Albion Monitor /News

Scientists Defend Endangered Species Act

by David Stauth

The Endangered Species Act is scientifically sound

CORVALLIS, Ore. The Endangered Species Act has been widely criticized and faces a fierce debate in Congress, but it is scientifically sound and can be improved, says a prestigious group of scientists.

The outcome of this debate about the act's reauthorization could shape domestic and international conservation policies for years to come, five researchers argued earlier this month in the professional journal Science.

Drawing on two recently released reports from the National Academy of Sciences and the Ecological Society of America, the article emphasizes a strong consensus about the scientific soundness of the Endangered Species Act.

"The original justifications for the law remain valid and many of the criticisms of it could be addressed at little cost to the federal government," said Jane Lubchenco, a co-author of the report, Distinguished Professor of Zoology at Oregon State University and president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Tax incentives, more careful targeting of the most endangered ecosystems and low-cost land exchanges are among the recommendations outlined in this report, by scientists from OSU, Cornell University, Harvard University, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Measures needed to protect species earlier before Act is needed

Since it was first passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has been used sparingly and most species are listed only when their populations are close to extinction, the researchers said.

But the concept of species protection is as valid as ever, they say.

"Each species, by virtue of its genetic uniqueness, is the source of information we can learn from no other source," the report said. "Species can provide us with novel molecules and new understanding of genetic capacities, which can be used to fashion new agricultural products, medicines, and other chemicals of direct benefit to humans."

Species help regulate climate, cleanse water, soil and air, pollinate crops, maintain soil and fertility, and perform other necessary functions.

In spite of these arguments in favor of the law, more than 1.5 percent of the species alive in the United States at the turn of the century are now certainly or probably extinct.

"Other conservation measures are needed to complement the Endangered Species Act, to protect species earlier, and to protect habitats and ecosystems," Lubchenco said. "The Endangered Species Act is only a safety net to be relied upon when other conservation measures fail."

Four percent of the nation contains about 38 percent of all listed species

In the report, the scientists confronted several criticisms of the act.

The law has been attacked for protecting not just individual species, but also subspecies and distinct populations. Critics say this is inefficient and ineffective, and protection could be shifted to an ecosystem scale.

The researchers in this report say that individual species provide an "early warning system" of stress on an ecosystem; that they can sometimes be the only source of new medicines, products or genetic information; that individual species are an objective entity in a complex world; and that individual species can play a role in protection of the larger ecosystem.

They argue that both species and ecosystems should be protected because neither is an adequate substitute for the other.

The law has also been attacked because it can lead to restrictions on private lands.

Those consequences might be alleviated in part by a new system of land exchanges between the federal government, other public landholders and private landowners, the researchers said. This would broaden the federal "portfolio" of biologically diverse land while reducing the impact on private landowners.

The scientists also say that improvements could be made in how and where the resources of the act are concentrated. Four percent of the nation's land area contains about 38 percent of all listed species, and targeting such lands for more protection would achieve an efficiency of protection.

Finally, the report recommends that the federal government offer a carrot, as well as a stick, in protection of species.

The act "relies on fines and jail sentences to punish or deter harmful conduct, but it provides no incentives to encourage or reward beneficial conduct," the scientists said.

Federal estate taxes sometimes force property heirs to sell or develop properties, the study noted, with no opportunity to gain some type of tax deferment by entering into a long term management agreement. And the expenses of taking land management actions that might improve habitat -- such as prescribed fire (controlled burns) -- are not currently tax deductible.

Such tax incentives are common in many other regulatory areas to protect soils, forests or water, but they have gained little attention in protection of species. Opportunities exist to address this, the scientists said.

"Our conclusion, however, is that the Endangered Species Act is scientifically sound," Lubchenco said. "The solution is not to reduce its protections but to improve its performance."

Albion Monitor September 18, 1995 (

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