Putting a price tag on existence

Posted: Dec 9, 2019

There’s an important change brewing in the protection of endangered species. A proposed rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agencies that determine which plants and animals require federal protection, involves when economic analyses for critical habitat designations will be conducted and published.

Critical habitat (CH) is defined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a specific geographic area that is essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species. Basically, all species need space to feed, to rest and to reproduce. CH may include areas that are not currently occupied by a species, and it can include both public and private land. Scientists rely on several criteria to identify CH and their determinations are peer-reviewed and open for public comment before they are finalized by the Secretary of the Interior.

The proposed change—which would require that the economic impact of establishing CH be considered alongside the designation itself—is being driven by a presidential memorandum issued several months ago in regard to the Northern Spotted Owl, a species that was initially listed as threatened in 1990. It took until 2008 to designate CH for the species, though that plan has been in revision since then. The proposed rule is being touted as a way to reduce regulatory burden, and as a way to exercise “flexibility and pragmatism” in administering the ESA. The agencies insist that both transparency and public comment will be improved by presenting the economic impacts, which normally come later, upfront. I largely disagree.

The ESA is a remarkable, strongly-worded statute. The original Act, passed in 1973, declares that “…various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” It demands that biological factors are paramount and that listings be made “on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

That onus was challenged in several high-profile cases in which plaintiffs argued that this interpretation of the Act unfairly hampered economic development. In 1978, when the Tennessee Valley Authority’s $100 million Tellico Dam project was derailed by a tiny endangered fish, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court famously sided with the fish saying, “The plain intent of Congress in enacting this statute was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”

After an outcry implying that the entire country would ultimately be designated critical habitat, the Senate considered several amendments to the ESA that would have taken a huge swipe at the statute by requiring an economic balancing test. While that was ultimately rejected, Congress placated ESA opponents with two provisions—one which requires the USFWS to “consider” economic factors when designating CH. It also created the Endangered Species Committee—dubbed the “God Squad”—which could exempt projects whose benefits “clearly outweigh” a species’ protection. In the handful of times the God Squad has convened in the intervening decades, they have yet to prioritize industry carte blanche over species. In 1982, in order to solidify the importance of science over private interests in ESA listings, Congress specifically added the word “solely” to the beginning of the Act’s phrase “on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Since setting aside CH has always been one of the most controversial aspects of the statute, the agencies have largely turned a blind eye to it. Even though studies show that species with protected CH are twice as likely to avoid extinction than those without it, thousands of species have no CH designations. This key aspect of the ESA has only really been in play for the past decade or so (since conservation organizations started suing the feds for downplaying it) and, during that time, it has led a checkered life.

A study released last July looks at 169 peer-reviewed critical habitat designations made from 2002 to 2007, during the George W. Bush years, and the findings were dismal. Of those 169 peer reviews, 85 recommended increasing the CH area for 36 species. But in 34 of those designations the USFWS ultimately reduced the CH area by nearly half. The CH also tended to focus on where species nested or found food and gave short shrift to historic range and the space needed for mate selection.

In the years since then, the Obama administration appeared to take a stand against political interference with an albeit vague “scientific integrity” policy which was intended to remind all federal agencies that science is king (whether or not it’s been effective is debatable). Earlier this year came a proposed rule by the USFWS to clarify the meaning of a species being threatened or endangered in a “significant portion of its range” which could sanction the dismissal of a species’ historic range in ESA and CH determinations.

Last year two controversial CH cases, one involving ranchers and the Mexican spotted owl and the other builders and 15 species in Northern California, made it to doorstep of the Supreme Court, which ultimately chose not to hear arguments on them. In both cases, the plaintiffs argued that the feds didn’t sufficiently take into account the economic impacts of CH designations.

While the courts remain consistent in their interpretations of the ESA, the statute is being weakened in other ways as CH designations are being challenged routinely. In this climate, the latest move by the USFWS must be scrutinized. The presidential memorandum specifically requires that “job impacts” be considered when considering CH and that the agencies should “adopt the least burdensome means, including avoidance of unnecessary burdens on States, tribes, localities, and the private sector, of promoting compliance with the ESA.”

In a bad economy, measures to preserve humanity trump the conservation of species lower down the food chain. You don’t have to look much further than the priorities expressed by the camps competing for president: employment, energy, health care, education and public safety are front and center, while talk of the environment is virtually non-existent.

This is a touchy time to put economic impacts on par with scientific imperatives, and the proposed rule sets the stage to subject CH designations to a cost-benefit analysis. This plus or minus approach is helpful in many areas, but not in regard to biodiversity. While the costs of reserving an area of land as CH are often easily quantifiable, benefits require an unsatisfying, abstract non-market valuation.

How much is that grizzly in the backcountry worth? One famous “willingness-to-pay” survey (done in 1996 during a relative period of prosperity when gas cost $1.23/gallon) sought to determine how much bald eagles were worth; it concluded that the average American household was willing to pay $257 to prevent their extinction. While this is interesting, we can’t truly compare what may be sacrificed with what may be sustained. If all Americans had to pay out of pocket to preserve bald eagles and chose not to, what would have been the social cost of losing our national icon? Faced with that possibility, some would say bald eagles are priceless.

At the time, decades ago, that the “economic impact” piece was added to the ESA it was recognized as an apples-to-oranges comparison. It wasn’t meant to be an exact calculation but a passing glance to ensure that costs and benefits were not wildly out of proportion. Conservation requires trade-offs, but maintaining biodiversity simply cannot be measured along the same metrics as money.

Without any further context, the proposed rule threatens to exacerbate an existing problem and weaken the ESA. Considering economic effects in tandem with the CH designation can only work if there is dialogue between the competing priorities while the CH is being established. Keeping politics out of this process and presenting a fair picture of species in imperil will require major effort, but we the people will be the better for it. The public can comment on the proposed rule through October 23.

~Heather Hansen

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