Environmental law seems more divisive than ever

05/21/2014 9:10 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

The Endangered Species Act was established in 1973, during the presidency of a Republican, Richard Nixon, and at a time of increasing awareness of ecological degradation. Following previous efforts at conservation policy, it clarified the concern that human behavior and industrial activity could have harmful effects on wildlife and wild lands.

The results have not been uncontroversial, and amendments in subsequent years have clouded some of that clarity. A fight over the Northern spotted owl upturned the logging industry of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. And now, in an era of exceedingly polarized politics, the law’s mandates are probably more divisive than ever.

Opponents of environmental regulations like to use the term “overreach” as if their free-market liberties were under siege by a rampant federal invasion of suits and black helicopters. They rarely seem willing to accept the notions of stewardship and wildlife conservation and that perhaps, in the long run, unregulated exploitation of natural resources — land, water, air, wildlife, etc. — has consequences perhaps even more serious than whatever short-term economic adaptations environmental laws might require.

Consider these current collisions of policy, emotion, law and conflicting values:

Kansas Republicans as well as farm, ranch and fossil-fuel interests, led by Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, are resisting an effort to protect the dwindling population of the lesser prairie chicken. Huelskamp — speaking of overreach — has threatened to dock the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s budget if it doesn’t retract the bird’s listing as “threatened.” Environmental groups are fighting to reverse that decision, too, hoping to force the wildlife service to list the species as “endangered.”

Biodiversity, extinction avoidance and habitat protection are hallmarks of wildlife conservation and the Endangered Species Act. Holding the federal government to its commitments under the act should be a virtue, but too often it’s the starting point of a fight.

The Kansas experience with the lesser prairie chicken (shared by a handful of neighboring states) is a mere sliver of a case compared with the one involving the sage grouse.

Eleven Western states have come together to try to forestall a possible endangered listing of the species, contending such a status would halt development opportunities on millions of acres in the vast region. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering the fate of the sage grouse and various sub-species for more than 15 years; when it failed to label the fowl endangered in 2005, environmentalists sued, and a federal judge overturned the federal decision in 2010. The Fish and Wildlife Service has until the end of next year to work out a deal, according to a recent story in The Washington Post.

The costs of protecting the birds would be huge, though private interests often fail to consider that much of the land involved is owned not by them but by us — federal taxpayers. The consequences for land-use are complicated, and the opportunities for compromise remain to be seen.

Rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed and grandstanding circus in Nevada — and his refusal to pay grazing fees and fines for the use of federal lands — dates to 1993, when the Fish and Wildlife Service put the desert tortoise on the endangered list, thus restricting cattle grazing in certain areas.

The fate of migratory birds and some endangered bats is under question in Missouri in light of a power company’s plan to build a wind-energy operation in close proximity to the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

I haven’t even mentioned the Environmental Protection Agency, which is an automatic hot-buttoned, centrifugal force. What the nation needs is a serious conversation about conservation, one driven more by reason and science and less by politics and knee-jerk ideology.

Steve Paul, editorial columnist: 816-234-4762, paul@kcstar.com; on Twitter: @sbpaul.

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