Mollie H. Beattie
THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT: MYTHS AND REALITIES
REMARKS BY MOLLIE BEATTIE,
DIRECTOR, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE SOCIETY OF ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISTS
MAY 20, 1995
I am always delighted to appear before a group of journalists because I started my career as a reporter on a newspaper in Vermont: the Manchester Journal. Actually, that's not quite accurate. I was the reporter on the Manchester Journal. That meant I wrote all the news. I did such a good job they promoted me to managing editor. That meant I wrote all the news, laid out of the advertisements, and delivered the papers.
So I have some idea what all of you face on a day-to-day basis -- the relentless pressure of coming up with fresh story ideas, of meeting daily deadlines, of explaining complex issues so average readers can understand them. As environmental writers, you face the additional challenge of getting editors who are wrapped up in the O.J. Simpson murder trial or some other flashy story interested in important environmental stories, and the frustration of seeing stories that should be on the front page shuttled to the back of the paper.
I empathize with you. You have a tough job under any circumstances. But today, I believe, the challenges an environmental journalist faces are greater than ever.
Polls consistently show that while Americans are concerned about the environment, a majority of people believe our major environmental problems have been solved. They believe that when we passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and other landmark environmental laws, we did the job. Most Americans don't realize that these laws are up for reauthorization and their key elements may be in danger of repeal.
What's more, when Americans are asked what the most pressing environmental issues are, they cite pollution issues such as toxic wastes and clean water. Problems like loss of biodiversity, rapid depletion of natural resources, and the international problems of population explosion are way down the list. And yet these are the issues that are of greatest importance to the long-term health of our world.
I am convinced that when historians look back at the last decade of the 20th century, they will see it as a critical time in the conservation of our environment, perhaps even more critical than the 1960s and 1970s when the landmark environmental laws were first passed. The truth is, Congress is poised to undo the greatest public policy successes America has witnessed in a generation. The result is likely to be a "back to the future" nightmare where air quality, water quality, and our landscape will all decline on the alter of special interest-driven deregulation.
In the 1990s, we are making fundamental decisions about how people will interact with the ecological systems around us. When you get beyond the buzzwords like biodiversity and ecosystem management, there is a basic question we must answer: "Can we find a way to develop our natural resources in a manner that is sustainable for both the economy and the environment?"
The truth is that our economy depends on the sustained health of our environment. What is economic is environmental, and what is environmental is economic.
If you don't think so, just ask any salmon fisherman in the Northwest, or any waterman on the Chesapeake Bay. They know from personal experience what happens when the long-term health of the environment is sacrificed in the name of economic development.
The challenge for you as environmental journalists is how to report this story.
Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when the environmental movement was born, the problems we face aren't visible on a daily basis to the average person. They are subtle. There's no "man bites dog" news peg to latch onto.
When a river catches fire because it is polluted, it gets on the evening news. But how does the evening news report the gradual loss of biodiversity?
When Los Angeles suffers from day after day of smog alerts, it makes the headlines. But how does the morning paper get people interested in loss of coastal wetlands most people may never see or even know exist?
How do you get them to understand that these issues are so important to them?
Let me bring the point home to you in southern California. "Save the Bay" (Santa Monica Bay) is one of southern California's most popular environmental organizations. This organization is leading the scientific, educational, and political mobilization to clean-up the surface water polluting the bay. If you turn back the clock a few decades, you find that the reason the Bay is in such trouble is that Los Angeles County has lost 95% of its coastal wetlands. The natural water filtration that wetlands provide is gone, and we didn't recognize the problem soon enough.
This is the challenge you as environmental writers face. Fundamental ecological changes do not occur overnight. There is an Exxon Valdez that raises our consciousness, but it is all too easy to miss the slow erosion of environmental conditions that destroy habitat and put species on the endangered list.
That leads me to a topic that is close to my heart -- the future of the Endangered Species Act. In doing so, I hope to reframe for you what I think the "Endangered Species Act story" really is about.
To do this, I'll have to first spend a little time talking about what the Endangered Species Act is not. The reason I have to do this is because the law's opponents have been remarkably successful in creating an entire mythology about the Act.
