- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 with a goal to conserve and protect American wildlife species and plants threatened with extinction.

While this goal was certainly worthy, 30 years has given us little to show for all of the effort. Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican, said there is no single species removed from the endangered species list due to the ESA performance. Interestingly enough, at least 15 species were removed because they were improperly listed (i.e. never actually endangered in the first place).

All this might be acceptable, given Act’s goals, were it not for the gigantic, uncompensated costs imposed upon private landowners, including many working farmers and ranchers, by the inefficient implementation of this legislation.

The single most shocking example of the ESA out of control was the federal government’s irrigation water shutoff in Oregon and California’s Klamath Basin region in April 2001. More than 1,200 farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin were denied irrigation water following a decision by federal officials under the ESA to protect several species of endangered fish — later determined by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to have been made without sound scientific justification.

The sudden disappearance of irrigation water cost the local economy nearly $200 million and forced nearly two-dozen farmers into bankruptcy. The NAS report also concluded shutting off the irrigation and disrupting the seasonal water flow created environmental conditions that were, in fact, harmful to the species the government was trying to protect. What a disastrous consequence of irrational law enforcement.

Today, we know that the Klamath Basin-ESA decision was based on an inadequate amount scientific information and chronic misinterpretation of scientific data available to government officials. Why?

Perhaps its because unique among all our nation’s keystone environmental programs, the decisions on carrying out this program are the least transparent and the least subject to outside public review and comment. To keep Klamath Basin from recurring, we have to require open, independent, and unbiased public comment and scientific peer review of the government’s decisions on listing or delisting a species and in creating recovery plans, especially on critical habitat.

“If you went to a doctor and he said to you, ‘We are going to have to take off your right leg,’ you’d probably want a second opinion. Right now under the Endangered Species Act, plants, animals and people don’t have the chance to seek a second opinion,” said Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, who re-introduced the Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning Act of 2003 (HR 1662), which recently passed the House Resources Committee.

The legislation will improve the ESA by incorporating a scientific peer review process as a precondition for ESA decisions. It will establish a mandatory independent scientific review requirement for all ESA listing and delisting proposals to ensure use of sound science and provide a way to resolve scientific disputes during the rulemaking. It also will require that an action, including injunctive relief, to enforce the ban against the incidental taking of a species must be based on pertinent evidence using scientifically valid principles.

Many agriculture organizations including National Grange applaud the recent House effort to push forward the ESA improvement bill. Well enough aware of the dramatic effect of the ESA on private landowners, many farmers and ranchers have criticized the federal government’s irresponsible and arbitrary ESA management. (About 76 percent of wetlands and endangered species exist on private lands.) Mr. Walden’s legislation reflects their request for acknowledgeable scientific evidence in the ESA decisions.

Time is essential. We cannot sit back. In our system of government, legislation does not pass of its own accord simply because the idea has merit and strong public support. Legislators must act before we can see reform.

There are only a few weeks left in the 108th Congress before we see the predictable interruption of political frenzy in November. Similar common-sense reform legislation was approved by the House Resources Committee in the 107th Congress (HR 4840), but time ran out on full House of Representatives consideration of the bill before the end of the year. We don’t want that to happen again.

Let’s speak up to Congress, “No more Klamath Basins, please.” The common-sense ESA reform should be accomplished in this session of Congress. By enacting the Sound Science legislation, we will be able to prevent another catastrophic decision such as that which led to the Klamath Basin crisis.

WILLIAM A. STEEL

President

The National Grange

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