How Environmental Laws Serve Hidden Agendas

Published November 1, 2007

This article is one in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, adapted and serialized by Jay Lehr.

When environmental activists cannot sell a particular agenda on its merits, they often resort to subterfuge in the form of a surrogate or hidden agenda. There are many examples, one of which we discuss here to illustrate the principle.

Misusing the Law

Few would doubt the sincerity of those who worked to obtain passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Certainly Congress intended the act be applied to each species on the merits of the case for preservation. Congress said in 1973 the act was intended “to provide a means whereby the eco-systems upon which an endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program, for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species.”

Evidently no one foresaw how easily the act could be perverted to achieve hidden agendas of special-interest groups. There is no longer any question that the act has been applied in a manner far beyond what any of us envisioned when it was written more than 30 years ago.

Example: Spotted Owls

The northern spotted owl was the species used to prevent logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Fully $22.5 million was spent to protect the owl in the early years when environmentalists claimed it could breed only in old-growth forests.

In fact, northern spotted owls were found in large numbers in many private forests where old growth was not present. The owls adapted to second-growth forests extremely well. Whether or not old-growth forests should be preserved is not the question; the question is whether an act to protect species should be perverted to protect forests.

In the 1990s the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the spotted owl. As a result, the Forest Service reduced timber harvesting by 50 percent in 10 California national forests, thereby achieving the goals of the NRDC in one fell swoop.

Killing Communities

Unfortunately, it was a case where the goal of a relatively small number of elitists far removed from the region ran headlong into the economic vitality of the region and the livelihood of loggers and mill owners, resulting in lost jobs, ruined economies, and higher lumber prices.

Those who use the Endangered Species Act to prevent timber harvests, protect wetlands, stop development, thwart home-building, and impede the improvement of land for farming and other uses have learned ESA is a powerful mechanism by which they can gain control over the use of other people’s private property.

Curtailed timber harvests reduce community incomes, threatening not only the livelihood of families but also the entire infrastructure of local communities: school, churches, roads, water supplies, sewage treatment, grocery stores, and others. ESA, as presently interpreted, leaves no room for any consideration of these.

Forests Aplenty

There are many thousands of acres of old-growth forests still untouched, and they are widely distributed. Many are inaccessible to the general public because there are no roads. Though cherished by hikers and backpackers, they are totally meaningless to most persons.

Given sufficient time, second-growth forests will be as aesthetically pleasing as old growth. Only experts will recognize the difference. The controversy between protection and use of old-growth timber is a clash of values, not a dispute over facts.

Hence, this controversy will continue because there is no technical solution. One hopes the choices for logging’s future will be based on the merits of the issue rather than a surrogate–the non-endangered northern spotted owl.

Affordable wood products benefit everyone, but they are especially important to those with low incomes. Protected wilderness, on the other hand, tends to be enjoyed mainly by the more affluent members of society. The purpose of forestry is to provide lumber for homes, furniture, newspapers, magazines, farm buildings, and many other uses for which wood is the material of choice.

ESA Failures

After living more than 30 years with the Endangered Species Act, we know it has often been counterproductive in local situations. It is easy to imagine the conflict is between large, greedy landowners and some interesting rare species. But the use of ESA is actually more likely to burden a family farmer, rancher, or rural homeowner who finds an unusual animal or plant and learns it is on the endangered species list.

As a result of ESA, ignoring the rare species can improve or even save the livelihood of a family, while reporting it could result in losing the use of the land forever.

In making the case for ESA, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior recently exaggerated the success of the act, saying it had saved 33 species that were able to be removed from the list. In fact, of those 33 species, 19 actually weren’t successes: five went extinct, four had been mistakenly classed as endangered in the first place, and 10 had originally been undercounted.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement for a law that has caused humans so much harm.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking hardcover book for laymen, Smoke or Steam: A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at