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Time to move beyond ESA to save species and economic interests

Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. Overnight, the protection of species became one of the U.S. government’s highest priorities. Indeed, the act is one of this country’s most powerful environmental laws.

But before celebrating, ask yourself how such a powerful tool can have such poor results? Evidence of its effectiveness is weak. Only 1 percent of species listed have been taken off the endangered or threatened list. And the price per species is high. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports, for example, that the threatened desert tortoise received nearly $190 million in tax-dollar support from 1996 to 2009, yet species population increased negligibly.

It is time to move beyond the Nixon approach to the environment. The past 40 years have shown how good political intentions — or, at least, political maneuvering — in the name of environmental protection can create perverse economic incentives to do the opposite.

Despite glossy images of saving charismatic fauna such as grizzlies and eagles, the biodiversity law quickly morphed into a plethora of projects paralyzed by small and slimy species such as snail darters and blind salamanders. The discovery of these federally listed species can result in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designating private property as ecologically valuable critical habitat — locking up private land. Over the past four decades, we have seen that rather than risk loss of economic value under the imposition of heavy-handed regulations, rational landowners, motivated by self-interest, will destroy both the rare critters and the critical habitats they need to live.

But this is not the season of lamentation. Environmental entrepreneurs are finding cause for celebration. Meet Hank Fischer and Kent Carter.

Hank Fischer was concerned about the gray wolf. It was on the endangered species list and extinct in the American West. Efforts to reintroduce it in the region had been unsuccessful, largely because the local population didn’t want hungry wolves killing their livestock. Rather than fight the ranchers in the region, Hank established a fund to compensate them for losses and give them incentives to support the growth of the wolf population. And it worked! Today, the gray wolf is not considered endangered. Hank’s story is just one of many stories of entrepreneurs working to create positive incentives to save species.

More recently, Kent Carter invited scientists to search his family’s ranch for signs of endangered plants and animals. When federally listed species were found, he recalled, “We had a celebration.” What?

According to Jamie Workman with Environmental Defense, Kent is figuring out how to get around the rigidity within the ESA. He is a master at using tools such as habitat conservation plans, conservation banking agreements, and safe harbor — all of which offer legal protections and incentives in the form of mitigation credits, similar to credits for conserving or creating wetlands. When Kent improves riparian lands, for example, he can sell endangered steelhead credits. He then uses the cash earned from trade in habitat credits and reinvests into further replenishing his ranch landscape or buys shares of ecologically and economically undervalued ranches elsewhere. Kent founded Carter Ecosystem Services to help other private landowners navigate their land use and conservation options.

Interestingly, the strategies Kent, Hank, and other enviropreneurs are using today were laid out 40 years prior to the Endangered Species Act. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold pleaded with policy makers to experiment with many systems instead of “one-track laws” and claimed that “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

If we want to do better than 1 percent, we should keep the basic lessons of Leopold in mind and keep thinking beyond the regulatory box for biodiversity.

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