Western Caucus Introduces Bipartisan Package Of Bills Aimed To Reform, Update ESA
Congressional Western Caucus members unveiled a raft of bipartisan bills aimed at reforming the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at a legislative hearing Thursday, aimed at updating what one Congressman called an “8-track law in a Spotify world.”
Pushing back on the “historically and currently problematic or dysfunctional components” of ESA, the bills aim for greater local input, quicker science-based delisting of recovered species, voluntary conservation, addressing petition backlogs, and other enhancements to the environmental legislation.
“The ESA has been weaponized against the west because we have these large, vast open spaces and public lands that we make a living off of that we were given to monitor and maintain, and they’ve been taken off the inventory for us to actually work with and utilize,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) told Western Wire, calling the suite of legislation a “modernization package.”
“It’s key—energy development and tourism and recreation—to be able to get in and access those areas for everyone to see and enjoy while protecting the environment is very important. But what’s been happening is that private entities have been excluded, sue-and-settle has taken them the plate, and it has restricted access and royalties to the people of the United States to whom those public lands belong to,” Gosar continued.
“You can have clean air, clean water, and critters and still have our energy and minerals to help us out,” he said.
Gosar is a co-sponsor of the bills. He rejected ESA reform critics who have called any attempt to revise and update the 45-year-old legislation an attack on the environmental legislation.
“Let’s let the numbers speak for themselves. A three percent success rate? That’s abysmal. No one can support that,” Gosar. “No one can say that’s a success story, and throwing more money at it, doesn’t help. In fact, in this place [D.C.], it makes it worse.”
The slate of nine bills has received endorsements from more than 115 organizations, including several trade associations across a variety of industries such as the American Exploration & Mining Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, Americans for Limited Government, American Loggers Council, National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC), National Association of Home Builders, National Mining Association, Western Energy Alliance, Arizona Mining Association, Arizona Pork Producers Council, Arizona Rock Products Association, and DC Cattle Co LLC, according to the Congressional Western Caucus.
Dozens of sportsmen’s groups from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and the state of Washington have endorsed the bills as well, the Western Caucus noted—more than 115 total organization altogether.
Western Wire is a project of Western Energy Alliance.
The EMPOWERS Act from Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) would increase state and local government input on ESA petitions and species listing decision-making.
“While a pipeline under the ESA exists for states to provide input, the fact that the act itself imposes no special requirement upon decision-makers to consult states has become, with the passage of time, a glaring omission,” a bill summary states. “Such consultation requirements will ensure that no privileged or state-specific information slips through the cracks when listing decisions are made.” The act would require “decision-making agencies to provide explanation when their decisions diverge from the findings or advice of states.”
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) is calling for recognition of voluntary conservation efforts with the LOCAL Act.
“Species conservation experts and policy powerhouses alike have recommended for decades that the Endangered Species Act be amended in order to codify incentives and set clear statutory channels for recognizing such voluntary efforts. Since species conservation is the ultimate aim of the Endangered Species Act, and a greater sum total of voluntary, successful species conservation efforts incontrovertibly aid that aim, it is nothing more than common sense that such channels facilitating and encouraging voluntary conservation be a part of the Act,” the bill summary reads.
“I believe that everyone can agree that the Endangered Species Act is to be able to protect vulnerable species from extinction, but like too many things in our federal government, when it comes to endangered species, we see a program of being reactive rather than proactive,” Tipton said. “Working on their lands for farming, ranching, or other purposes, [landowners] know the challenge that threatened and endangered species face, and they are in a unique position to provide input on the best conservation strategies.”
The Independent Petroleum Association of America’s (IPAA) Sam McDonald told the hearing that, “At its original passage, the ESA received much fanfare and virtually no opposition. However, since that time, it has evolved into one of the most litigious statutes on the books.”
“As of yesterday, the Service had listed 2,339 total species as threatened or endangered. The amount recovered is 54. That’s an abysmal success rate of 2.5 percent. Transparency, flexibility and focus on recovery of imperiled species should be the main focus of the ESA,” McDonald said.
