Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth stepped up to the podium at the Wise Use Leadership Conference in Reno, Nev., this summer and charged the Endangered Species Act with a series of assaults:
Californians lost homes to the 1993
fire because they were not allowed to clear weeds where endangered
kangaroo rats live.
Snails smaller than a pencil
point caused bankers to withhold loans - bankrupting Idaho
Children may soon be ripped to shreds
when the grizzly bear is introduced in Idaho, a state, she claims,
it has never lived in.
Chances are, the
first-year Republican's audience of property-rights leaders had
heard these stories before. The entire nation may know them since
conservative Republicans have worked tirelessly to sell the
American public on the idea that the Endangered Species Act
declares war on private property.
the ESA has been fueled by anecdotes more than anything else in
Congress," says Pam Eaton of the Wilderness Society, "and
Republicans have successfuly captured the debate." Proof of their
success: A bill introduced by Reps. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and
Don Young, R-Ark., to eviscerate endangered species protection may
come soon to the House floor. It would shield private property
owners and pay them if environmental regulations decreased their
Even though the bill has no less
than 120 co-sponsors, passage in its current form looks less likely
every day. Environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, working with the media, have chipped steadily away at the
credibility of the horror stories. Polls continue to show strong
public support for the law among both Democrats and Republicans,
and in Congress, a rift has developed between moderate and
conservative Republicans, forcing the party to aim for a more
politically palatable bill.
anecdotes did not appear out of thin air. Three years ago, several
groups asked their members for personal stories of ESA abuse. The
groups then took these stories - many of which agency officials
acknowlege hold grains of truth - and churned out an entire
folklore, according to Jim Jontz of Defenders of Wildlife.
Organizations such as the Farm Bureau and the Timber Industry Labor
Management Committee helped spread the word. By early 1994, the
property rights movement was such a formidable force that the
environmental community convinced its champions in Congress to
delay attempts to reauthorize the Act.
followed the 1994 Republican landslide, which led Western
Republicans to try to gut the law. The national press picked up the
horror stories; both ABC's 20/20 and CBS's Eye to Eye ran
exposés on rats rating more attention than people in the
slowly. Some tried to counter with success stories of species
recovery; most found their less sensationalized versions ignored by
press and legislatures, says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife
in Missoula, Mont. He charges that most journalists "mindlessly
reported the horror stories."
The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for implementing the Act,
and the villain in most of the anecdotes, also seemed stuck in low
gear. And Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt appeared conciliatory,
exempting landowners of five acres or less from the law (HCN,
But behind the scenes some within the
agency fought back. Fischer says he'd get letters from staffers
labeled "under private cover" and "for your information only." The
letters showed the Fish and Wildlife Service could be "very
effective at squashing the lies, but they were very reluctant to
make a case themselves."
received a plain white handbook from the agency without any
insignia or author. The 26-page report, Facts About the Endangered
Species Act, debunks 34 assaults on the Act. It reports, for
example, that the General Accounting Office found no evidence that
clearing weeds in kangaroo rat habitat would have saved houses from
fire in California. Most horror stories, it explains, are either
outright lies or overblown accounts of projects that were delayed
temporarily by the law. The study says the Endangered Species Act
stopped only four projects nationwide on private property between
1988 and 1992.
Fish and Wildlife Service
Director Mollie Beattie finally appealed to the press. "The public
needs help in making the connection between endangered species,
their own health and welfare and their kids' future," she told the
Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in May 1995. "This
is an issue which we in the service have not defined well for the
public. I know you can help."
may have worked. "Media coverage has changed drastically in the
past six months," says Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Megan
Durham. "We now get many more phone calls from reporters wanting to
know the truth." When the House Resource Committee held field
hearings last spring, many journalists reported that the panels of
presenters were stacked against the law and some of the testimony
overblown (HCN, 5/15/95).
Recent coverage of the
act not only questions the horror stories, but highlights the many
benefits plants and animals provide to humans. In a recent
editorial for the Cox News Service, Martha Ezzard tells the story
of how a species of infection-fighting soil bacterium saved Senate
Majority leader Bob Dole's life after he was struck by an exploding
shell in World War II.
The corporate backing of
anti-ESA legislation has also become more apparent. Reporters
jumped on a leaked memo that exposed Washington Republican Sen.
Slade Gorton's ESA reform bill, which is similar to the Young-Pombo
bill, as the handiwork of corporate lobbyists (HCN,
Some say the public's gullibility
regarding scare stories was bound to come to an end. "It is
extremely hard to mobilize grassroots opposition to an act when
99.9 percent of the American public have no negative experiences
with it," says Michael Bean, attorney for the Environmental Defense
Cracks in the campaign to gut the ESA are
also growing wider. In September, two Eastern Republicans, Maryland
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and New Jersey Rep. Jim Saxton, introduced ESA
bills which would continue to protect habitat on private land.
These more moderate bills failed to make it through the House
Resouces Committee, but they struck a chord among the House
leadership. House Speaker Gingrich recently sent the various
Republican bills to his newly formed environmental task force to
hash out differences, and he announced there would be no vote until
Rep. Pombo insists support for an overhaul
of the Endangered Species Act is still strong. "The Young-Pombo
bill has 120 co-sponsors; no other bill has more than 10," says
Pombo spokesman Matt Hartaman. "The numbers speak for themselves."
"Young and Pombo are pushing their bill fast now
because they know their power will wane," responds
Some environmentalists warn that the
conservatives' campaign has skewed the debate so far to the right
that new Republican concessions only seem moderate. "If Young-Pombo
is an unmitigated disaster, then the Gilchrest bill can best be
labeled a mitigated disaster," says Washington, D.C., attorney Eric
Glitzenstein, who has brought dozens of lawsuits to protect
endangered animals and plants.
many provisions of the bill - anonymous peer reviews of listings,
non-federal teams to develop recovery plans and the requirement to
minimize "adverse" social and economic consequences-could render
protection impossible in the hands of a Secretary Watt "or even a
The appearance of moderation
among some Republicans may be as calculated as the campaign of
anecdotes, Glitzenstein warns. But Jontz celebrates the delay:
"It's an indication that we've had an impact; we developed a
division within the Republicans."
Abel, HCN intern
was paid for by the High Country News Research
For more information, contact the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service Division Endangered Species Department at
703/358-2171, or Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chair of the
Republicans' environmental task force at