Celebrate Endangered Species And America’s True Conservationists, Not The Endangered Species Act

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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Tomorrow is Endangered Species Day, and it’s a good time to reflect on two good things — this country’s marvelous diversity of species and the private landowners who are the key to successful endangered species conservation; and one bad — the counterproductive way the federal government goes about protecting these species, most notably the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. is blessed with an incredible diversity of ecosystems and species. For example, the southern pine ecosystem contains a wide variety of endangered and common species, including North America’s rarest woodpecker, the red-cockaded woodpecker. This woodpecker, one of the few birds endemic only to the lower 48 states, makes its home in mature pine trees and exhibits remarkable “family values” because one or more offspring from the previous year, also known as “helpers” and usually males, assist their parents to incubate, brood and feed that year’s young. Who says guys can’t be nurturing?

As with most endangered species, private landowners are key to the red-cockaded woodpecker’s survival. Nationwide, 78 percent of endangered species depend on private land for some or all of their habitat, compared to 50 percent for federal land. Also, 62 percent of endangered species depend on private land for 81-100 percent of their habitat.

Yet despite that over 90 percent of the southern pine ecosystem is privately owned, only about 25 percent of the red-cockaded woodpecker’s population exists on private lands. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act is responsible for much of this disparity, as one of the Act’s foremost proponents explains. “There is, however, increasing evidence that at least some private landowners are actively managing their land so as to avoid potential endangered species problems,” according to Michael Bean, when he worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, and currently a senior official at the Interior Department. “Now it’s important to recognize that all of these actions that landowners are either taking or threatening to take are not the result of malice toward the red-cockaded woodpecker, not the result of malice toward the environment. Rather, they’re fairly rational decisions motivated by a desire to avoid potentially significant economic constraints.”

Michael Bean also explains one of the reasons why longleaf pine forests, the red-cockaded woodpecker’s favorite habitat, have declined from 92 million acres to 4.3 million acres: “Because red-cockaded woodpeckers tend to prefer longleaf pine over other species, landowners thinking about what species to plant after harvest or on former forest land, I think regard the choice of planting long leaf as a foolish choice because of the greater potential for having woodpecker problems in the future.” Were it not for the Endangered Species Act, the red-cockaded woodpecker would very likely be substantially better off and have many more acres of longleaf pine forest to inhabit.

It’s not hard to understand why landowners are reluctant to provide habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker and other endangered species when they can be subject to a $100,000 fine and/or one year in jail for harming one woodpecker, egg, and even habitat, whether it is occupied by an endangered species, or even unoccupied habitat deemed by the federal government to be of a suitable type.

It’s also not hard to understand that the Endangered Species Act’s penalty-based approach is exactly the wrong way to go about conserving endangered species. Imagine if this country tackled the problem of homelessness by passing a law that allowed the federal government to force homeowners to house homeless people and shoulder all of the costs. Urban and suburban homeowners, who are the primary supporters of the Endangered Species Act, would cry foul about fairness, the lack of compensation and equitable sharing of societal goals. Such a law would also be a particularly counterproductive approach because it would create widespread backlash towards an important issue and strong incentives for the better-off to avoid helping the homeless, such as making their dwellings inhospitable to the homeless.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the Endangered Species Act is that most of America’s landowners have a strong conservation ethic, are patriotic, and would be willing and proud to conserve their country’s most vulnerable species so long as they are not punished for doing so, their property values and livelihoods are not jeopardized, and if they receive some compensation.

America has a long and proud tradition of private conservation that saved the bison from extinction and continues today in countless ways. Yet the success of private conservation is usually unknown to the general public because landowners, especially those in rural areas who own most of the country’s endangered species habitat, quietly go about their business and don’t toot their own horn. Which is in contrast to the multi-million dollar so-called environmental groups in favor of the Endangered Species Act that own little if any land and instead practice “paper” conservation by generating press releases, lawsuits, slick public relations campaigns and endless direct mail for fundraising.

Endangered species conservation is often difficult, usually takes many years if not decades, and is solved on the ground, not in shiny offices, not by pieces of paper, not by wishful thinking, and not by the urban elites who wield much of this country’s economic and political power and favor laws like the Endangered Species Act that place enormous burdens on the relatively few, less-wealthy and less-powerful rural landowners. Alienating and disenfranchising America’s rural landowners — the very people who are the linchpin to successful endangered species conservation — is the worst way to go about saving this country’s imperiled species.

So this Endangered Species Day, don’t celebrate the Endangered Species Act or the groups that support it. Instead, celebrate America’s beauty, biodiversity and its true endangered species conservationists — its underappreciated and long-suffering rural landowners.