The White House is working to undermine the Endangered Species Act — here's how

The White House is working to undermine the Endangered Species Act — here's how
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If you quickly scan the dozens of articles reviewing the best summer vacation spots in the U.S., you will find lists of beautiful and wild places — from hiking with bears, wolves, and bison in Yellowstone, floating or flyfishing scenic rivers, or walking along beach dunes. Yet, while the eyes of the vacationing American seem focused on natural scenes, they often overlook the tightly woven fabric of environmental laws and regulations that ensure the protection of those remarkable places.

The latest environmental safeguard under assault is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is arguably one of the most important pieces of U.S. legislation related to conservation. A staggering 36 distinct proposals to change ESA, of which nearly one-third are expected to have at least partially negative impacts on conservation, are included in the rulemaking package proposed by the Trump administration.

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In a report published by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, current proposals are directed at four key functions of ESA — decision-making about listing species, designation of critical habitat, consultation among federal agencies, and special rules for threatened species. Three proposals, in particular, have generated alarm:

 

  • removing language that listing determinations must be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts”
  • restricting the designation of “unoccupied critical habitat”
  • withdrawing a special rule that extends and improves protection for threatened species

Collectively, these changes will facilitate efforts to weaken the ability of ESA to list species, conserve and restore the habitats upon which they depend, and actively work towards their recovery.

Based on the political discourse, one might conclude that ESA is a highly controversial piece of legislation among Americans. Not so. To the contrary, over 20 years of survey-based research has consistently shown that more than four out of five Americans support ESA; only about one in 10 oppose it. Interestingly, that support does not fall strictly along party lines, as nearly three out of four conservatives — as well as over two-thirds of farmers, ranchers, and property right advocates — view the law favorably.

If most Americans support ESA, then why are we seeing proposals to undermine its ability to protect species? According to a New York Times article, the proposals reflect a “wish list” assembled by oil and gas companies, libertarians, and special interests in the West. Indeed, oil industry groups, such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America and National Ocean Industries Association, have publicly applauded the proposed changes. Those special interests matter. A study of the environmental voting behavior of Congress over a 20-year period shows that for every $10,000 received from industries aligned with the environmental countermovement, the probability that a representative took a pro-environment position declined by 2 percent. Those receiving funding from oil and gas PACs were 4 percent less likely to vote pro-environment than unfunded peers.

As with many efforts to deregulate environmental and species protections, the benefits of a weakened ESA will flow to a limited number of individuals, whereas the costs will be borne by the broader American public as we lose iconic species and the healthy environments that sustain them.

Would we be satisfied with a nation in which our children and grandchildren would not have known the bald eagle, gray wolf, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon, or American alligator? Is it good business to jeopardize some of the $1.6 trillion in benefits that we derive from ecosystem services from healthy land, air, and water, to which ESA directly and indirectly contributes? We owe it to current and future generations to safeguard biodiversity and the ecosystems that all species, humans included, depend upon to survive and thrive. Those points of discussion may soon play out in Congress, but in the meantime, we can remind them that Americans from all walks of life and across political constituencies have already expressed support for ESA.

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.