I'll start with what I call the "consensus myth", which I suppose might be best summarized by a former Interior Secretary who said that when he voted for the Act as a congressman he thought he was voting to protect tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses -- not spotted owls. Ironically, none of these three species is native to America.
The "consensus myth" says that everyone knows the Endangered Species Act was passed to protect only species that we care about, like bald eagles and grizzly bears. The Act was a good idea, but biologists and government bureaucrats have abused it to inflate their power to control land by using the Act to protect clams and rats and other animals that -- as one person once explained to me -- no one gives a damn about.
According to this myth, the runaway federal government has gotten us into the absurd position of protecting snails, lichen, and mussels at the expense of REAL human concerns, like jobs and personal property rights.
The myth has been fueled by a series of phony anecdotes that unfortunately have been reported widely in the press as fact.
For example, we had one newspaper in Virginia which got everyone alarmed with a big scary headline about construction of a highway being held up by the discovery of an endangered bird's nest. It turned out that no one had ever asked us, and when we went to check the situation, the nest was an abandoned squirrel's nest. The story wasn't true, but in the meantime it had been picked up by USA Today -- which also didn't call to verify the story -- and so became part of the prevailing myth that endangered species are responsible for blocking thousands of development projects.
Here in California, there have been allegations -- repeated over and over again -- that the habitat protection measures for the kangaroo rat were responsible for peoples' homes burning down in the 1993 wild fires because landowners were prohibited from disking their land for firebreaks.
Yet an independent investigation by the watchdog arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, found that the fires were so intense that they jumped 6-lane highways and concrete canals. Whether landowners disked their land or not made no difference in whether their homes burned. What did make a difference, the GAO reported, was how the winds shifted and whether the homeowners had a source of water to pump on their homes.
The TV news magazine "20/20" ran the story of the fires, but when we wrote to ask them to report on the GAO findings, they wrote back and said they saw no reason to do so. And just a few weeks ago, the same story appeared on CBS "Eye to Eye." It wasn't fair, but it made a good story.
In Texas, there was a huge news story about how the Fish and Wildlife Service had declared 20 million acres in 33 counties as "critical habitat" for an endangered songbird, with dire consequences for people's use of private land.
The fact was that we never proposed any critical habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler in Texas, and furthermore there's only about 800,000 acres of total habitat left for this species, much of which would never be considered "critical" anyhow. But the facts are immaterial. The myth that we designated this huge critical habitat area continues to appear in news stories and even at Congressional hearings.
Let me briefly outline a few of the other myths about the Endangered Species Act, and the facts.
You've heard the myth that there's no science involved in endangered species listings. Anybody can ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to list a species, and the Service will automatically do it.
Fact: over the last 5 years, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned down 75 percent of the petitions we received asking us to list species.
Here's another myth: the Endangered Species Act has brought thousands of Federal projects to a grinding halt.
Fact: between 1987 and 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted nearly 97,000 consultations with other Federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act. Out of all these, only 54 projects or activities were ultimately withdrawn or terminated.
Myth number three: hundreds if not thousands of private landowners have been prosecuted for activities they carried out on their own land.
Fact: A 1994 report by the General Accounting Office showed that during fiscal years 1988 through 1993, there were only 4 cases in which injunctive relief was obtained to stop or delay an activity on nonfederal lands as posing a threat to endangered species.
The truth is that this Administration has done a great deal to improve the way the Endangered Species Act work, and particularly to accommodate the needs of small private landowners. The remaining changes that are needed require a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Unfortunately, as things stand now in Washington, there is a good chance that this landmark law is going to be hit with a sledgehammer and effectively destroyed.
No one will say that, of course. Instead, they will say they are trying to put more "balance" or "common sense" into the law. They would rather attack the law indirectly, through so-called "takings" legislation, regulatory reform, budget recissions, listing moratoriums, and cost-benefit analyses. Even the bills that approach the issue more directly are cloaked in the language of endangered species protection.
