The Endangered Species Act is a wonderfully idealistic law that was
apparently written by people who had absolutely no idea about how society
works. The law's goals are so noble and uplifting that few could disagree with
them. Yet the law's means for achieving those goals are doomed to the same
failure as prohibition, the "war on drugs," or any other command-type law.
When the act's authors decided to design the law around a command structure
instead of incentives, they built three major flaws into the Endangered Species
It feels good to have a law that appears to make the recovery of all species
the absolute top priority of the U.S. government. But, if the law is to do anything other than make us feel good, these three flaws
must be fixed.
Disappearing species will recover only when subsidies to harmful activities are
halted and public land managers and private landowners are given incentives,
rather than arbitrary and unpredictable mandates, to protect and improve
- First, the law fails to correct any of the misincentives in traditional U.S.
wildlife law that discourage landowners from protecting wildlife habitat.
- Second, the law for the most part fails to stop federal subsidies that harm
wildlife and completely fails to give public land managers adequate incentives
to protect species habitat;
- Finally, although biodiversity is supposed to benefit all, the law imposes
most of the costs of saving many species on a few private landowners. We might
be able to overlook the unfairness of this law if it worked to save
species--but instead it promotes antagonism towards wildlife and the general
idea of an Endangered Species Act.
Perhaps because the debate is so polarized, none of the legislative
alternatives that we could find attempted to fix any more than one of these
problems. Nearly all of the debate, and most of the proposals, center on the
third flaw: The unfairness of, and resulting backlash from, imposing large
costs on a few private landowners.
The Clinton Administration offers half-hearted remedies to this problem. But
these remedies amount to little more than "We promise that, after we take some
of your land without compensation, we won't take any more later."
Property rights advocates support repeal of the regulatory aspects of the law,
thus removing a disincentive to habitat protection. But most of them fail to
convincingly address the misincentives that existed prior to passage of the
Senator Slade Gorton offers a significant increase in authorized funding for
species recovery. But he can't guarantee that appropriations committees will
actually make that funding available or that they won't direct it to pork
barrel species recovery efforts in their districts while other species go
None of the proposals fix the subsidies that threaten most of the species
listed as threatened or endangered. Until now.
Different Drummer's "subsidies killer" will protect listed species from
harmful subsidies even as it provides more funding for species recovery than
ever before. Moreover, it does so in a way that allows Congress to reduce
deficits without taking the blame for ending programs that enrich a few special
interest groups at the expense of taxpayers in general.
Different Drummer's proposals offer three mechanisms for creating
incentives to protect habitat on public and private land.
Different Drummer's proposal to eliminate the regulation of private
lands will be most controversial among environmentalists. But such deregulation
is essential if private landowners are to become willing partners in the
recovery of rare and endangered species. We can save species without
sacrificing people's rights or forcing a few people to pay most habitat
protection costs. In fact, deregulation may the only way to save many
- First, the biodiversity fund can give landowners and managers direct
monetary incentives for habitat protection.
- Second, reforms of public land agencies, including recreation user fees,
will allow the agencies to take advantage of incentives offered by the trust
fund and will make it possible to use recreation as a proxy for many species.
- Third, experiments with private wildlife ownership could fix traditional
misincentives and provide the key to recovering many species.
Endangered species advocates must work at two levels to protect wildlife and
habitat. At the national level, they should support a law that will end harmful
subsidies and save species using incentives rather than commands. To pass such
a law, they should give up polarizing rhetoric and sit down with property
rights advocates, fiscal conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and other
interest groups to develop a proposal that everyone can support.
At the local level, biodiversity advocates should develop a new set of
institutional structures that can protect biodiversity in their own regions
without force and without imposing the costs on a few unwilling people:
To create these new structures, activists will have to work with local
communities to turn the people in those communities into partners in
conservation, not enemies. No one wants to harm wildlife or promote the
extinction of a listed species. But people face many different incentives. By
accepting one another as friends and potential partners, rather than opponents
and enemies, we can change the incentives and work together to recover species
and protect habitat.
- Incorporate and find funding for a regional or species-specific trust using
the Whooping Crane Trust as a model.
- Encourage local zoning authorities to protect core conservation areas using
tradable development rights, as in the New Jersey Pine Lands, so that the costs
of conservation are shared by everyone, not just the people who happen to own
land in the core area.
- Encourage state wildlife agencies to support private landowners who want to
charge for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-oriented recreation.
ESA Table of Contents | Different Drummer | Electronic Drummer