Environmental protection through free-market principles

Published September 1, 2001

Kathleen Benedetto is program director of the National Wilderness Institute (NWI). Established in 1989, NWI promotes common sense, science-based environmental strategies that emphasize active resource management and a free-market approach to environmental issues including endangered species, ecosystems, biodiversity, and wetlands.

NWI accomplishes its mission through public education programs including an award-winning journal, a bulletin, original research, technical briefings, and testimony designed to enhance overall understanding of natural resource issues.

Benedetto worked as a professional exploration field geologist for more than 17 years, exploring minerals and fossil fuels on some of the most remote private and public lands in the Western United States. She serves on the executive committee of the National Grassroots ESA Coalition, which promotes incentive-based conservation of species; and the Alliance for America, representing rural communities on natural resource and conservation issues. She has represented the interests of women in mining as co-founder of the Women’s Mining Coalition.

Taylor : What are the most important considerations in formulating a successful approach to environmental protection, and species protection in particular?

Benedetto: People are the most important resource. All environmental policy should be based on that idea. The inherent value of each individual is greater than the inherent value of any other resource.

Accordingly, the foremost measure of the quality of our environment is human health, safety, and wellbeing. A policy cannot be good for the environment if it is bad for people. The best judge of what is or is not desirable is the affected individual.

Taylor : What efforts has NWI undertaken to educate citizens about a market-oriented approach to environmental protection?

Benedetto: NWI bills itself as the “voice of reason on the environment.”

NWI’s publications–the NWI Resource and Fresh Tracks–and its Web site are NWI’s primary tools for educating the public.

Much of our focus over the past 11 years has been the Endangered Species Act and its lack of effectiveness in achieving the congressional mandate to recover federally listed threatened and endangered species.

NWI often uses the raw data buried in government reports and documents to evaluate the effectiveness of government programs. A good example is our publication “Conservation Under the Endangered Species Act: A Promise Broken.”

The study took more than a year to complete. NWI staff reviewed recovery plans for all federally listed threatened and endangered species. The question NWI was looking to answer is: “Have any listed species been recovered as a result of regulations promulgated under the ESA?” The conclusion after reviewing the recovery plans was no.

Signature species that have been downlisted or delisted, such as the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon, have recovered due to processes set in place prior to the enactment of the ESA. Peregrine Falcons were recovered through a private conservation effort–a captive-breeding program initiated and carried out by the Peregrine Fund. Laws protecting eagles and other birds of prey were enacted prior to the ESA. Other factors contributing to the recovery of the eagle were the ban on DDT and a change in public attitude towards predators.

Taylor : Is the government capable of effectively balancing environmental interests outside of free-market considerations?

Benedetto: I’m not sure “balance” can be achieved on environmental issues. Cosmetic considerations and feelings–not environmental quality–have become the driving force in environmental controversy. Those are difficult criteria to “balance” when you want to put a mine into production, harvest timber, or build a power plant.

Many people, including free-market environmentalists, look at those activities as damaging to the environment, rather than looking at the overwhelming positive impact they have on the human environment. Often what is perceived as damaging are the cosmetic changes, albeit some of them relatively permanent, to the landscape.

The term “balance” can be troubling because too often it is assumed that economically motivated private actions are environmentally harmful and must be countered by environmentally beneficial collectivist restrictions. Everything about that equation is wrong. In fact, prosperity is good for the environment and poverty bad, markets reward efficiency and governments inefficiency, etc.

Taylor : What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of the Endangered Species Act?

Benedetto: The strength of the ESA is that it gives power and control to government bureaucrats and serves to enlarge the federal estate. The weakness is that it drives a wedge between people and species, putting both at risk.

Taylor : Is there much chance for success in the movement to modify the Endangered Species Act?

Benedetto: With work . . . a lot of work . . . some modifications may be possible. There are many factors converging that may serve to improve the climate and broaden the constituency supporting changes to the ESA.

Taylor : How does NWI determine whether or not it will intervene on behalf of protecting the environment?

Benedetto: Let me give you an example.

NWI’s decision to file a complaint against federal agencies for violating the ESA in the operation of the Washington Aqueduct and in the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge was made after more than a year of research that included a scholarly review of the available literature, field studies, and an aggressive FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) program.

During the summer of 1999, in an effort to prove the effectiveness of the ESA, President Clinton, in a ceremony at the White House, announced that the bald eagle would be down-listed from endangered to threatened. Later that same summer Secretary Babbitt de-listed the peregrine falcon.

NWI staff had observed bald eagles and peregrine falcons in Old Town Alexandria, along the Potomac River, and elsewhere in the metropolitan DC area. The Wilson Bridge construction project was and is continuously in the news. Several lawsuits have been filed to stop the project, some on procedural issues and others for environmental reasons, but there was never any discussion of the impact of the construction project with respect to endangered species.

After NWI’s year-long review of the Wilson Bridge project and other federal projects in the DC area it became clear the federal agencies were violating the ESA in several instances, in a way that would not be tolerated in other jurisdictions.

It was also clear to NWI that the Army Corps of Engineers’ practice of dumping millions of pounds of contaminated sediment into the Potomac River would not be acceptable to anyone who knew about it.

Taylor : NWI is currently contesting that Corps practice. How are you faring in your efforts?

Benedetto: At a recent hearing on pretrial motions, Judge Thomas Hogan rejected the government’s motion to dismiss the case. Although he didn’t grant NWI’s request for a preliminary injunction, he warned the Corps and other federal defendants that if they do not resolve the issue of whether the challenged discharges adversely affect endangered species, “. . . in the near future, plaintiffs may in fact be able to meet their burden of establishing irreparable injury.”

Hogan also advised the Corps, “plaintiff could ultimately be successful in this litigation and thus [the Court] advises defendants to reconsider these and other alternatives to the present arrangement.”

Taylor : In addition to the Corps’ dumping in the Potomac River, what other environmental issues is NWI currently monitoring?

Benedetto: Most of NWI’s attention is focused on the ESA lawsuit at this time. At the request of some congressional offices, NWI has also worked on staff and Member briefings on the “Wildlands Project.”

Last year, NWI uncovered mismanagement and misuse of funds within the Federal Aid program managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Legislation to remedy the situation passed the House by a vote of 423-2, and it passed the Senate by unanimous consent. President Clinton signed the bill in October 2000.

For more information . . .

In 1996, NWI published Individuals, Liberty and the Environment: A Distinctly American Conservation Ethic (ACE), which set forth eight principles illustrating how the environment benefits more from a system of individual liberty, private property, and free markets than a system based on statism. The ACE report can be downloaded from NWI’s Web site at www.nwi.org.