“The Service has not balanced delisting efforts with responding to the barrage of sue-and-settle listing petitions,” McDonald continued. Once on the list, she said, “species seem too easily find their way into the protective fold of the ESA with no plan or pathway for delisting.”
McDonald pointed to IPAA members’ Pecos Watershed Conservation Initiative with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in the Permian Basin as an example of a collaborative approach that works for industry and endangered species alike.
“After nearly four decades in existence, species recovery under the ESA has been dismal. In fact, only 3 percent of identified species have been successfully delisted in that time,” the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement. “Arizona is currently home to 37 animal species listed as threatened or endangered. Given the nature of farming and ranching, many of these species impact working lands. Farmers and ranchers want to do their part to help preserve listed species and have a vested interest in implementing sustainable conservation efforts on their land.”
“However, the ESA in its current form fails to provide meaningful land owner incentives for species conservation and instead imposes regulatory burdens that result in land use restrictions,” the group concluded.
“If enacted, the bills drafted by the Western Caucus’ membership would greatly improve how the federal government protects species and conserves their habitat,” the National Association of Counties said. “Since state and local government serve as reliable partners in wildlife and habitat management, we should also participate in threatened and endangered species recovery efforts.”
The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) also supports the Congressional Western Caucus draft legislation. “The Endangered Species Act (ESA) must be modernized, and voluntary conservation plays an important role in achieving this.” The group emphasized the use of “scientific consensus rather than a politically-driven agenda,” as well as working with “public and private partners, including conservation districts and tribal governments.”
“Often, the best stewards of our lands and the knowledge of them, are the local landowners and small businesses” when it comes to helping species stabilization, said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Cali.).
LaMalfa criticized activist groups “who use government as a business plan” to file litigation and called for capping attorneys’ fees to limit the incentive to file the lawsuits in the first place.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), a sponsor of the WHOLE Act, said the ESA “has been exploited over the decades, placing unnecessary burdens on our nation’s farmers and ranchers. Activist organizations have perversely used the judiciary process to adversely impact the ability of men and women who are the backbone of our country to provide food, not only for America, but people around the world.”
Johnson’s bill would take conservation measures already undertaken into consideration before additional federal actions on habitat conservation.
Another bill sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) called the ESA an “8-track law in a Spotify world.” Westerman’s bill would reform the petition process, creating a “petition backlog” for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and help to reduce the petitions “jamming” the system.
“Our members are the quintessential small business owners,” said Courtney Briggs, representing the National Association of Home Builders. “Many laws that are poorly written and executed, such as the ESA, can be crippling for our members to comply with.”
Briggs said that ESA regulations affect both the national economy and housing affordability. “Paying higher prices for land, redrawing development plans, or completing litigation” are paid by the builders, Briggs said, and passed on to consumers. The result is that up to 25 percent of the cost of the building is due to government regulation. Increased costs price out prospective home buyers and reduce output, further straining the supply of affordable housing, she said.
The Senate’s Western Caucus chairman emeritus also has ESA reform legislation he plans to unveil next week.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), invited Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead to testify before the committee on his own draft ESA legislation next week.
“Governor Mead has been a leader on the Endangered Species Act. He has worked with governors from across the West – both Republicans and Democrats – to put forward needed changes to the law,” said Barrasso in a statement. “The bipartisan Western Governors’ Association has made recommendations on how the ESA can be improved. The law needs to work better for species and for people. Wyoming is leading the way when it comes to species conservation. I look forward to Governor Mead’s testimony and working with him to modernize and strengthen the Endangered Species Act.”
The Western Governors’ Association is encouraged by Barrasso’s approach on the proposed ESA reforms.
“The Western Governors’ Association appreciates the Chairman’s willingness to productively engage with Governors, and that the Chairman has approached this polarizing topic in an inclusive, thoughtful manner. The proposed bill reflects this fact and offers meaningful, bipartisan solutions to challenging species conservation issues.”