourage the law’s critics to become supporters. If that were to happen, innovation would follow, benefiting both the public and the species the law is intended to protect.
—©2018 The New York Times
Published: 29-07-2018 08:00