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Know the West

ESA shuts down collaboration

  Dear HCN,

Paul Larmer's opinion, "The enduring Endangered Species Act," left me bewildered (HCN, 9/24/01: The enduring Endangered Species Act). From the trenches of the rural West, the ESA doesn't seem to be accomplishing nearly the wonders that you claim. In fact, it appears to be doing the opposite. You wrote, "We need both litigation and collaboration to protect and restore our dwindling natural world. The ESA allows both to happen in a variety of combinations depending on the situation." But it often appears that litigation under the ESA is aggressively shutting down community-based collaborative groups and processes.

Probably the most blatant example of this misuse is in the Klamath Basin. Check out Mike Connelly's article, "Home Is Where They'll Lay Me Down," in the summer issue of Orion. This Bonanza, Ore., rancher has been in the trenches. He's been involved with several collaborative groups that have been working for almost a decade on endangered species recovery and watershed health issues. These people - ranchers, farmers and rural environmentalists alike - are feeling betrayed by the heavy-handed application of the ESA by out-of-the-area interests with no regard for, or trust in, the groups who are doggedly crafting long-term solutions to the area's water allocation problems. According to Connelly, "There is an evolving consensus that changes need to be made to our most fundamental environmental laws, changes that will allow local communities the time and space to do what coercive legislation has never been able to: outgrow once and for all this silly notion that there is some categorical difference between human communities and the rest of Creation."

And in Rebecca Clarren's article, "No refuge in the Klamath Basin" (HCN, 8/13/01: No refuge in the Klamath Basin), several Klamath Basin residents support this observation. For instance: "I don't believe we can have consensus and conservation when we have a community in chaos," says (Klamath Basin) refuge manager Phil Norton. "I'll freely admit I think the ESA should be tweaked; everybody's losing under this."

A few years ago I wouldn't have understood this major flaw in the ESA, but after watching the Klamath Basin crisis unfold and experiencing similar, although far less severe, environmental and cultural fallout from the listing of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, I've become a rural environmentalist who's siding with the opposition. The ranchers, loggers and farmers are right. There's no point in enforcing the ESA in such a way that it turns the local communities against the species you're trying to protect, but that's what's happening time and again.

Although the environmental "big guns," like the Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Natural Resources Council, may be happy with the current arrangement and perceive that it's encouraging collaboration, it appears that irresponsible and indiscriminate application of the ESA is doing more harm than good to citizen groups trying to work cooperatively. The view from the trenches is bleak. The ESA may yet undergo a major overhaul, and it sounds like it won't be just the wise-use crowd who'll be carrying in the toolbox.

Lauren Davis
Lee Vining, California