A Property Rights 'Trophy'

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

January 9, 2005

The 31-year-old Endangered Species Act has long been a target of loggers, oil drillers and mall builders. With powerful antagonists in Congress and the White House, the act could become a stuffed mantel trophy for the property-rights crowd.

The act's mission is to give imperiled birds, animals and plants a chance to survive by protecting their habitat from destruction. When a species is listed as threatened or endangered, scientists write a recovery plan, usually identifying a range of actions that would help, such as captive breeding programs or agreements with landowners to preserve habitat. The law can claim credit for some spectacular successes, saving hundreds of species, including the bald eagle and the whooping crane.

More than 1,200 U.S. species, however, remain at risk. California is home to more of them than any other state except Hawaii. These numbers and the often long recovery process have led critics to vilify federal scientists as dictatorial bureaucrats and the act as an invasion of property rights. Those false characterizations now resonate in Washington, where President Bush has starved agencies that enforce the law, put fewer new species under protection and exempted hundreds of thousands of acres of military bases from compliance.

Last week's federal court ruling was a welcome check. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered federal land managers to temporarily ban off-roaders from large parts of the California desert because their vehicles can crush the protected desert tortoise. But the temporary ban could expire in six weeks, and if anything, momentum is swinging toward more environmental destruction.

Twelve Western governors, meeting in La Jolla recently, called for more loosening of the strings. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, for instance, whined that kangaroo rat protections jeopardized his investment in a "beautiful piece of land," otherwise perfect for a golf course or housing subdivision. Insisting that the act is a bureaucratic failure, they want Congress to make it harder to bring additional species under its umbrella and easier to bulldoze, graze or drill wildlife habitat.

At their side was Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), a former cattleman and now chairman of the House Resources Committee. Pombo sees Bush's reelection as a mandate on the Endangered Species Act and has introduced bills to do the governors' bidding. But the administration isn't waiting for Congress and has already proposed a dramatic rollback of designated habitat for imperiled salmon and trout species, and the Santa Ana suckerfish in Southern California.

Protecting endangered wildlife is not an expensive luxury. Biodiversity maintains the ecosystems and parklands that belong to all of us and provide a natural laboratory for lifesaving drugs such as the cancer-fighting Taxol, a forest discovery. When the law that protects prairie dogs, owls and even insects falls prey to property-rights rhetoric, it's not just the creatures who lose.