Listening to the Land

"I should probably have been a wiser and better informed man had I spent more time out with the grasshoppers, horned toads and coyotes." J. Frank Dobie (1888 - 1964)

A well-known Texas author, storyteller and avid naturalist, Dobie had both a physical and spiritual connection to the land of his birth. He had a deep affection for the harsh Texas landscape where he was raised on his family's ranch. Throughout many of his books, such as The Mustangs, The Voice of the Coyote and The Longhorns, Dobie highlighted the importance of respecting the balance of nature -- even if that nature was part of a rattlesnake and cactus infested piece of land in South Texas.

As Dobie once stated, "If people are to enjoy their own lives, they must be aware of the significance of their own environments." This respect for nature celebrated by Dobie is also embodied in the principles set out in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was originally enacted in 1973. The U.S. Congress stated in the opening provisions that the act was intended to safeguard "the Nation's heritage in fish, wildlife and plants." The ESA sets out three goals: stop extinction, stabilize endangered populations and recover them to the point where the act's protection is no longer needed.

Many feel that the ESA has proven itself to be one of our nation's most effective laws for the conservation of our fish and wildlife resources. A nationwide poll commissioned in early 2002 by the Biodiversity Project (www.biodiversityproject.org), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advocate for biodiversity, shows strong public support for species and habitat protection. According to the poll, 78 percent of Americans support maintaining a strong ESA.

On the other hand, certain groups disagree with the manner in which the government has tried to implement the ESA's objectives. For example, the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC) (www.nesarc.org) is a lobbying group that has aligned itself with the Bush Administration in order to promote "a market-based approach to ESA reform." NESARC is fighting for several key goals: financial incentives for private property owners to conserve habitat; governmental compensation for landowners when the value and use of their property is restricted under the ESA due to the presence of endangered species; and an amendment to the ESA that requires scientific information on a species or its habitat be obtained on the basis of minimum scientific standards and fair and impartial scientific peer review.

Another opponent to the current ESA is the current House Resources Committee Chariman Jim Hansen (R-Utah). On May 23, 2002, he introduced new legislation (H.R. 4840), which is intended to amend the ESA to ensure the use of "sound science" in the implementation of the act. To track the current status of this bill, check out the Library of Congress' legislative information Web site at thomas.loc.gov.

Despite the controversy surrounding the ESA, the federal government is starting to take some actions that hopefully most stakeholders can agree upon. As part of its mission to implement the ESA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is administering three new grant programs for the states totaling $85.7 million. The Recovery Land Acquisition Grants provide funds for the acquisition of habitat, which is often an essential element of a comprehensive recovery effort for a species listed under the ESA. Habitat Conservation Planning Assistance Grants are available to support the development of Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) and HCP Land Acquisition Grants are available for states to acquire land associated with approved HCPs. Additionally, in 2002 the FWS awarded approximately $10 million in federal funding under the Private Stewardship Program to private landowners and their partners. For more information, go to the FWS Web site at www.fws.gov.

Another promising conservation tool is the safe harbor agreement, which allows landowners to undertake actions on their property that benefit endangered species without creating any new regulatory encumbrances. Using a different approach, the endangered species banks entail a commitment to preserve in perpetuity and manage appropriately a parcel of land that has a significant value for one or more imperiled species. In return, the property owner is given a specified number of mitigation credits that can be sold in the future to area developers in need of mitigation for their development projects.

Like Dobie, we too would be wiser and better informed if in the beginning of this new century we took the time to listen to the land. Our public and private sectors should take more innovative steps like conservation banking to ensure that the more than 600 U.S. species currently classified as endangered or threatened aren't pushed forever into extinction. We need to act now to preserve the legacy of biodiversity for our future generations here in the United States, as well as in the rest of the world.




This article originally appeared in the November/December 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 10, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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