The bill introduced in the Senate earlier this month is a case in point. It is like a movie set for a western town. From the front it looks like the Endangered Species Act, but if you walk around to the back you'll find out it's a fake that would in fact repeal the Endangered Species Act.
Under this bill, no one - not the Secretary of the Interior, not Federal agencies, not private landowners -- would be absolutely required to do anything to conserve endangered species.
There would be virtually no protection for endangered species habitat.
The listing process will be buried under a mountain of red tape, with an endless stream of expensive public hearings, studies, cost-benefit analyses, and Federal Register notices.
Decisions about protecting species will be based not on science, but primarily or exclusively on economic and political considerations.
If the bill had been law 25 years ago, for example, the Secretary of the Interior could have decided not to protect the bald eagle, because it would be too expensive.
Finally, all kinds of new exemptions will be introduced, none of which will work toward the species' benefit, of course. I find it astonishing that this retreat from fundamental environmental protection could be happening in a country where polls show the majority of people describe themselves as environmentalists. These proposals only make sense if you believe the myth that the Endangered Species Act does not work and is hurting the country.
The reality, however, is far different.
To begin with, the Endangered Species Act has been one of the biggest success stories of the conservation movement in America. When the Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, America was faced with a wave of species sliding quickly towards extinction, including our national symbol, the bald eagle.
The Endangered Species Act was instrumental in bringing the eagle back. And it has stopped the headlong rush to extinction of more than 200 other species as well.
But, perhaps more importantly, the Act has served as an early warning when something is amiss in the ecological systems that wildlife as well as humans depend on while there is still time to take action.
The fact that this warning is sounding with increasing regularity is not a sign that something is wrong with the alarm. It is a sign that there is a growing crisis in our environment. In many places, the ecological systems upon which both wildlife and humans depend are deteriorating and even collapsing.
The reasons for this include unsustainable use of natural resources -- such as overharvesting of timber -- pollution, and overconsumption of land, including destruction of wetlands and other areas that are vital to both wildlife and human health.
These problems exist whether or not we have an Endangered Species Act. They will continue to exist no matter what Congress does with the Gorton bill.
Let me draw an analogy. What's happening now is like a fire in a house that causes a smoke alarm to go off. The firemen disconnect the smoke alarm but don't put out the fire. Then they announce there is no fire and tell the residents to go back into the house.
In this case the smoke alarm is the Endangered Species Act, and the fireman are those senators and congressmen who want to cut it off and tell America that everything is all right as it is.
If you dare to suggest that the decline of the fresh-water mussels in our rivers is signaling that the rivers are dying and point out that human beings also depend upon those rivers, you are called an environmental extremist. If you suggest that the decline of a salamandar or a snail species is a sign that the local aquifer is being over-pumped, you are accused of being anti-growth, which is practically the same thing as being un-American. And, heaven help you if you suggest it would be nice to pass down to our children and our children's children the same beauty and diversity of wildlife we ourselves enjoy. Then you're called a tree hugger -- or something worse!
If she were alive today, Rachel Carson would mark her 88th birthday next week. She would recognize these kinds of attacks because some of them are exactly what she experienced following the publication of Silent Spring.
The Chemical Industry accused her of alarmism when it came to DDT and other pesticides, calling her part of a -- and I quote -- "vociferous, misinformed group of nature-balancing, organic-gardening, bird-loving, unreasonable citizenry that has not been convinced of the important place of agricultural chemicals in our economy."
The National Agricultural Chemicals Association put out a searing satire of Silent Spring called The Desolate Year that described a world ravaged by insects because pesticides were no longer used, although Carson never advocated banning use of all pesticides. The Association concluded Carson's book was "more poisonous than the pesticides she condemns."
This criticism was echoed in prominent magazines. Time magazine accused her of emotionalism and referred to her "oversimplifications and downright errors." Reader's Digest declined to publish a 20,000-word condensation of Silent Spring and instead ran an abridged version of the Time article.
The point here, of course, is that some of the same arguments that were used against Silent Spring are being used against the Endangered Species Act.
The biggest lie, of course, is that Americans cannot afford to conserve their wildlife because it is too expensive. The Endangered Species Act, this lie goes, damages the economy and costs jobs.
