Broad Coalition of Industry, Farming, Ranching, & Hydropower Pushes for Endangered Species Act Reform
The Congressional Western Caucus is calling on Congress to modernize the Endangered Species Act and released a draft legislative package of 19 bills that they say will do just that during a roundtable discussion this week.
Since its passage in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has expanded and the downsides of the more than four-decade old law are becoming more apparent—particularly in instances where land use and development is restricted without effectively rehabilitating species.
“This program is probably the least efficient and least effective in the pantheon of federal programs that are out there,” said Caucus member Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has previously introduced proposals to update the law.
As a part of the Western Caucus’ package are draft bills which would protect private property rights, encourage voluntary conservancy, better manage public lands for multi-use activities, and improve forest health. Supporters describe the proposals as attempt to ease the regulatory burden on farmers, ranchers, and developers in an effort to stop abuse of the law.
“I think we have common ground. None of us want to see animals and plants go extinct but we need to have a program that actually works to restore the species,” said Rep. Tipton (R-Colo.).
The current system includes aggressive protections of the animal habitats, with threats of fines and even potential jail time for anyone found to have harmed a species, its habitat, or even a potential habitat. Meanwhile, the list of endangered species has ballooned over time and removing species whose populations have reached a sustainable level has proven nearly impossible.
Abuse of lawsuits is part of the reason why it is so difficult to remove species from the list. Between 1973 and 2017, 1,653 species were listed as endangered of threatened and protected, while only 37 were considered recovered. Attempts to remove species from the list after their populations are rehabilitated are often challenged in court. Meanwhile, environmental groups are abusing the listing process, says Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), who described how environmental groups coordinated to submit hundreds of petitions.
“The listing process was designed so that anyone could work with the government to save a species. Anyone can petition and the agency must respond within 90 days,” he said. When environmental groups flood the system with hundreds of petitions, the Fish and Wildlife service is unable to respond within the mandated window and ends up in court.
Westerman supports a proposal that would codify an Obama-era policy and reduce the ESA backlog.
“Under the current structure, well-funded groups are drowning out sound science and species with needs are being ignored,” he said.
Many groups shared his feeling that the ESA had become an instrument for environmental groups to restrict economic development more than an effort to rehabilitate species.
“We have learned that the law works for preventing species extinction, but doesn’t work for promoting recovery,” said Jonathan Wood, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center.
In part, this is because the ESA places restrictions on land use that greatly reduce the value of the land and puts onerous burdens on landowners. The Western Caucus seeks to reform ESA by turning landowners into stronger conservation partners and by reducing the restrictions on land use.
However, the impact isn’t limited to farming and ranching. The hydropower industry complains that the ESA posed significant challenges to their work to generate affordable hydropower, as dams must be reworked to mitigate their potential effects on species. Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association (CREDA), told the committee that these costs are opaque so ratepayers don’t know what they are paying for.
“CREDA believes that it is sound federal policy for the costs of ESA compliance to be transparent to those who are bearing such costs,” she said. “Since 1983, over $534 million dollars associated with environmental compliance have been paid by [Colorado River Storage Project] power customers.”
Compliance with the ESA is what has helped make the law successful in restoring and rehabilitating wildlife populations. At the same time, its regulations are frustrating a wide range of land use projects—from ranching to energy production.
“The goal should be rehabilitation of species not just listing and controlling the land all around it as though that is going to be a panacea for it,” said Bishop.