For many of us turning 40 is a milestone. Time to throw a big party and celebrate? Or time to our head under the pillow and hope it will go away? What about the Endangered Species Act? Time to celebrate or time to reform?
I don’t pretend to be an expert on this landmark act, but I have worked around its edges for 15 years. Passed in 1973 by a Democratic Congress and signed into Law by a Republic President, it aims to protect and promote the recovery of the nation’s threatened, rare and otherwise endangered species. It’s had some notable successes — the wolf and condor are back from the brink. But for every success there are countless species that are barely hanging on.
While it has its supporters, in private many grumble about its ineffectiveness whether on the side of industry or the side of an eco-group. My perspective is that while it has set an effective floor for conservation, it has done little to provide incentives to promote recovery and restoration. Quite the opposite — the specter of attracting endangered species onto their land makes many savvy landowners think twice. Why do anything to attract an endangered critter when not far behind will come the heavy hand of the regulator? (yes, there are ways around this through safe harbor agreements, habitat conservation plans, etc. but they take require an inordinate amount of money and time)
What’s happened in the redwoods is perhaps a classic case-study. Two of the biggest fights of the environmental movement over the past 40 years have played out in the redwoods. The listing of the northern spotted owl led to the adoption of the NorthWest Forest Plan, and the listing of the marbled murrelet was intrinsically linked with the decade long battle over the Headwaters Forest. In the process additional land was set aside for protection, but the fate of both species that caused the fight remain in the balance. And for very different reasons.
Talk to any forester in the northern redwoods and they’ll have a story about the northern spotted owl. The biologists at Green Diamond are some of the leading experts on their ecology. They also work closely with the foresters and have been able to effectively promote recover of the species on their land — in fact they likely have more owls on their land now than historically because of this single-species focus. They also know each by name or number and regularly feed them white mice, but that’s another story. Today the biggest threat for these owls is predation and interbreeding with the barred owl — an aggressive invader from the east coast. Green Diamond is working cooperatively with the regulatory agencies to see if killing the barred owls is an effective way to promote recovery. How crazy is that? We’re killing one species to save another? It just shows that things are out of balance and that a continued focus on single species management is akin to chasing our own tail.
The marbled murrelet — an elusive seabird that builds its nest in large branches found in ancient redwood and Douglas-fir forests — has been the focus of much of the protest and activism in the redwoods. Simply put, when you cut down its nest tree it will take hundreds of years to restore the large branches it needs to survive. Over the past 100 years we have harvested so much of the ancient forest so fast that its habitat is now remnant patches and its numbers are teetering on the edge. Predation by crows and ravens is a problem, yes. But the real problem is it simply does’t have enough habitat left to build a thriving population. If it is extirpated from the redwoods does that mean those ancient groves should now be available for harvest simply because the bird is gone? Seems crazy but its entirely possible. Again, a focus on single species is at fault. (As an aside, its why wherever feasible providing permanent protection through purchase is preferable to relying on the vagaries of regulation.)
After 40 years it is certainly time to celebrate the role of the endangered species act in halting extinctions, but it is also past time to reform the act to promote recovery. We need to both maintain a strong floor for conservation, and establish incentives for landowners large and small to participate in the protection and recovery of species. We need to move beyond single species management to looking at landscapes and natural processes. And we need to move beyond seeing landowners as the threat to be regulated to being partners in recovery. Doing this would benefit not only the endangered animals that the act focuses on today, but would promote healthy landscapes that provide us clean air to breathe, clear water to drink, and beautiful vistas to enjoy.
Reforming something that has been part of the conservation landscape for a lifetime is not without risk. It will take guts and work on all sides, but after 40 years it is time the act grew up.