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Endangered Species Act: Finding a Better Balance

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AFTER years of bickering and delay, Congress is finally tackling the Endangered Species Act - the nation's strictest environmental law and one of its most contentious political issues.

Critics charge that the act permits the federal government to seize private property in the name of protecting habitat. These critics want regulations to come into play only after cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments, and compensation of affected landowners. The House will soon introduce a bill to this end; later this summer, the Senate will consider its own version.

The act's supporters have pledged to fight these proposals. Indeed, they believe we must strengthen its protections and expand its reach to cover entire ecosystems. Caught in the middle is the Clinton administration, which argues that some reforms are needed but not the ones on the table.

The critics are right: The current law is unfair. By imposing huge (though mostly hidden) costs on private landowners, the Endangered Species Act forces a luckless few to pay for environmental benefits enjoyed by everyone else. But the supporters, too, are right: Protecting our natural heritage is a goal shared by the great majority of Americans.

Yet merely burdening the law with more paperwork, as critics want, will not make the legislation a more effective tool for conservation. Nor will merely expanding its reach over more territory, as supporters want, produce a more equitable system. Here are two reforms that could make the system better.

First, we must separate science from politics. In principle, the Endangered Species Act creates a two-step mechanism. Biologists first determine that a species is sufficiently endangered to be added to the official endangered list. Once a species is listed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with returning the species to health.

Science first, policy second - except that the second step admits only one goal: full recovery. The scientific determination that a species is endangered effectively locks in the legal duty to save it. In this way, endangered species become liabilities for property owners unlucky enough to host them.

Fearing the automatic imposition of restrictive regulations, landowners attack any science that supports a listing. Meanwhile, biologists assume the role of ecological mandarins with the power to bless or condemn a wide variety of land uses.

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