The most recent attempt by Representative Richard Pombo to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act has been largely ignored by the public, despite relatively aggressive media coverage. As the Associated Press put it:
“Pombo’s bill is a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Endangered Species Act that would delete the federal government’s ability to protect ‘critical habitat’ for plants and animals and require compensation for landowners if the government blocks their development plans to protect certain species. Landowners could move forward with development projects that might affect species after notifying the federal government, unless the government objects within 90 days.”
This story contains a sidelong misrepresentation of the Critical Habitat provisions of the ESA. (When a species is declared as Endangered under federal law, the Fish and Wildlife Service is legally obliged to declare some part of its habitat “Critical Habitat,” namely those places of which preservation is essential if the species is to recover.) If you’re not working for a federal agency or receiving funding from one, there is no law requiring you to pay attention to Critical Habitat designations.
Critical Habitat designations have zero effect on the vast majority of private landowners. Most landowners already enjoy the right to procede with projects that may impair habitat for endangered species, as long as they don’t actually kill individuals of an endangered species without first securing the necessary permits. This story thus plays into the right-wing myth that such declarations keep farmers from mowing hay or private developers froom building housing. It’s just not the case.
The AP story continues: “Pombo… notes that a tiny percentage of the 1,830 species listed under the act – about 15 – have come off the list because they’ve recovered.”
And, of course, it’s somehow the fault of the ESA that developers and “ranchers” and their federal employees have fought its implementation and expansion at every turn, cut funding to wildlife agencies, refused to carry out the legally mandated provisions of the Act, and introduced repeated amendments – such as the odious Habitat Conservation Plans – to undermine the intent of ESA in a climate of exploitation of every last acre.
And so one of the last pieces of law that offers even the slightest protection to endangered species in a minority of cases, and with no effect on the vast majority of property owners, is to be traded off for unspecified “other methods of protection.” The Critical Habitat provision, which offers protection only to those species threatened by federal projects, is apparently not weak enough for Pombo and his cronies.
The critics are right that the Critical Habitat process is dysfunctional and lawsuit driven. But the “lawsuit-driven” part is a symptom of the dysfunctionality, and only because the Federal government has continually refused to enforce the law. As is the case for many other species, the Interior Department was sued over the red-legged frog because the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to declare Critical Habitat for the frog despite a legal obligation to do so.
Pombo and his cronies impede the effectiveness of the ESA, and then blast it for being ineffective. Their behavior is disingenuous and disgusting, and should be stopped.
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