The evidence, however, states otherwise. An economic analysis of states with high numbers of threatened and endangered species conducted by MIT Professor Steven Meyer shows that endangered species listings have not depressed growth in either construction employment or gross state product, two common indicators of state development activity.
The real issue is not "jobs versus endangered species," it's whether we are willing to risk allowing a new Silent Spring to creep up on us one species at a time. And what kind of economy, and what kind of quality of life will Americans enjoy if that happens.
The real question is what kind of a world would we have without the Endangered Species Act? If it's too expensive to save the salmon, what species are going to be affordable?
If we let the amazing K-Rats -- mammals that never have to drink water (they get their moisture from their food) -- disappear from arid landscapes, then how far behind will the raptors be? We after all agree that we want to protect bald eagles?
These are tough questions that inevitably lead to other questions about how and where we grow? Growth and resource use everywhere invetably means accelerated extinction and loss of habitats for fish and wildlife.
There is a balance out there and it has to do with sensible limits to growth and development. We simply can't cut down every tree, plow under every grassland, drain every wetland, pollute or draw down every river and catch every last fish, and still expect to have a healthy economy or quality of life. There are limits, and we have to make choices.
The endangered mussel in the river and the threatened bird in the trees are just harbingers of those limits.
But just as Rachel Carson didn't advocate eliminating all pesticides, just the ones that were harmful to the ecology, so too the Endangered Species Act doesn't require us to stop economic development. It just requires us to recognize the limits and try to work within them.
The Act already contains the flexibility to work within these limits to conserve threatened and endangered species while allowing economic development to continue.
The best and most hopeful example is the use of Habitat Conservation Plans. These are formal agreements between the landowner and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that essentially permit landowners to incidentally take individual members of listed species in the course of an economic activity in return for conservation measures that help the species as a whole to recover. So far, we have reached about 50 such agreements with landowners, and over 150 more are in the works.
In Northern California, for example, the Simpson Paper Company found threatened spotted owls nesting in their 380,000 acres of Douglas fir. Critics of the Act might have thrown up their hands and said "Aha! An example of where the Act stops economic activity and costs jobs." But the Simpson Paper Company didn't do that, and neither did we.
Last year, the company developed a Habitat Conservation Agreement that allows the company to continue logging the land while conserving the owls. Under the agreement, the company can incidentally take up to 5 pairs of owls a year in the course of logging activity. A few owls may be lost, but the company protects habitat necessary to sustain viable populations.
Similar agreements have been developed or are being developed by many other companies. Plum Creek timber, for example, has developed an agreement to benefit the grizzly bear, largely because they think it's the right thing to do. Georgia-Pacific has an HCP across three million acres of its pine forest lands in the Southeast. The famous Pinehurst Golf Course in North Carolina has also gone far beyond what it is required to do to help the red-cockaded woodpecker. The golf course wants to increase woodpecker numbers, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has responded by developing a new approach that makes it possible for landowners to attract endangered species to their land without any fear of invoking future restrictions under the Endangered Species Act. This "safe harbor" approach to encourage habitat protection is an area of regulatory action which we'd like to use more directly with farmers because when you go through the list of endangered species, good habitat stewardship and profitable farming go hand-in-hand. And, I'm sorry to report that that isn't what you'll hear from most farm organizations.
These are the real stories out there as opposed to the myths and fear-mongering that have been circulating among many of the so-called private property advocates. These are the stories that prove we can have a healthy economy that stays within the natural limits. These are the stories that show us how we can make sure our children inherit an environment worth caring about.
Unfortunately, facts like these don't seem to be playing a major role in the public debate. Instead, right now Americans are being subjected to a steady dose of misinformation, scapegoating, and just plain old demagoguery when it comes to environmental issues, and the Endangered Species Act in particular. I believe some powerful special interests have found that the public's general anxiety about the future makes a good seedbed for attacks on environmental laws and regulations, like the Endangered Species Act. So they invoke fears about the supposed enormous cost to society of recovering endangered species; they forecast dire impacts on ranchers if wolves are reintroduced to Yellowstone; they promote the notion that the Endangered Species Act is an attack on people's private property rights. If environmental regulations are weakened, these groups stand to benefit. Clearly, they are not very interested in a serious discussion of ecological limits or the need for sustainable economies.
