De-prioritizing people

Posted: Mar 28, 2006 12:06 AM

When Animal Liberation Front activists destroy private property in ill-advised attempts to save animals, local authorities drag them to jail and the media dismisses the eco-terrorists as being part of a “fringe” group. But when federal regulators destroy the value of private property while trying to save endangered species, national authorities turn their backs. Why the double-standard?

Part of the problem is that the people who decide national policy are headquartered in Washington, D.C., where large plots of private property are rare.  Those of us who live in urban or suburban areas imagine endangered species protection to be as simple as being kind to blue whales, grizzly bears and bald eagles. We don’t stop to consider the dilemmas facing people thousands of miles away from us. 

Bill Snape, Chairman of the Endangered Species Coalition, is an example of one who lives in either ignorance or denial.  “There just aren’t private landowners that I can identify where the value of their property has radically declined as a result of the Endangered Species Act,” he says.  “These landowners don’t exist.”

Try telling that to those who have had their lives and livelihoods ruined by Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations.  How about the California homeowners whose houses burned to the ground in the early 1990s after federal regulators told them they couldn’t plow fire-resistant areas around their property for fear of disturbing the Stevens kangaroo rat?  Or the families of four firefighters who died battling a forest fire in Washington state because rescuers had to wait 9 ½ hours to find out if they could draw water from a river that contained federally protected fish? Or a retired couple whose only retirement nest egg – their property – lost most of its value when federal authorities decided that the land was occupied by endangered species and thus unusable?

Snape’s testimony is part of a short video just posted on the website of the Victims of the Endangered Species Act.  Snape’s words are juxtaposed with testimonies of ranchers, farmers, and other private property owners who have suffered both personally and professionally as a result of the ESA.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution allows the federal government to take land for the public good as long as “just compensation” is provided.  But in the case of the ESA, the government can forbid you from using your property – harming both the property’s value and usefulness – without doing a single thing to reimburse you.  In fact, you still have to pay taxes on your property, whether or not you’re allowed to touch it.

This hardly seems fair.  If your property value suddenly declines as a direct result of a federal regulation, the least the federal government should do is reimburse you for your loss.  After all, that’s what the government does when it takes your land outright.  But as Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes, “the American people would prefer to see the cost of public good fall on the backs of a few landowners rather than on their own backs.”

Instead, private landowners – many of whom enjoyed and protected the wildlife on their land in the years preceding the implementation of the ESA – find themselves suddenly at odds with the animals.  In a process referred to as “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up,” many landowners who find endangered species on their land get rid of them before federal officials can show up and declare the land unusable.  This is a tragedy, of course, but easy to understand when we realize that one endangered woodpecker – or even a tree where that endangered woodpecker might like to hang out – can cause acres of land to be deemed off-limits and thus essentially worthless to the owner.

R.J. Smith, senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, says these perverse incentives make the ESA, in its current form, “bad for humans and bad for species.”  Thus, as Congress considers reauthorizing the ESA this spring, the National Center, CEI, Capital Research Center, and a number of other Constitution-loving policy groups are calling for ESA reform to include protections for private property owners.

The environmentalists on the other side of this issue won’t budge.  Despite the fact that most right-leaning groups are choosing at this time to focus on strengthening property rights and not repealing the ESA (one exception being Stewards of the Range), most Green groups won’t listen to common sense.  They seem to agree with the Animal Liberation Front that animals take priority over people.

A few more examples of ESA-induced craziness:

  • “Camp Pendleton in Southern California is one of the best places to train our men and women in uniform,” says Peyton Knight of the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Yet it is also home to the San Diego fairy shrimp, a tiny crustacean that lives in stagnant puddles of water.  Camp Pendleton’s commanding general told Congress in 2003 that endangered species such as the fairy shrimp were the biggest obstacle to military training and readiness on his base.”
  • After logging restrictions were placed on federally owned forests in 1989 to protect the northern spotted owl, 288 sawmills in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and California were closed, 31,438 jobs directly related to logging were lost, and 63,000 indirect jobs went away.  Years later, folks realized that the owls really weren’t fragile enough to warrant the restrictions after all.
  • In 2001, the feds cut off irrigation water to 1400 farms in the Klamath Basin of Oregon in order to protect the coho salmon.  As a result, farmers had no water during a severe drought, and many had to sell their land.  Later, people realized that the coho salmon weren’t endangered after all.

It’s time for our federal officials to take responsibility for their actions.  No longer should private property owners suffer, regardless of whether ESA restrictions are necessary.  By compensating private landowners for property affected by land-use restrictions, the federal government will have to decide how much such regulations are really worth.  If the feds don’t want to pay the bill, they can simply waive the restrictions and let landowners live in peace.

You can help endangered property owners by contacting Congress and telling our leaders to make sure property rights are included in any attempt to reform the Endangered Species Act.  Tell them to reverse the trend and to put people first.