Just outside San Antonio, at the intersection of Look 1604 and Highway 151, the discovery of a single, dime-sized, translucent, subterranean spider has brought a $15 million traffic reduction project to a dead stop. Unfortunately for area motorists, the Bracken Cave meshweaver is one of more than 1,400 species regulated under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“Regulated” is a far more appropriate term than “protected” when discussing the ESA, because the law has a terrible record of recovering animals and plants. Several dozen critters on the endangered list have been delisted or lowered in protection, but more often than not the action reflects either extinction or the discovery of more accurate information. The infamous snail darter exemplifies the latter situation. It was found to be much more abundant and widespread — after it had been used to halt construction of a half complete dam.
Now comes the meshweaver. Texans have been told it’s only the second specimen of this meshweaver ever found. In reality, North America is home to thousands of kinds of spiders, and nobody knows how many kinds, never mind how many specimens of each. Consider this: Estimates of the western lowland gorilla population more than doubled this millennium, as more than 100,000 gorillas were discovered. Now consider how hard it would be to get an accurate census count of one species of itsy bitsy, underground spider.
In reality, the ESA has become more about stopping things than saving things. This law, like many other environmental laws, is founded on the notion that people are a blight imperiling an incredibly delicate web of life. From the greens’ perspective, the government — preferably centralized, top down and run by technocrats — must insert itself between people and natural resources through regulation or ownership.
It is a world view born of environmental neuroses. To help Washington and the states develop more intelligent environmental polices, the Heritage Foundation has put forth a set of eight environmental principles, called the American Conservation Ethic, reflecting a commitment to individual freedom, limited government and free markets as well as to environmental stewardship.
How would these principles play in the meshweaver case? Well, instead of letting regulations run on autopilot, operating under the fiction that “science” is appropriately making decisions, the American Conservation Ethic would recognize that science should be a guide, not a substitute, for policy. Laws are a decision to use force. Their application should involve consideration of ethics, beliefs and consensus. If San Antonians were able to weigh in on this decision, it’s unlikely the consensus would be to jettison the project and send the contractor packing.
Moreover, the idea that Washington should call the shots for this Texas spider doesn’t pass the straight-face test. The federal authority over this arachnid supposedly comes under the Commerce Clause. What possible commerce connection does a subterranean spider have? Does a federal, rather than a state, agency need to handle this? If they wanted, Texans could pass a spider law and task Texas Parks and Wildlife to implement it. This would be a more site- and situation-specific approach, another principle of the American Conservation Ethic.
Greens will claim that Texas can’t be trusted — as if Washington could be. And they will profess concern for human well-being, claiming such critters could hold the key to cancer. Were they really so dedicated to human well-being, they might be more concerned about the real-world likelihood that — by shutting down this traffic relief project — the increasing congestion will only increase response times for fire trucks and ambulances traveling this route and the chances that people needing assistance will suffer needlessly, perhaps even die.
Such a concern would be consistent with the first and most important of the American Conservation Ethic principles: That people are the most important, precious and unique resource. When one accepts this principle, one recognizes that an environmental policy cannot be good if it is bad for people.
• A national leader in the conservation movement for more than two decades, Robert Gordon is senior adviser for strategic outreach at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).