Perspective: Incentives are key to ESA
California Agriculture 49(6):6-6.
Published November 01, 1995
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The furor concerning reform of the federal Endangered Species Act has unfortunately been characterized as a declaration of war on endangered species themselves. California farmers and ranchers support protection of endangered species through sound science and common-sense incentives. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the key to make the act work for everyone.
California has a big stake in the issue. This state is home to 160 listed species — more than are listed for any other state. In the process of trying to manage listed species, federal regulations have sometimes restricted livestock grazing, logging and even basic agricultural practices. Farmers and ranchers have become fearful of restrictive regulations.
The extent to which Congress transforms the protection of species into a positive effort that landowners can embrace will determine whether the law takes a bold step into the 21st Century.
Farmers, ranchers and other property owners hold the key if the ESA is going to work. A report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that more than 78% of listed plants and animals have some of their habitat on private lands, based on May 1993 tallies. Therein lies the key to reforming the law.
Endangered species protections can be more effectively achieved by providing positive incentives to private landowners and public land users as an alternative to land use restrictions. The creation of a voluntary conservation program could provide crucial habitat areas. In such a program, landowners would receive annual management fees for managing land as critical habitat for endangered species.
The act should specify scientific standards necessary to support a listing. Too often listing decisions are made based on inadequate data. The fairy shrimp is a good case in point. Since the time of listing, fairy shrimp have been found in thousands of vernal pools and other seasonal wetlands from Redding to Bakersfield, according to John Lambeth, attorney and project manager for the Fairy Shrimp Study Group. (The group is a statewide organization of trade associations and private property owners who believe the data supporting two of the four listings of fairy shrimp species were flawed.)
Current ESA decisions are required to be made on the basis of the “best scientific and commercial data available.” This provision should include procedures necessary to sustain a decision that a species should be listed or that some other action be taken. There must be some unbiased, objective review prior to the decision to ensure that the proffered data meet minimum scientific standards.
We suggest the creation of an independent Scientific Advisory panel to peer review ESA decisions prior to species listing. Such a body would have the same role as the Scientific Advisory Panel within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), except that the panel would have authority to veto any proposal that does not meet minimum scientific muster.
We also propose two major changes in fundamental definitions on which the current law is now based. We would redefine critical habitat, restricting it to that land occupied by the species at the time of listing. We also propose that the term “species” be redefined to include only populations so distinct genetically that they cannot interbreed to produce fertile young. (For more discussion see p. 9 — Ed.)
Farmers and ranchers support the basic goals of the ESA. We offer potential solutions to endangered species issues which will make the act stronger in its protection for species, their habitat, and the farm and ranch families whose land harbors these species. Managing endangered species habitat can and should be a source of landowner pride, rather than fear and apprehension. Farmers, ranchers and the species that depend on their land need a reformed Endangered Species Act.