No Basis in Reality

"If there is one event that causes the diverse environmental community to hyperventilate in unison, it is an assault on the ESA (Endangered Species Act)," said Donald Barry of the World Wildlife Fund. This, more than anything else, may explain why environmental activists vehemently attack CEI's efforts to protect private property rights from regulatory takings or to promote a non-regulatory approach to species conservation.

The most recent barrage came from Robert Bonnie, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In an October 15 Washington Times op-ed, "Giving Animals Safe Harbor," Bonnie assailed CEI for promoting private conservation and suggesting that voluntary efforts could do more for species than the ESA. CEI's work, he charged, "has no basis in reality." Given that the ESA has yet to recover a single listed species, one can imagine the level of contempt Bonnie has for voluntary conservation efforts. Yet as one might expect, Bonnie's op-ed was filled with inaccurate and misleading claims about CEI's work and America's proud legacy of private conservation.

For starters, Bonnie claimed that the bluebird is the "only" species for which "recovery was primarily a result of voluntary efforts." This is simply false. Private conservation efforts have helped many species tremendously, including some of those Bonnie mentions.

For instance, Bonnie wrote that "the return of the wild plains bison occurred not on private lands, but on public lands." Really? It was the lack of protection on government lands, and the government-supported slaughter of bison, that brought the species to the brink of extinction in the first place. By 1905, the federal government had only 25 plains bison in Yellowstone National Park, all of which were sold or donated by private conservationists. The only other plains bison the government watched over were in Washington, D.C., where there were fewer than ten. While federal lands were anything but safe harbors for bison, historical documents show that there were hundreds of bison in private hands by 1905. Moreover, in the federal bison preserves Bonnie cites, those herds were also started from bison donated by or purchased from private owners. Were it not for private conservationists, there would have been no bison to "return" to federal lands.

Federal funding was "critical" for peregrine falcon recovery efforts, according to Bonnie. However, Tom Cade, founder of the Peregrine Fund, told my colleagues that peregrine reintroduction efforts would have occurred with or without federal funding. Moreover, the Fish and Wildlife Service's enforcement activities in the 1980s hindered efforts to restore peregrines through captive breeding.

Of course the banning of DDT in 1972 (not 1970 as Bonnie claims) by the Environmental Protection Agency (not Congress) played an indispensable role in the peregrine's recovery. It was also the DDT ban, and not the ESA as Bonnie implies, that was primarily responsible for the rebound of the bald eagle. EDF takes credit for the DDT ban time and again in its promotional literature. Yet Bonnie apparently forgot what EDF's fundraisers know by rote.

There are countless stories of private conservation in action, as documented in reports by CEI and others. America's conservation tradition, and its reliance on non-coercive means to achieve environmental goals, is something of which environmental activists should be proud. The same claim cannot be made for the ESA, which has failed to recover a single species, notwithstanding government claims to the contrary.

Part of the problem, which Bonnie and his colleagues at EDF have acknowledged, is that the ESA punishes private landowners for owning habitat. As currently written, the ESA is an enemy of private conservation. Well over 100,000 nesting boxes have been erected for wood ducks since the turn of the century. Over 150,000 wood ducks hatched out of such boxes in 1990. Yet were the wood duck ever "protected" by the ESA, duck boxes would become a liability for private landowners. Is it any wonder such efforts are rarely undertaken for listed species?

Bonnie and the Interior Department would like us to believe that the "safe harbors" policy solves this problem. It doesn't. It merely forestalls federal land-use controls on those landowners willing to negotiate deals with the federal government. No wonder nearly half of those participating in "safe harbors" protecting the red-cockaded woodpecker are golf courses, which are unlikely ever to need to cut a tree or otherwise modify habitat in a manner that could harm such birds. Small landowners who wish to do more on their land than sink birdies stand to gain very little. They still have tremendous incentives "to destroy prime habitat and even species," in Bonnie's words, due to the punitive nature of the ESA. "Safe harbors" or not, landowners will continue to "shoot, shovel and shut up," as they say out west, so long as the ESA threatens to restrict the use of their land.

In 1995 CEI founded the Center for Private Conservation to research and promote non-regulatory approaches to wildlife conservation. If EDF's activists care as much about saving endangered species as they do about saving the Endangered Species Act, they will help this effort, not denigrate it.

–Jonathan H. Adler Contact Jonathan Adler at [email protected]