Common Sense Environmentalism

Over the past 30 years, the Endangered Species Act has helped more than a few species to survive.  Unfortunately, it has taken a toll on common sense. 

Lawsuits alleging violation of the act delayed completion of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee because it would harm an endangered fish called the snail darter, and logging in the Northwest has been hampered by spurious claims of damage to the habitat of the Northern spotted owl.

Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, most Americans have come to identify themselves as environmentalists.  Unfortunately, over the years a small faction of the movement has drifted farther and farther away from the original goals of environmentalism.  These pseudo-environmentalists now pursue an agenda that has less to do with conserving resources, reducing pollution, and protecting wildlife than with attacking business and opposing certain products and technologies.  Ironically, their efforts are often inimical to the protection of the environment—and to common sense, as well.

The latest manifestation: A handful of environmental groups have discovered a legal loophole in the part of the Endangered Species Act that concerns pesticide registration, and have filed a spate of nuisance lawsuits attempting to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from registering or re-registering pesticides.  These suits allege that by failing to consult with other federal agencies before registering a pesticide, the EPA has not complied fully with the law.

The environmentalists’ lawsuits are not substantive but procedural: No actual damage to endangered species has been demonstrated.  And never mind that pesticides undergo extensive testing to ensure their safety, and that they produce extraordinary benefits to society—controlling vermin, increasing agricultural productivity (thus holding down prices of produce for consumers), reducing the need to convert wild lands into farmland and preventing the growth of harmful fungi and bacteria on crops.

These lawsuits constitute a nuisance and distraction for EPA officials, who must expend immense effort and expense on defending the agency in court—resources that could be better spent reviewing new products and on prosecuting polluters.

Unfortunately, loopholes used by misguided activists and their lawyers have government agencies jumping through legal hoops instead of carrying out their missions, such as protecting public and environmental health.  The hidden agenda is opposition to the use of certain kinds of technologies or products, and rancor toward the companies that use or make them.

There is good news to report, however.  The EPA—which boasts vast experience with assessing the safety of pesticides, including any effects on endangered species—and several other agencies have jointly devised a patch to close the legal loophole that makes the lawsuits tenable.  The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, which jointly administer the act, have just published a regulation that will eliminate the bureaucratic requirement for the EPA to consult with other agencies during its pesticide evaluation and registration.  This technical revision will assure greater consistency and efficiency in the review of pesticides and allow the regulators to more expeditiously license new, environment-friendly products.

Confounded by incomplete data and torn by the conflicting demands of radical groups and commercial interests, the formulation of environmental policy is difficult, to be sure, and assessing the risks and benefits of pesticides can be immensely complex.

This proposed rule will draw a bright line.  Brandishing pseudo-facts, half-truths, and warnings of apocalypse, the anti-pesticide, anti-technology, anti-agribusiness groups will undoubtedly oppose it, while genuine environmentalists will support it.

This change is not a quick fix to the Endangered Species Act as a whole, but it will prevent a small glitch from interfering with regulators’ efforts to make the best decisions for the public, and for endangered species.

Maybe it will also help to remove common sense from the endangered list.

Henry Miller is a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His latest book, The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (with Greg Conko), will be published later this year by Praeger Publishers.