June 22 - June 28, 1995

America Needs the Endangered Species Act.

B y  G r e g o r y  M c N a m e e

LATE IN MARCH, Gov. Pete Wilson surveyed the severe damage wrought on California by months of unrelenting rainstorms and suspended the state's endangered-species laws, arguing, in a spectacular leap of logic, that to continue to protect wildlife would be to forestall economic recovery.

Here in Arizona, certain legislators must have looked to the west and prayed for some natural disaster to spill over so that our governor, too, could nullify the laws that protect our own wild creatures.

For the last few months, several extremely vocal Arizona lawmakers have been loudly complaining that federally mandated wildlife conservation has brought the state's economy to its knees. Endangered-species protection, they would have you believe, has driven Arizonans out of work in construction, logging, mining and a host of other fields.

Nature, in other words, is keeping Arizona from growing to the 25 million or so residents state planners one day hope will grace the Phoenix-Tucson corridor.

Governor J. Fife Symington III, too, seems to believe that all that stands between Arizona and endless wealth is a pesky passel of critters, and he's backing up his talk with alarming acts. For one, he has quietly taken steps to reduce the powers of the state Game and Fish Department, which enforces the federal regulations he finds so hateful, while concentrating power in the hands of the already bloated, and historically corrupt, Land Department.

In doing so, the governor has explained, he is merely obeying the will of the electorate--forgetting that the electorate soundly defeated the environment-gutting Proposition 300 just a few months ago.

Gov. Symington has not been alone in his actions. Several legislators and political appointees have set about chipping away at laws that protect the state's natural heritage.

Recent months have seen a call for a bounty on Mexican gray wolves reintroduced in Arizona's Blue River region through a combined federal and state biological program, as well as a Senate Bill that would make it a criminal offense for any Arizona public employee to assist the federal government in enforcing the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. One legislator has even proclaimed--falsely, as it happens--that protecting the ferruginous pygmy owl, only 30 of which have been seen in the wild in the last decade, will put an end to recreational tubing on the Salt River.

U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) summarized the attitude of Republicans in the Arizona statehouse when he remarked, "We've been more concerned about taking care of cockroaches than taking care of families." Reducing wildlife to the level of household pests is one thing; conveniently overlooking the fact that the Legislature has done nothing whatever to benefit any but the wealthiest families is quite another. Still, the Legislature toddles merrily along, robbing the state environmental fund here, signing away public lands there, and no logic seems able to halt its destructive course.

This anti-environmental mood is not confined to Arizona, although in few other places has it taken such ridiculous turns. Gov. Symington had a point when he remarked recently that the 104th Congress would back his efforts to demolish environmental legislation; already that group has taken steps to declare a moratorium on new endangered-species listings, at a time when critical habitats are ever more in peril, while moving to revoke the Endangered Species Act itself when it comes up for reauthorization this summer.

The subject of all this ado is a piece of legislation that has precious few teeth to begin with. Signed into law in 1973 by Republican President Richard M. Nixon, who for all his faults at least recognized the value of wild lands, the Endangered Species Act currently shields some 1,000 animal and plant species from harm at the hands of humans. Another 118 species are under study for addition to that unhappy roster, while perhaps 3,800 more await their turn. That might seem an impressive figure, but by the famed biologist E.O. Wilson's estimate, at least 17,500 species are extirpated annually worldwide.

Apart from a few notable cases--including, recently, a Tucson man convicted of trafficking in endangered butterflies--endangered-species legislation has not done much to keep the enemies of wildlife from their work. The reason for this is simple: The agencies charged with enforcing those laws are woefully underfunded. In 1995 the federal government will spend less than $60 million for endangered-species preservation all told--about 25 cents for each citizen, or a third less than the amount slated for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The federal budget for protecting endangered species, put another way, amounts to the annual take of half a dozen McDonald's restaurants, or about the cost of two miles of a Phoenix freeway. Given such severe constraints, federal wildlife agencies cannot properly evaluate the species awaiting consideration for ESA protection, let alone keep up with those species already under the federal aegis.

For all that, the ESA is the strongest of many federal laws that protect wildlife nationally. Even under its limited enforcement, as the conservative commentator Gregg Easterbrook recently noted, many species once bound for extinction have come near to recovery. Perhaps the most notable among them is the bald eagle, America's national symbol, which an Arizona spokesman for the anti-environmental group People for the West! recently characterized as "vultures with an attitude."

To be sure, the Endangered Species Act deserves criticism--but only because it does not go far enough. The ESA clearly needs to do more, even with its limited scope, with less, including more innovative private-sector initiatives. It needs stronger definition. And it needs greater emphasis on the protection not just of individual species but of whole habitats, without which protection no species--including our own--is safe.

No matter. Speaker of the Arizona House Mark Killian (R-Mesa) goes on saying that environmental laws put Arizonans in "a world of hurt," and U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth goes on insisting that the federal government is responsible for "economic genocide" throughout our state. Both ignore the fact that no development project has ever been stopped in Arizona because of the Endangered Species Act; indeed, of the more than 100,000 development projects nationwide that have been audited for ESA concerns, only 50 have been seriously altered.

Would Arizonans stand to gain anything of permanent value if the Endangered Species Act were to be nullified, as so many legislators so fondly hope? Perhaps a few stockholders in lumber interests would realize a short-term profit if our few remaining stands of old-growth forest, now sheltering a handful of Mexican spotted owls, were to be clearcut; but then, as they have done in the Pacific Northwest, the lumber companies would move on to greener woodlands, leaving behind a landscape of stumps and ghost towns where the sawmills once hummed. A few real-estate speculators would benefit from shaving away hillsides and river corridors for yet another complex of townhouses, but the rest of us would have only to live with that sorry sight.

Dismantling the Endangered Species Act is but one more giveaway to the rich, and that is a species of welfare that the general citizenry is visibly tiring of. According to the conservative Wall Street Journal, eight out of 10 Americans consider themselves environmentalists; that pattern seems to hold for Arizona, given the outcome of several environmental referenda on recent ballots. Arizona lawmakers would do well to consider those statistics and learn just where their long-term interests lie.

They would do well, too, to understand the time-honored lesson that actions beget consequences. As E.O. Wilson sagely remarks, "The one process...that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us."

And it is a folly that Arizona voters are not likely to overlook.

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June 22 - June 28, 1995

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