Ironically, the conservation groups sometimes perpetuate the myth by continuing to blame corporate America for most of our environmental problems. This makes the public feel even more helpless to deal locally and as individuals with the problems of which endangered species are a symptom. It also reinforces the perception that it is not possible to have a healthy economy and a healthy environment.
So what can you, as reporters, do?
First, report the Endangered Species Act for the difficult public policy choices it represents. It's not just about a new development versus the "no growthers". When the ESA appears, it's because every other environmental regulation has broken down and we're about to lose a species.
Consider what the Endangered Species Act means in California:
In San Diego and Orange Counties we're working on a landscape scale conservation effort with State and local government to preserve coastal sage scrub. What's really happening here is that county government is adding the dimension of habitat conservation to the traditional planning concerns like streets, utilities, schools and parks. Without the ESA we'll all lose coastal sage habitat which happens to be the landscape that divides the beaches from the coastal mountain scapes.
In Northern California we cobbled together a water compact that provides water supply certainty for farms and cities, and sets aside just enough water for the Sacramento delta fisheries. Remember at one time not so long ago, the San Francisco Bay-Delta was the richest estuary and fishery center on the West Coast of Americas. The decline of the salmon in California has taken some 40,000 coastal fishery jobs with it. Without the ESA, we could not hope to see salmon survive here.
In Riverside County -- and that conservation program has not worked as effectively as it should have -- the SKR conservation program has set aside 15,000 acres of open space that otherwise would have been developed. Those lands happen to be the only buffer areas that guard against the kind of urban sprawl that is one of the loudest complaints of people who live here.
Along the Santa Ana River watershed, you can find 200 species of birds, only a few of which are endangered. But take away the Clean Water Act and the ESA and that basin will become inundated with exotic plants and birds like the cowbird that are crowding out the natives.
Resist the temptation to oversimplify endangered species issues as "jobs versus the environment."
Second, help the public understand new ideas for conserving endangered species if the old ones need improvement. Look for stories about habitat conservation plans and people who are using innovative techniques to conserve wildlife. The kids in Sonoma County who are restoring habitat for freshwater shrimp, developers recognize the importance of wetlands restoration, and why preservation of diverse habitat is really the test about whether we can co-exist with Nature.
Third, try to help the public make the connection between endangered species and human health and welfare. We're fortunate that Periwinkle is not endangered today. A lubricant for the Desert Storm tanks came from a chemical derived from vernal pool plants. The list of important biochemistry links in our natural world and their implications for humanity are astounding. Extinction might mean that we condemn ourselves to a world without answers to human health problems or simple daily products from out natural world.
It will be your job to help sort out the true impacts of the proposals that are being advanced to reform the Endangered Speices Act. As you do so, I ask you to consider this question:
Which of us wants to be the person who decides that a particular species will have no medicinal value 100 years from now? Or that a particular piece of an ecosystem won't be critically important 100 years from now? Or that a species is not worth saving?
Who wants to be the one to write the "cost-benefit" analysis that tries to weigh the value of something like a California condor against the cost of protecting its habitat?
I certainly don't want to be that person. I'm not sure who does. Even Noah, who had a close personal relationship with God, didn't have to write a cost-benefit analysis before he put the animals on the Ark.
Forty years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote this: "To ask what a species is good for is the height of ignorance."
More recently, Rush Limbaugh wrote in his book, The Way Things Ought to Be: "If the owl can't adapt to the superiority of humans, then screw it."
There, in a nutshell, are the opposing sides of this argument. I wish you success and luck in your efforts to translate this into something meaningful for the public. As you do so, I hope you will remember the experience of Rachel Carson, who also had a message that was complex and that many people did not want to hear. Think about what might have happened to the bald eagle, to our songbirds, and to our own health if those who attacked Rachel Carson had been allowed to prevail.
Thank you for listening.