The Endangered Species Act is one of the most powerful federal environmental laws, dictating land use and development over millions of acres throughout the nation. Whatever its original purpose, the ESA has become a handy tool for environmentalist extremists to push an agenda that has more to do with stifling productive human activity than fostering ecological balance.
Misuse of the statute was highlighted recently when government officials responded to a bizarre initiative from WildEarth Guardians, an environmentalist group based in Santa Fe, N.M.
WildEarth Guardians had submitted two listing petitions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requesting that the agency extend regulatory protection to a staggering number of plants and wildlife -- nearly 700 species in all.
Government officials are required to respond to each listing petition, but these particular petitions were unprecedented in size and scope. As Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ann Carlson declared: A voluminous request like this was "not envisioned by the [ESA], and it's not helpful to us at all because it takes an enormous amount of resources to look at this."
Demanding the listing of so many species at once imposes an impossible burden on the agency, drawing its attention away from more pressing duties, such as protecting species that are truly threatened with extinction.
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It's now clear that many of the species named in the WildEarth Guardians petitions don't need ESA safeguards. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a finding on 206 of the petitioned species, and concluded that only 29 merited further review.
Indeed, WildEarth Guardians' petitions relied on questionable data, to put it mildly. As The Washington Times reported, almost all of the supporting information came from unpublished or obviously outdated reports and studies downloaded from an online wildlife resource that disclaimed any warranty for their accuracy.
WildEarth Guardians' mega-petitions are galling not just because the science is so thin, but also because they contradict the organization's professed purpose of species protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service -- the very agency charged with protecting species -- concludes that a mega-petition is "not a productive way to get species listed"; after all, the agency is already under tight budgetary restraints and court-imposed deadlines. What sense, then, does it make to swamp the agency with mammoth requests for the listing of more species, many of which are not endangered and many of which have little or no commercial or aesthetic value?
The mega-petition is just one species of ESA misuse. Extremist environmental organizations frequently rely on ESA listings to stymie economic activity. The Delhi Sands flower-loving fly was used to stop construction of a hospital in Southern California; five Texas cave bugs were used to scuttle a $60 million retail development near Austin, Texas; and, currently, the Delta smelt (a finger-length fish with no commercial value) is being used as an excuse to cut off water to farms and businesses in California's San Joaquin Valley.
There is no reason environmental protection and job-creating development cannot go hand in hand. Successful compromises, however, will require an attitude adjustment in much of the environmentalist community. For instance, mega-petitions from WildEarth Guardians and similar stunts do not promote species preservation, but they do increase rancor and undercut environmentalists' credibility. It is time for the groups that claim to be dedicated to species and habitat protection to recognize the need for a balanced, common-sense approach to environmental regulation.
Damien Schiff is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates for limited government and property rights.