Defenders of Wildlies

Have you ever been told you were wrong when you knew you were right? Sure, it happens all the time.

You say the keys are on the counter; someone else says they're not. But there they are, on the counter where you left them.

Environmental policy debates are sometimes analogous to the conflict over the missing keys – evidence is overlooked and honest mistakes are made. But once the facts are known, the issue should be resolved. Either the keys are on the counter or they aren't. Yet in most environmental debates, it isn't that simple.

Many environmental activists seem to believe that it's okay to misrepresent facts in service of a good cause, as if saving the earth justifies denying the facts. The keys are not there, they say, hoping you won't see them in plain view. It is precisely this kind of intellectual dishonesty that has created such enmity between environmental activists and advocates of reform. An honest debate is difficult when you cannot even agree on the facts.

Glenn Hodges makes this point in a recent issue of The Washington Monthly. In his article, “When Good Guys Lie,” Hodges confesses, “Those of us on the middle to left side of the political spectrum are apt to trust environmentalists, social service advocates and other left-leaning crusaders to give us the straight dope. We assume that noble ends inspire noble means, but that is not necessarily the case.” Hodges is uncomfortable with the “crusaders who withhold the whole truth, mislead, and exaggerate,” although he supports their cause. And in his view, “No one seems more prone to this than environmentalists. . . .”

Consider the debate over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). CEI and other reform advocates have shown, time and again, how the ESA punishes landowners for having endangered species on their property. We have also shown, time and again, that the ESA has failed to achieve its stated purpose of “recovering” threatened and endangered species. Yet these basic facts are often ignored or, worse, adamantly denied – and those who speak the truth are accused of spreading lies. As Hodges says, “Debunkers of a good cause's bad information are often labeled bad guys.”

Some of the misinformation generated by the environmental establishment about the ESA seems relatively innocuous. For instance, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) claims that the Rydberg milk-vetch “recovered” due to the ESA. However, FWS biologists admit that the plant was never really threatened. After the species was listed, they looked around and found over 300,000 additional plants, and the Rydberg milk-vetch was taken off the list of threatened species. The “recovery” notation found in FWS propaganda, the biologists say, is an honest mistake, a clerical error by public relations personnel.

Nonetheless, after several years of privately acknowledging the mistake and promising to correct it, the FWS still lists the Rydberg milk-vetch among ESA's 11 official recovery “success stories.” At some point, this crosses the line from inadvertent error to deliberate deception.

Other claims cross that line immediately. Consider the assertion made by John Kostyack in his May 12, 1994, letter to The Wall Street Journal: “In fact, the act has never prevented property owners from developing their land.” Were Kostyack just some regular citizen who writes letters to the editor about laws on which he has an opinion but no expertise, his error could be forgiven. People make mistakes. But Kostyack is a trained attorney and one of the National Wildlife Federation's leading experts on the ESA. He should know better.

Indeed, at the very same time Kostyack was writing his letter to the Journal, the federal government was enjoining private landowners from “developing their land.” In one case, the federal government sued Anderson & Middleton Logging Co. to prevent the harvesting of 71 acres of timber on their own land. While such enforcement actions are rare under the ESA – most development is prevented through prohibitively expensive games of extortion – actually paying for the land government covets is even rarer. Inexplicably, the government paid $3.8 million for the 71-acre tract it initially wanted to control for “free,” thus preventing A&M from ever developing their land.

Not to be outdone, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently released a report in which the authors assert that the ESA's prohibition on “taking” listed species “does not, for example, protect the currently unoccupied habitat that could aid in a species recovery . . .” Really? Try telling that to A&M.

The FWS filed its injunction to protect a pair of northern spotted owls nesting, not on A&M's land, but on government land some 1.6 miles away. Moreover, even at the time the government filed suit, the owls in question had not been spotted in over 18 months, and they had never been seen on A&M's property.

Could Michael Bean, one of the authors of EDF's report, be innocently mistaken? Given that he wrote the first, definitive analysis of the ESA in 1977 (which he subsequently revised to fit the changing political environment), it is highly doubtful. Bean is surely aware that the ESA's regulations for the northern spotted owl protect “suitable habitat” – i.e., “unoccupied habitat” – and have cast a regulatory net as far as 2.7 miles from owl nesting sites. The bottom line is clear: Endangered species do not need to be present on your property for the government to prevent you from using it, and anyone who has seriously studied the ESA knows it.

