By Rocky Barker
Each time Dick Jordan switches on a light or washes a load of clothes, his life is touched by the costs of the Endangered Species Act.
It might be just pennies a day, but the price of saving endangered salmon and Snake River snails is reflected in the Timberline High School teacher’s electric bill. Increased costs for growing Idaho’s famous potatoes and raising beef are two other impacts of the landmark environmental law passed 30 years ago.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and some of Idaho’s leading experts on the law say the nation needs new tools to protect biological diversity. They are meeting with scientists this week in Santa Barbara, Calif., to map out a future for the most powerful environmental law ever written.
Jordan, an environmental teacher at Timberline, is glad to pay the costs because he shares in the benefits.
“The law enriches my life,” Jordan said. “I would hate to live in a world that contained nothing more than domesticated species.”
But for many Idahoans, the law has become an unwelcome burden. When Richard Nixon signed the law in 1973, he made protecting endangered species one of the nation’s top priorities. And the law gave the federal government the power to carry it out.
For Clay Jones, a Challis cattle rancher, the law has brought litigation, disruption and despair. In 2001, the Western Watersheds Project, an anti-grazing group, sued his father, Verl Jones, for violating the act by diverting water from Morgan Creek and killing young endangered salmon. A judge ordered Jones to quit diverting water, reducing how much hay the family can grow for their 150 head of cattle.
The stress of the lawsuit added to Verl Jones´ existing health problems, his son said, and Verl died earlier this month. Clay is working to install screens that will keep the young salmon in the creek while saving the family ranch.
“The Endangered Species Act was a good thing when it started, but now it’s become a tool of destruction that attempts to put people out of business and drive them off the land,” Jones said.
Kempthorne, who has spent much of his career seeking to reform the law, wants to clear away barriers and allow states and private landowners to protect biological diversity themselves.
“We need a culture of conservation that allows the states to set our own goals and then, in public-private partnerships, encourages us to achieve real results,” Kempthorne said Wednesday in the keynote address at a California conference intended to take stock of the successes and future challenges of the Endangered Species Act, enacted 30 years ago.
That’s a message that resonates with J. Michael Scott, leader of the University of Idaho’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
Scott, a pioneer in conservation biology, has seen the success and failures of the law during his long career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As the scientist in charge of the California condor program in 1987, he made the decision to take the last giant birds out of the wild and place them in a captive breeding program.
“As I rode out of the wild for three-quarters of a day with a condor draped across my saddle, dead from lead poisoning, I began thinking about the big picture,” Scott said.
On the condor project in California, he had more staff than living birds. Many other species were ignored, he said.
Scott went from California to Hawaii, where he mapped out the habitat of the islands’ endangered forest birds. It became clear to him then that the islands´ wildlife refuges weren’t located where the birds’ key habitat was.
From this research, Scott developed a now-widely used procedure called “gap analysis.” By mapping habitat, biologists can identify areas of “species richness.” By preserving those areas, Scott says, society can get the most bang for its preservation buck.
But many of those areas and much of the key habitat for the nation’s endangered species are on private land.
“We need to come up with incentives so private landowners don’t get penalized for doing good deeds,” Scott said.
That’s a position not that far from Dirk Kempthorne’s.
Kempthorne advocates changing the entire approach to protecting endangered species on private land, to reward and not penalize the owners of valuable habitat.
“If you find a precious metal on your land, your property value goes up,” Kempthorne said. “But isn’t it sad that when you find a precious endangered species, your property value plummets?”
Given political realities, Kempthorne acknowledged, changes to the popular Endangered Species Act are unlikely in the short term.
But even without changes, he argued, “I believe a functional Endangered Species Act that focuses on recovery is possible.”
The federal government could make the law work better by using the law’s existing flexibility to delegate authority to states, Kempthorne said. Kempthorne points to examples of Idaho efforts to protect salmon on the Lemhi and Salmon rivers by reducing runoff and leasing water for improved stream flow.
Jones, the rancher, wants to see the government reduce the amount of litigation and help landowners be better stewards of their land.
“We can’t supply the money to fight a lawsuit and do what needs to be done, too,” Jones said.
Dale Goble, a University of Idaho law professor who specializes in environmental law, agrees that innovations and incentives are needed. But mandates and penalties are critical, too.
Of all imperiled species in Idaho, just a third are protected by the federal law. That means there’s a good chance the health of the other two-thirds will continue to decline, and they may soon join the federal threatened and endangered species lists.
Right now, Idaho has the authority to protect those unlisted species. If the state doesn’t, then the federal government could step in to require more-stringent protections.
“You’ve got this hammer sitting out there,” he said. “You’ve got to bundle the two approaches together. That offers the best way out of the problem.”
Education also is key, Goble said. People need to know that protecting biological diversity and the habitat of endangered species also is protecting humanity’s home.
That’s where Jordan, the Timberline teacher, steps in.
“I teach my kids that we are in the middle of the sixth major extinction period and we are the cause of a lot of it,” he said. “It all has to do with our lifestyles.”
Jones doesn’t disagree.
“No one up here wants to kill fish or endanger anything,” he said. “But you can’t make things work overnight.”