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Time to Update ESA

by Editors
Capital Press, August 6, 2004

During the administration of President Richard Nixon the Endangered Species Act of 1973 became law.

Since then, nearly everything about the world has changed, even the use of that well-intentioned legislation.

The stated purpose of the ESA was “to provide for the conservation of endangered and threatened species of fish, wildlife and plants and for other purposes.”

That last phrase — “and for other purposes” — is the one that continues to haunt Western agriculture. To many farmers and ranchers, the “other purposes” boil down to courtroom attacks against their livelihoods. To many, ESA has become something of a four-letter word, because time after time they have been hit over the head with concerns for such “significant” species as the Cowhead chub, the California tiger salamander, the yellow-billed cuckoo or the Mazama pocket gopher.

During the past five years, the Capital Press has printed 1,313 stories that mentioned the Endangered Species Act. That’s an average of five stories a week. It is safe, then, to say that the Endangered Species Act has overtaken agriculture like the weed kudzu overtakes a woodlot. It has choked out its original purpose and is now seen not so much as a last-gasp effort to save helpless animals or plants but as a legal tool that can be used to stop agriculture — grazing, irrigation and the use of pesticides — virtually at will.

The tactic has been perfected over the years. First there was the snail darter, which was used to stop construction of a dam. Then came a procession of other birds, beasts and plants — salmon, wolves, spotted owls — the list goes on.

Currently, 1,263 species of animals and plants are listed as endangered or threatened. California leads the list of the most species listed in the Continental United States with 292, followed by 50 in Oregon, 38 in Washington and 23 in Idaho.

Adding to this egregious misuse of the law is the fact that habitat that “might” support species — even though the species may have never existed there — was considered for inclusion in some listings.

In the process, the farmers and ranchers of the West have been cast as villains as various groups bent on reshaping the Western economy use the ESA to threaten, delay, stop, modify, confuse, cajole, kibbutz and criticize agricultural practices.

And it costs money — lots of it. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent on salmon alone; former Gov. John Kitzhaber once said Oregon alone had invested billions of dollars in the fish.

It could be safely said that neither Nixon nor many others who supported the ESA ever imagined it would become such a Weapon of Mass Obstruction.

Comes now an effort to update the 31-year-old ESA. Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the ESA Modernization Bill would, simply put, apply science where none previously existed. It would require peer review as a means of determining whether species should be considered for protection. This methodology is commonly used by scientists in the “real world” to double-check their conclusions to make sure they are correct.

“The Walden legislation would strengthen the scientific foundation of species recovery efforts by integrating a peer-review tool in the ESA decision-making processes,” said one supporter, U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Since 1973, only 25 species have been de-listed, according to the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, whose approximately 150 members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Grange and the Northwest Horticulture Council. Of the 25 species, 12 were delisted because of “data errors,” meaning they shouldn’t have been listed in the first place, the coalition said on its website.

Assuming the Walden bill would also provide the funding to carry out the added workload, it can be a step toward inserting increased accountability in how the ESA is enforced. Combined with continued efforts by the reform coalition, agricultural organizations, industry and others to bird dog how the law is used, the legislation could help return the protection of wildlife back to science-based decisions and not lawyer-based rulings.

Far from weakening the law, the aim of this bill is to return the ESA to its original purpose, protecting species that need it, rather than allowing it to be used as a sledgehammer to hobble or destroy the rural economy of the West.

Related Pages:
Walden ESA Proposal Offers Deceptive Sham by Will Neuhauser, Capital Press, 8/20/4

Time to Update ESA
Capital Press, August 6, 2004

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