Our view: ESA is good; so is vital development
Herald editorial board The trendy term is "charismatic megafauna," and it's used to describe large animals of the world that have universal, popular appeal. Think bald eagles, grizzly bears and the like. It's what most people likely consider when...
Herald editorial board
The trendy term is "charismatic megafauna," and it's used to describe large animals of the world that have universal, popular appeal. Think bald eagles, grizzly bears and the like. It's what most people likely consider when thinking of the Endangered Species Act, the landmark legislation signed by President Nixon in 1973.
Conversely, probably few have heard of the sheepnose mussel, the Topeka shiner minnow or the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly. Yet it's those tiny creatures - and not necessarily the popular "charismatic megafauna" - that grab the bulk of the attention as controversy grows around the ESA.
The ESA's chief goal is to determine endangered species, meaning those likely to become extinct. It also is used to determine threatened species and to protect habitat needed for a declared species' survival. It passed Congress with almost unanimous approval and is notably credited with the rebound of the bald eagle, which teetered near extinction a half-century ago.
Today, however, the ESA is a political issue. Republicans are pushing for new standards that would reduce problems created when humans and certain species collide. A historic example is the snail darter, a 3-inch-long minnow that caused a sensation a generation ago when it held up completion of a dam on the Little Tennessee River. Eventually, President Carter exempted the project, allowing construction.
Should traditional business, such as mining and ranching, be adversely hindered by butterflies? Or how about contemporary clean-energy industries, such as hydroelectric dams and wind farms. Should they be stymied by minnows and bats?
This is a debate reignited by rollbacks proposed recently by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Among the proposals is to remove language that requires decision-makers to consider only science and not economics when deciding whether to list a species as threatened or endangered. At present, ESA wording requires decisions be made only on the basis of "the best scientific and commercial data available" and without "reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination." Zinke's plan would delete the part about economic impacts.
We appreciate the ESA. We do, however, believe the ESA has evolved in a way that its founders did not foresee and that, over time, amendments and Carter-like exemptions should be considered for some forms of human progress.
It's a stalemate: As intent as certain industries are to relax ESA guidelines even for clean-energy projects, environmentalists are equally determined to keep tight rules in place - and they rightfully don't miss opportunities to alert the public that threats to the ESA exist.
Yet collaboration between those nemeses can work. When the western sage grouse appeared headed for protection, several groups - including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service - worked together to adjust management plans. They also worked with private landowners. The result was that sage grouse were kept off the list.
The ESA shouldn't be dismantled, but it also shouldn't be the end-all decider on vital development in western states. The focus, therefore, should be on cooperative efforts early in the process, such as the one that kept sage grouse off the threatened list.