1/21 Editorial

Another year, another stab at re-writing the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, the House of Representatives actually managed to pass a bill containing some promising provisions, including one requiring that compensation be paid to people whose property values are diminished by a federal listing. Now the action moves to the U.S. Senate — the graveyard of good ideas — so our expectations are low.

One can be certain of this much, though: Any changes to the Holy Grail of environmental laws will generate a torrent of apocalyptic rhetoric from groups that have exploited the act to dictate public lands policies, irrespective of the costs imposed on property owners or the economic consequences that result. And this firestorm will have more of an impact on risk-averse senators than it did in the House.

Several Western Republicans and at least one sensible Democrat in sponsoring The Collaboration for the Recovery of Endangered Species Act, which would give states more of a say in listing decisions, offer tax credits and other incentives to land owners who protect federally listed species and force federal agencies to establish protection priorities, in recognition that the ESA’s open-ended commitment to protect and recover every species is impractical, if not impossible.

The focus will shift toward species recovery, rather than listing. And as the bill’s title suggests, a new emphasis will be placed on collaborative arrangements involving states, property owners and nonprofit conservation groups, instead of the punitive, rigid, Uncle-Sam-knows-best approach that made the ESA so unpopular.

For instance, the bill would encourage the creation of “conservation banks,” which would permit property owners to earn tradable credits for actions that assist species recovery —turning property owners into allies rather than adversaries.

“Engaging more Americans in species recovery efforts by offering incentives to private landowners is a smarter way to accomplish our goals,” Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard said. “CRESA is more flexible, and encourages collaborative efforts among property owners, conservation advocacy groups and all levels of government.”

CRESA takes a much more cautious approach to ESA reform than the House bill. And while we know that’s designed to dampen controversy and garner support from the Senate’s mushy middle-of-the-roaders, we would like Congress to go further.

The designation of “critical habitats,” perhaps the most conflict-producing provision of the ESA, was done away with by the House, but seems too hot for senators to touch. And the property owner compensation requirement approved by the House is also missing, suggesting senators are comfortable continuing a 33-year ESA tradition of imposing regulatory burdens on average Americans, and placing encumbrances on their property, without paying for them. These burdens in our view violate the Fifth Amendment’s “takings” clause. And it’s time to end the regulators’ free ride.

Paying for ESA’s impacts would be expensive, no question. But if elected officials and the American people place such a premium on protecting endangered species, they shouldn’t have a problem paying for it. And what if taxpayers balk at the bill? Perhaps government will become more selective about how it regulates — and what’s wrong with that?

Critics of the compensation plan, including the editorial pages of The Washington Post and New York Times, worry that this will open the door to fraud. They even condemned it as a new “entitlement.” But we’ve rarely before heard these government-worshipping liberals fretting about the massive waste and fraud plaguing every other government giveaway program. And from what we know, this would be the first federal “entitlement” program actually sanctioned by The Constitution.