If you find oil or natural gas on your property, the value goes up. If you find an endangered species, your land becomes virtually worthless because the critter prevents productive use — resulting in the half-jest, half-serious advice: "shoot, shovel and shut up."
Kent Holsinger, a Colorado attorney working on endangered species issues, told me he has seen many landowners lose significant value due to a listed species being found on their property.
The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon to preserve, protect and recover key domestic species. Though well intentioned at the start, the Act has since been used as a tool to hinder or block economic activity from logging and farming to mining and oil-and-gas development.
I've been active in the fight to prevent the listing of the sand dune lizard in the oil patch of West Texas and New Mexico's Permian Basin—which produces about 15 percent of U.S. oil. (Thanks to conservation agreements with private industry, the lizard was not listed.) I emceed the Roswell, N.M., rally to draw attention to the five-state lesser prairie chicken listing threat — which would, again, impact oil-and-gas development. (The Western Governors Association has been working with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to develop a similar range-wide plan to protect the chicken while allowing for economic development. The listing decision is due by March 30.)
Coming up is the greater sage grouse — "a chicken-sized bird that has been in decline across large portions of its 11-state Western range. A final decision on whether to protect sage grouse is due next year and could result in wide-ranging restrictions on oil and gas development, agriculture and other economic activity," reports The Associated Press.
The delta smelt — that most of us first heard of in 2009 — is, once again, back in the news.
California is facing a severe drought. A recent Wall Street Journal article examines "How green politics has exacerbated the state's growing shortages." It lists water rationing, forbidding sprinkler use, and restaurants serving water by-request-only as some of the ramifications. But, the Journal states: "Suffering the most are farmers south of the delta whose water allocations have plunged over the last two decades due to endangered-species protections." It continues: "California's biggest water hog is the three-inch smelt, which can divert up to one million acre-feet in a wet year. In 2008, federal regulators at the prodding of green groups restricted water exports south to protect the smelt."
The Bakersfield Californian cites Larry Starrah, a local farmer, whose family has been "forced to let 1,000 acres of productive almond trees die this year for lack of water." The Jan. 22 article faults the "delta smelt and other fish protected under the Endangered Species Act."
To help alleviate the California water crisis, House Speaker John Boehner was in Bakersfield, with lawmakers from California, to tout legislation that would, according to Reuters: "roll back environmental rules limiting how much water agencies can pump out of the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta in dry years." At a press conference Boehner said: "It's nonsense that a bureaucracy would favor fish over people." But, that is what the Act requires.
It is time for the Endangered Species Act to be overhauled.
As we've seen with the sand dune lizard — and hope to see with the lesser prairie chicken — there are ways to successfully assist species that are truly in danger without putting species in conflict with people.
This is the goal of a brand-new report released on Feb.4 by the Endangered Speices Act Congressional Working Group led by Representatives Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and eleven others. For eight months the Working Group has examined the Act from a variety of viewpoints and angles; received input on how the Act has worked and is being implemented and how and whether it could be updated to be more effective for both people and species.
The report reflects hundreds of comments from outside individuals and testimony from nearly 70 witnesses who appeared before a Working Group forum and House Natural Resources Committee hearings. It concludes: "After more than 40 years, sensible, targeted reforms would not only improve the eroding credibility of the Act, but would ensure it is implemented more effectively for species and people."
The report recommends constructive changes to the Act in the following four categories:
Ensuring greater transparency and prioritization of (the) Act with a focus on species recovery and delisting;
Reducing Act litigation and encouraging settlement reform;
Empowering states, tribes, local governments and private landowners on Act decisions affecting them and their property; and
Requiring more transparency and accountability of Act data and science.
Regarding the proposed changes, AP states: "experts say broad changes to one of the nation's cornerstone environmental laws are unlikely given the pervasive partisan divide in Washington, D.C."
Such statements highlight the importance of supporting the representatives behind the new report, encouragement of all other representatives and senators to sign on to the proposed reforms — and the importance of the 2014 election. As AP points out: the Act "enjoys fervent support among many environmentalists, whose Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have thwarted past proposals for change."
Instead of shoot, shovel and shut up, key domestic species that should be preserved, protected and recovered would be better served by targeted legislative changes that can truly benefit species and people.