This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on March 24, 2015.
It always amazes me when someone in business supports an additional regulatory framework. Consider those brilliant folks in the high-tech sector who went along with the new Federal Communications Commission rules for so-called net neutrality. Turns out it isn’t so neutral, and Commissioner Tom Wheeler launched an apology tour claiming they’re not going to impose new rules. Right.
What does this tell us? Left unchecked, the White House will keep turning the regulatory thumbscrews across a whole array of sectors, including one I know all too well — the Endangered Species Act.
Let’s do a quick review. The Endangered Species Act was imposed in 1973, modified slightly a few years later, and thereafter was expanded to encroach on the private property rights of millions of Americans through additional regulations, rules and opaque interpretations.
The act says that no one can “take” an endangered species, defined as “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect.” Additionally, “harm” now includes “significant habitat modification or degradation.” As a result, you can find yourself in jail and or face steep fines just for modifying your private property.
The act’s stated purpose was to conserve species facing survival hazards, but the metrics for success are, to say the least, unclear. Ideally, we should recover a species so the listing is no longer needed, but the federal government seems obsessed with its listings.
In the 40 years since the act’s passage, 2,225 species have been listed as either threatened or endangered. Of those, only 30 have been recovered. In my book, 1 percent is not much of a success rate, so the outcry to protect owls, snail darters and the like steers the conversation away from recovery.
Can recovery be achieved? Yes. Environmentalists will be shocked to know it’s happened twice in Texas.
The first was at Fort Hood, which stood to lose 50,000 acres of training ground when the resident golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo were listed as endangered. In response, the Army joined local ranchers, Texas A&M scientists and the Texas Department of Agriculture to create a “Recovery Credit System.”
As a result of good science and neighborly collaboration, the species are thriving on nearby habitat. That’s what I call a Texas win-win.
The second and more recent example is from the Permian Basin, which is home to the dunes sagebrush lizard, about 14 percent of the nation’s crude oil and about 47,000 energy-related jobs. According to the federal government, the lizard’s needs trumped all else. Texas leaders in government, business and academia disagreed. So we borrowed the Fort Hood model and created the Texas Conservation Plan, which was supported by solid science and buy-in from affected constituencies. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the lizard as endangered or threatened.
As one would expect, an environmental activist group challenged the no-listing decision in federal court. Unexpectedly (to them), they lost.
These two episodes teach a simple lesson: Additional regulations are not the answer. Instead, the Texas way — marked by good science and sound collaboration — works. Under this powerful, transparent and collaborative model, private property ownership, a thriving economy and critical species can coexist. If we can stay this course in Texas and beyond, I predict we’ll recover even more species as we avoid getting bogged down in a regulatory swamp.
Combs, a visiting senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, served as state representative, agriculture commissioner and comptroller.