The Trump White House wants to roll back unnecessary regulation. It talks about modernizing and making more transparent the federal rule-making process. Few would argue with relieving undue and excessive burdens applied to business and industry. The concern is about the administration going too far in its quest, or what is evident this week in its push for changes in the way officials enforce the landmark Endangered Species Act. The new regimen, soon to take effect, erodes protections for fish, plants and wildlife to a degree at odds with the purpose of the law.
The timing of the changes is fraught. In May, a United Nations assessment warned that human activity has put as many as 1 million species at risk of extinction. It explained that species are disappearing at a pace “tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the last 10 million years.” It urges countries to do more to protect species.
Unfortunately, the president isn’t heeding the advice, or the value in the achievements of the law, which has saved, among other species, the bald eagle, grizzly bear, Florida manatee, humpback whale and peregrine falcon.
What harm would the administration bring to a law around since 1973 and supported by 83 percent of Americans, according to an Ohio State University survey?
For starters, the new enforcement regimen would alter an important mechanism that helps to keep “threatened” species from becoming “endangered.” Protection applies if a species is likely to become endangered within the “foreseeable future.” Now officials would gain wider discretion in defining “foreseeable,” including the option of disregarding forecasts about the effects of climate change several decades ahead. Thus, their choices would be less informed.
Decisions about protecting species have been driven by science, peer-reviewed analyses, to the point that agencies must act “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” The new regimen reverses course. It opens the door to giving economic assessments a role in decision-making. The administration insists such data would be limited to informational purposes. Yet it isn’t hard to imagine in a political debate business interests amplifying data favorable to their side.
The risk is that a concern for short-term economic costs would outpace the long-term expense of losing many species, the result running counter to the clear objective of the law.
That worry extends to vulnerable habitats. A key part of enforcement involves establishing a buffer to ensure that threatened or endangered species are kept a safe distance from potential disruption and harm. That means preserving the necessary habitat and, at times, saying no to mining or oil and gas interests.
This isn’t to argue the Endangered Species Act somehow must not be altered. The problem is the administration overreaches in easing regulations, and, in doing so, it neglects how biodiversity makes the planet stronger. Biodiversity protects lands. It helps against climate change. Thus, as the U.N. report recommends, countries should be mobilizing across a range, from reducing plastic pollution in seas to operating in more sustainable ways. The United States has a leading role to play.
Vox recently put into perspective the consequences of failing to act. It noted that roughly 300 mammals have become extinct since the last ice age, 130,000 years ago. It then added that researchers project it would take 3 million years to 7 million years to generate 300 new species. The loss of biodiversity isn’t overcome easily or quickly. It is why Congress now has good reason to weigh invoking its authority under the Congressional Review Act to invalidate regulations set by federal agencies.