Special Treatment for Ag


Farmers and ranchers across the West like to complain about the Endangered Species Act. To hear them and their Farm Bureau lobbyists talk, you would expect that the ESA has put nearly every western farmer and rancher into the poor house. Verifiable cases of farmers or ranchers actually being put out of business by the ESA, however, are hard to come by. That’s because there are very few officials out there on the ground enforcing ESA prohibitions. Whether we are talking about “take” of listed species or “adverse modification” of critical habitat, ESA citations are a rare occurrence. Congress and all recent federal administrations have colluded to make sure ESA enforcement will be underfunded and ineffective.

But state game wardens are out there on the land, and in states like California those wardens have a state Endangered Species Act which they are sworn to uphold. That’s why when Coho salmon, Delta smelt and other aquatic species are listed under the California ESA, farmers, ranchers and the organizations which represent their interests get really concerned.

Or so we citizens have been told and believe. It turns out, however, that an exemption from the C-ESA’s take provisions was built into California’s ESA law. That exemption was going to sunset at the end of 2010. But the California Legislature came to the rescue. SB 1303 extends the exemption until 2014. Farmers and ranchers are exempt from penalties if they “accidentally” take a California endangered species in the course of their normal farming or ranching activities.

SB 1313 had bi-partisan support, passed on voice vote and was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger. But unlike farmer and rancher ESA complaints which appear on a regular basis, the California Press did not cover SB 1313’s passage. My guess is that most Californians have no idea that farmers and ranchers can not be penalized if a C-ESA listed species is killed as a result of their actions. 

The California Endangered Species Act is not the only law from which farmers and ranchers enjoy exemption. Whether in Washington DC or state capitals, lawmakers fall over each other to provide special treatment for farmers and ranchers – including exemptions from several kinds of laws.

DC environmentalists spend much of their time fighting proposals from this or that member of Congress to exempt his (or her) constituents from provisions of the federal ESA. An agricultural exemption from key aspects of the federal Clean Water Act was also in effect for many years and played a significant role in failure to restore Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades and to address water pollution generally.

So why do farmers and ranchers – and the corporations which are increasingly replacing them – so often enjoy special legislative treatment? Agriculture is a powerful and well organized lobby; but lobby power alone can’t explain ubiquitous special treatment. I suspect, rather, that it is the enduring power of the American Agrarian Myth - and the manipulation of that myth by Big Ag including the Farm Bureau Federation and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association – that explains the persistence of agricultural exemptions from environmental and other laws.

For those who want to investigate the connection between American agricultural policy and the American Agrarian Myth, here are a few online documents from academics who have researched the issue:

Images of struggling family farmers and hard working cowboys – each aspects of the American Agrarian Myth – remain a powerful force in American society and politics. Exemption from bedrock laws which apply to other citizens and industries is one result of that enduring power; continued degradation of fresh water ecosystems is another. I cannot help wondering, however, whether future westerners will one day look back and realize that the price of special treatment for farmers and ranchers was living rivers and the biodiversity those rivers represent.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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