Cornyn Offers ESA Reform Bill

Published March 23, 2015

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has introduced a bill to reform the listing procedure for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and change the way settlements are reached when environmentalists sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to force a listing.

Cornyn says his bill, the Endangered Species Act Settlement Reform Act, will limit the impact on individuals’ lives from legal settlements between special-interest groups and FWS.

While introducing the bill, Cornyn said in a statement, “There must be a balance to ensure Washington[,DC] bureaucrats don’t run roughshod over Texas landowners and job creators. This bill gives states and counties facing regulation a seat at the table with the FWS and special interest groups in ESA settlement negotiations.”

The ESA Settlement Reform Act will give local governments and stakeholders a chance to have a say in ESA settlements affecting them, by requiring public notification when a lawsuit has been filed and allowing affected landowners and governments to intervene in the case.

The bill would limit taxpayer liability by disallowing courts from awarding litigation costs when an out-of-court settlement or consent decree is reached. For settlements not involving a consent decree, the court would have to ensure the settlement does not include payments to plaintiffs for their litigation costs.

Ending ESA Sue-and-Settle

Cornyn wrote the ESA reform in response to settlements FWS made with two environmental groups in 2011 resulting in an accelerated “work plan” for the agency to determine whether hundreds of species merited endangered species listings by a specified deadline. This settlement required FWS to make these determinations outside of normal, transparent ESA procedures. The settlement also required the federal government to pay the plaintiffs’ litigation fees.

Duggan Flanakin, director of policy research for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says sue-and-settle violates the public interest.

“The sweetheart sue-and-settle schemes by which environmentalists and bureaucrats collaborate to destroy the value of private and public property in the name of protecting species, often without any public comment, should be disallowed,” Flanakin said.

“The general problem is the goal of many of these suits is not to protect an endangered or threatened species—indeed, there are far better ways to do this than turning landowners into destroyers of such species [in order to avoid government intrusion]—but to stop oil, gas, and minerals development and even livestock grazing or agricultural activities,” Flanakin said.

Report: ESA Outdated, Ineffective

A new report by Kathleen Hartnett White, director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, examines the ramifications of FWS listing more than 100 species in Texas as endangered. White concludes ESA harms the economy without saving species. White’s report argues for a decentralized, flexible approach that can protect genuinely threatened wildlife and property rights alike.

Brian Seasholes, a research fellow with the Reason Foundation, agrees with White, saying ESA is primarily punitive, making it completely counterproductive. Seasholes says Cornyn is seeking a commonsense, good-government approach to an issue in which both are usually lacking.

“Transparency and open government are hallmarks of a healthy, properly functioning government, and Sen. Cornyn seeks to apply these core principles, which people across the political spectrum agree on, to the Endangered Species Act,” Seasholes said. “Opposition to Senator Cornyn’s efforts are a sign of how out-of-step some are with core American values.”

Seasholes praised Cornyn’s proposal, saying, “Sen. Cornyn’s act is a welcome evolution of the ESA because instead of rewarding landowners, ranchers, farmers, homeowners, etc., the law punishes them every time they find an endangered species on their property. All Sen. Cornyn’s bill does is restore transparency and openness to the process of listing and resettlement. This is just good commonsense because our government is supposed to operate this way for the benefit of everyone, not just the well-connected few.”

“Also, transparency polls very highly, so eliminating closed-door meetings, letting in the sunlight, and ending smoke-filled backroom deals should be something the entire country can support,” said Seasholes. 

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News. 

Internet Info

Kathleen Hartnett White, “The Endangered Species Act and Texas: A Look Ahead,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, February 2015,