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After 25 years, still protecting endangered species

The Endangered Species Act became 25 years old on Dec. 28. It's the nation's single most effective tool for keeping our lands biologically healthy for future generations. The ESA represents a unique commitment to protect all living species, even when it's inconvenient to do so. This, coupled with the fact that the ESA works, is why it has drawn so much opposition in recent years.

Those who say that the ESA doesn't work point to the relatively few species that have recovered to the point of delisting. Rarely do they admit that without the act, scores of species, including the California condor, black-footed ferret, peregrine falcon, American alligator, desert tortoise, spotted owl, sea otter, gray whale, and several species of wolf, would almost certainly be extinct.

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ESA critics also fail to recognize that the biggest limitations to endangered species recovery have been the roadblocks thrown up by lawmakers. In fact, the ESA has successfully protected species despite politicians' efforts to undermine it by withholding funds for listing and recovering, by passing legislative "riders" that thwart its application in specific situations, and by refusing to enforce its mandates.

In just one example, consider the ESA's sensible requirement that proposed activities such as logging or road building on federal land must receive advance approval if they could put any endangered species at risk. Politically appointed bureaucrats wrote the implementing regulation such that the proposed activity must be approved so long as it is not judged to cause those species' extinction. Never mind that the activity might also prevent the species from ever recovering, or that a series of similarly approved projects, when taken together, would cause extinction.

These same opponents like to cite anecdotal horror stories intended to demonstrate how the ESA hinders desirable economic growth. Almost invariably, research shows the stories to be false. There is no empirical evidence that US economic growth is being hindered by the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the law requires consideration of economics at every step in the process except listing.

But, sensibly, when a proposed development activity threatens the extinction of one or more species, the ESA gives society an opportunity to ask if there is a more environmentally healthy way to proceed. And most of these development activities move forward. One study found that over a six-year period during which 98,237 consultations took place, only 55 projects were stopped from going forward in some form.

In this and other ways, the ESA has helped educate the public about the importance of conserving our living natural heritage and biodiversity. It has raised our land stewardship standards (especially on the public lands), improving tremendously the way we manage the landscape. Right now the ESA is helping to protect the Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, the Columbia and Colorado River basins, and the Florida Everglades, among other endangered ecosystems.

There is no question that the ESA can be improved. But its shortcomings stem from a lack of adequate funding and improper implementation. Of its real deficiencies, undoubtedly the most serious is that it does not provide sufficient incentives for private landowners to voluntarily protect endangered species. This is a significant omission because roughly three-quarters of endangered species are found on private land.

In the last Congress, environmentalists were not only willing but eager to enact incentives, including tax breaks that would encourage private landowners to protect endangered species. But ESA opponents, who control Congress, wouldn't do that. They tried instead to emasculate the ESA - only to learn that the American public wouldn't let them.

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The 106th Congress has an opportunity to make a New Year's resolution to enact legitimate improvements in the ESA. We can make the law work better for everyone, including landowners, our children, and other life forms that, like us, are part of creation and have their own inherent right to exist as part of the web of life. This was the intent of the overwhelming bipartisan majority who wrote the law in 1973, and we can do no better now than to recommit ourselves to fulfilling the original authors' intent.

* Rodger Schlickeisen is president of Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

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