- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

California, as much or more than any other state, has witnessed firsthand the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) shortcomings.

The Golden State has the second-highest number of endangered species in the nation, from the captivating California condor to the less-than-charismatic Delhi Sands Flower Loving Fly.

It’s not too surprising, then, that California leads the Lower 48 states in acres of officially designated critical habitat. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s approximated 100 million acres is in the regulatory clutches of this deleterious designation.

Despite the state’s obvious stake in ESA, little has been done to move reform legislation through the U.S. Senate. Californians, with untold resources tied up due to ESA, deserve real reform and should demand action from their elected officials.

Even with ESA’s unsuccessful track record, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently designated critical habitat for the California red-legged frog. The estimated cost in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., alone is $165 million. Projected costs for the entire state are $497 million over 20 years.

What are we getting in return for all that money? The answer, unfortunately, is not much. Multiple officials within the FWS, over successive administrations, have criticized the critical habitat provision as ineffective and conflict-ridden.

In 1999 congressional testimony, Jamie Rappaport Clark, then FWS director, said:

“… in 25 years of implementing the ESA, we have found that designation of ‘official’ critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while it consumes significant amounts of scarce conservation resources. We believe that the critical habitat designation process needs to be recast as the determination of habitat necessary for the recovery of listed species. This ‘recovery habitat’ should be described in recovery plans.”

For a federal agency to admit its program provides little benefit while consuming huge resources translates in normal English to a program that is useless at best. However, after leaving public service for Defenders of Wildlife, Ms. Clark changed her tune. When she testifies now, she calls critical habitat “a crucial tool for ensuring the survival and recovery of imperiled species.”

Like many aspects of the ESA, critical habitat is driven by litigation, providing an endless supply of slam-dunk lawsuits to activist groups that can bag taxpayer dollars in the form of attorney’s fees.

Critical habitat is not the only outdated provision of the ESA. After more than three decades and billions of taxpayer dollars, FWS documents reveal that only 10 — or less than 1 percent — of the Act’s roughly 1,300 listed species have been recovered. Of those that remain under its care, just 6 percent are classified as improving, and a staggering 70 percent are classified as either “in decline” or of “unknown” status.

No wonder the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently assessed the endangered species program as “not performing.”

Furthermore, many costs have skyrocketed beyond what recovery plans originally intended. For example, the decurrent false aster’s (a plant) recovery plan anticipated recovery by 1997 at a cost of $58,000. In 2006, the FWS announced it will finally review its status, after spending more than 800 percent of what was originally projected. Similarly, the least tern’s recovery plan anticipated the bird could be recovered by 2005, at a cost of $1.75 million to $2 million. By fiscal 2004, least tern expenditure had exceeded $23 million.

These are just a few of the ESA’s shortcomings, but they more than justify the Office of Management and Budget’s assessment that the program is “not performing,” and are just some of the reasons the U.S. House of Representatives, with a strong bipartisan vote, passed H.R. 3824, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act (TESRA). TESRA provides many long-needed improvements, including elimination of wasteful critical habitat provisions. Instead, it identifies habitat in recovery plans — just as Defenders of Wildlife’s Jamie Clark testified was needed when she was with the FWS.

But TESRA also accomplishes much more. It requires timely comprehensive recovery plans and includes affected parties on recovery teams to reduce conflict. When conflict is unavoidable, TESRA requires compensation for private property owners’ loss of property or its use. Further, TESRA provides common-sense exemptions for emergencies and national security while strengthening scientific standards, improving reporting and mandating transparent decisionmaking.

To work, the ESA must refocus on recovery instead of conflict. For TESRA to work, the Senate must get the job done. Endangered species, and Californians, deserve better. Ignoring the need to improve the ESA is a dereliction of congressional duty and an unrecorded vote to perpetuate a failing conservation program.

Richard W. Pombo, California Republican, is chairman of the House Resources Committee and a member of the Agriculture Committee.

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