Margaret Rector learned this the hard way, and all she wanted to do was sell her land. Golden-cheeked warblers had never been found on her 15 acre tract outside of Austin, Texas. Nonetheless, the FWS informed Rector that her land contained “suitable habitat” and that “clearing or development-related activities of this acreage would constitute a 'take' as defined by the [ESA].” The value of her property plummeted from $830,960 in 1990, when the warbler was listed as endangered, to $30,360 by 1992, after the FWS imposed restrictions on her land.

The day Rector came to Washington to testify before Congress, the Environmental Information Center (EIC) issued a press release to discredit her. Entitled “Misleading Anecdotes Characterize ESA Debate,” the EIC release offered help in “separating rhetoric from reality.”

Amazingly, the release claimed that the “FWS has never restricted cedar cutting” to protect the golden-cheeked warbler, even though it was only the presence of cedar (i.e., “suitable habitat”) that restricted the use of Rector's land. The same release claimed the FWS had designated 800,000 acres of “critical habitat” two years earlier, in “the spring of 1994.” This would surprise even the FWS, because it never happened.

“Separating rhetoric from reality” is not the EIC's forté. Last year, the EIC distributed a smear sheet on CEI rife with factual errors. All of this suggests that perhaps EIC should be called the Environmental Disinformation Center.

Yet none of this necessarily means that any of these people lied. To lie is to know that what one is saying is false, and not every false statement is a lie; dishonesty requires mens rea. Accusing someone of lying is a very serious charge, but it is an allegation that many environmentalists have grown accustomed to making.

In 1996, for instance, Defenders of Wildlife distributed a four-page rap sheet on the “Top 10 Lies About The Endangered Species Act,” and invited readers to “check the facts.” We did. Among the “lies” Defenders identified was “The ESA Stops Federal Projects.” That's no lie, as even Defenders admitted while attempting to refute it. The “reality,” claimed Defenders in its stinging rebuttal, is that “only 69 federal projects” have been “canceled because they jeopardized a species.” That's 69 too many for the statement to be inaccurate, let alone a lie.

Defenders' specific target was the claim that the ESA prevented the repair of a bridge across Arizona's Gila River. When a major storm rendered the bridge unusable, the Graham County Board of Supervisors sought to quickly repair the damage. The FWS, however, identified 14 species of concern and asserted that the repair project might “adversely affect” protected species.

After almost a year of bureaucratic delays and dictates, the FWS took the position that the issuance of the necessary permits should be conditioned on adequate “mitigation” for riparian destruction and consultation with FWS. The permit was issued four months later – but then another endangered species was sighted near the project area, nullifying the permit for another three months while “consultation” was reinitiated.

This clumsy dance went on from March 1994 to October 1995, generating five-inches of paperwork and legal memoranda. Yet, Defenders has the audacity to assert: “For the Gila River, delays in approving bridge repairs had nothing to do with the ESA” (emphasis in original). Defenders' claim is patently false.

Environmentalists love to use the ESA to control land use and slow development, but they hate to admit that's what it does. Even more infuriating is that when groups like CEI tell the truth about the law's human victims, environmentalists accuse us of lying.

William Howard of the National Wildlife Federation asserts that critics of the ESA “will go to almost any lengths [sic] of distortion, fabrication, and manipulation of the truth to gut America's most important conservation law.” The Endangered Species Coalition alleges that the horror stories of regulatory abuse are “myths,” part of a “selfish agenda” to “spread lies.” First, they encourage the government to run roughshod over the civil liberties of their fellow Americans; then they claim it's not happening; then they accuse the victims of lying about it.

This is not only a shame, it's a scandal – but no more than the mainstream media's lazy acceptance of environmentalist propaganda when the facts are readily obtainable.

There are real, and valid, differences over how this nation should address environmental concerns. Honest people can disagree. Whether saving endangered species requires or justifies trampling on civil liberties is a question of values. Whether current regulations restrict the rights of landowners to make reasonable use of their land, however, is a question of fact.

Facts are true, whether we believe them or not. To have environmental activists chide us on the issue of truth is akin to receiving a lecture on family values from Dick Morris. And they should be just as ashamed.