Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this important hearing on updating the Endangered Species Act (ESA). I look forward to hearing from the witnesses regarding their involvement in voluntary species conservation and recovery programs. As Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the way the ESA has been implemented is of keen interest to me as I consistently hear from people in Oklahoma how they struggle to balance the presence of species on their land with their need to make a living.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly two-thirds of listed species reside on private lands. It is clear, then, that the government must work with landowners, not in spite of them, if we want to make any meaningful strides at species recovery—the primary goal of the Act. President Bush recognized this issue in 2004 when he signed Executive Order 13352 ensuring that federal agencies pursue new cooperative conservation actions designed to involve private landowners rather than make mandates that they must fulfill. The Fish and Wildlife Service has created some programs to encourage landowner participation and provide them with guarantees that their good deeds will not be undone. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife program is an excellent example of this and why I was pleased to author the program’s authorizing legislation, which passed the Senate unanimously last month. At a recent field hearing in Oklahoma on this program, landowners, government and environmental groups all expressed incredible enthusiasm for it. It is clear that, when done properly, voluntary conservation agreements really can work.
As we begin considering legislative changes to the act, I will be seeking ways to address the perverse incentives for landowners who find endangered or threatened species on their land. The Endangered Species Act contains numerous prohibitions but contains pitifully few incentives to actively create and preserve habitat on private lands. As an unintended result, landowners are encouraged to make their land as inhospitable as possible in order to avoid overly burdensome and often economically devastating regulation.
I am looking forward to recommendations from the witnesses as to how to create a comprehensive incentive strategy that addresses the needs of all kinds of private landowners. We must be careful not to craft a one-size-fits all strategy. For example, some of the current incentive programs work for one-time events, like timber cutting or land development, but not for ongoing operations, like ranching and farming. In addition, many incentive programs are too expensive and time-consuming for the small landowner. I will want to ensure that we create a full complement of landowner incentives to address site-specific needs.
Another critical component to meaningful landowner incentives is the inclusion of assurances for landowners who take action to conserve and recover species on his or her land. They need to know that a “deal is a deal.” When a private landowner enters into an agreement to actively manage their land for species, they should receive guarantees that the government cannot continually ask them to do more. Finally, landowner incentive programs need to contain real incentives and not simply be a way to avoid regulation. We need to ensure a true benefit to the landowner.
There will be other priorities for me as we begin looking at legislation to update the Act. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently being inundated with lawsuits. I am concerned that resources that could be used in on-the-ground conservation are being diverted to defend lawsuits. When I began my tenure as Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I stated that I believe we should base regulatory and legislative decisions on sound science so I will be interested in incorporating the use of independent science in decision-making.
Additionally, I have never believed that it makes sense that the Services should be precluded from considering economic costs when deciding whether or not to list a species as endangered or threatened. The service can and must consider them when designating critical habitat and this requirement should be extended to other decisions made by the Services. This analysis should also consider the impacts to landowners who may be indirectly affected. For example, when the Fish and Wildlife Service first attempted to designate critical habitat for the Arkansas Shiner, the US District Court threw out their economic assessment because they only considered the impact on the agencies involved and did not consider the effects on downstream farmers and ranchers, like the ones in OK.
Finally, I also believe that those affected most by the Services’ decisions should be directly involved in making them. This includes states and local entities, as they have the closest knowledge of the species, its habitat and local conditions.
I look forward to working with the members of the committee on legislation to update the Endangered Species Act so that it creates positive incentives to protect and recover species while at the same time safeguarding property rights and giving landowners meaningful and lasting assurances.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this important hearing and I look forward to hearing the testimony.