My View: The danger of the Endangered Species Act
In 2011, environmental activists successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forcing it to evaluate more than 750 more species for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In Florida, that list includes 115 species, which means the coming years will likely see a doubling of the number or species in Florida listed.
But the impact on all of us will be even greater than the maps show, because all of the species in Florida newly identified in the lawsuit live in freshwater aquatic habitat and thus measures to protect them will be most likely on a watershed basis.
The watershed for each patch of habitat can be a vast area. This means that huge tracts of farm and ranch land are likely to feel the pinch of drastic land-use restrictions.
The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups in the 2011 lawsuit, has pushed for far-reaching new regulations to protect the species. In a filing to the federal government, it said that in Florida, because the habitat needs of species extend beyond the water channel, entire watersheds must be considered to identify threats to aquatic species, not just localized sites where species occur.
It is safe to say that virtually every farm of any kind in the region will be in the watershed of at least one new endangered species. Everyday farming activities that create sediments or runoff, or use fertilizers or pesticides, impact a watershed to some extent and thus all may come under restrictions to protect habitat.
Most people want to see endangered species protected, but also want to minimize the impact on agriculture, jobs, recreation and the economy.
Unfortunately, the ESA has a lousy track record. Few species have recovered from being listed as endangered, and the federal government has not learned from the failure of punitive, top-down approaches and the success of more cooperative and incentive-based approaches.
Florida is now making the same mistake, revising its Imperiled Species Management Plan to double down on top-down, highly restrictive measures.
If we punish landowners for having habitat for endangered species on their land, we create huge incentives to hide the presence of species or to destroy that habitat. Instead, we need to make habitat a good thing to have on your land, or at least a manageable challenge.
Texas has pioneered such an approach. It focused on voluntary, cooperative and local approaches to conservation plans. And these plans help protect species and their habitat; manage the costs of protection; and provide predictability for landowners and others in the regulated community. This common-sense endeavor creates a positive set of conditions around protection, rather than using fear of punishment.
The Texas approach combines:
- A government task force of state and local agencies that includes both environmental and economic goals to balance protection of species with economic costs.
- Integration of high-quality scientific research on species, habitat and the costs and effectiveness of protection options.
- Conservation plans based on voluntary, market-based approaches similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program in which state and local agencies share property owners' cost of protecting habitat for endangered species and provide technical assistance.
- Confidentiality for landowners to protect them from punitive federal regulations if they comply with an approved conservation plan.
This approach was so successful in Texas at protecting the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard that its population grew dramatically in just two years, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to conclude in 2012 that the lizard was not endangered.
This was despite the lizard's preferred habitat being in the Texas oil fields. Landowners and oil companies were able to find cost-effective ways to preserve habitat while still drilling for oil and gas. Both the lizard and man benefitted.
Florida would do well to look at the Texas model and adapt it for managing the new wave of endangered species, as well as those already listed by the ESA. It creates incentives to participate and protect fragile species, rather than hide the existence of species, destroy habitat or embark on long legal battles to try to prevent economic ruin.
Adrian Moore is vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.