Thriving Wildlife Benefits People Enormously

Janine Jackson: Like Social Security, the Endangered Species Act is historically and presently very popular. People, in the main, get the idea that trying not to wipe species off the face of the earth is a meaningful way to reflect the recognition that human life is sustained and enriched by a healthy and diverse environment. And as with Social Security, there are some who see the Endangered Species Act as primarily an obstacle keeping them and their friends from making the maximum amount of money possible.

The trouble is, too often media seem to balance those perspectives in reporting on the Act. Now the Trump administration is going all out to push back on central parts of the Endangered Species Act. What sort of reporting would make clear what’s at stake, and why we’re in this fight in the first place? We’re joined now for an update on things by Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He joins us now by phone from Toronto. Welcome to CounterSpin, Brett Hartl.

Brett Hartl: Thanks a lot for having me.

This is a multi-front assault, as I understand it, from the Trump White House on regulations relevant to the Endangered Species Act. What are some of the pieces of what’s going on right now?

Well, sure, and it’s important to understand that, like you said, the Endangered Species Act is a remarkably successful and popular law. It has saved 99 percent of the species under its care from extinction, and the way it has done it is through a series of rules and safeguards that have been in place for nearly 45 years. And the Trump administration released three separate, related proposals that collectively really just take a meat cleaver to those safeguards, to the rules that have so successfully saved endangered species. So it’ll make it harder to protect them, to protect their habitats. It’ll make the protections they receive weaker, and, like you said, it will also rubber-stamp and streamline a lot of really dangerous projects, all in the name of benefiting special interests at the expense of endangered wildlife.

Here’s the Washington Post quoting Fish and Wildlife Service deputy director Greg Sheehan, “We are proposing these improvements” — these are what they call the changes — “We are proposing these improvements to produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people.” Now, there’s no explication of that empty phrase, but the piece then quotes a lawyer for the conservative law firm the Pacific Legal Foundation, and he says:

The modest reform proposed by the Department of Interior today could finally enable the Endangered Species Act to achieve both of its noble goals of preventing extinctions and promoting recovery of protected species. Relaxing regulations as a species recovers will reward property owners for their role in that recovery, creating a necessary incentive for landowners to restore and improve endangered species habitat.

Well, I’m going to ask you to respond to the idea that weakening the Act strengthens the Act, but I want to say also it bugs me, anyway, that the issue is still presented in this “some say, others differ” format. It’s like an argument preserved in amber, as though there’s no evidence to consider on this question of, “Does protecting species kill the American dream?” or whatever. So how do we parse this argument that we’re hearing here?

Sure, and I think you’re right. Kudos to the other side for really winning the rhetorical war in most of the media. They make it seem like it’s an even-handed debate and the people are split, when in fact I don’t think most people, even Trump voters, thought that gutting protections for endangered species was the “reducing regulatory burden” that they had in mind.

First, it’s important to understand that the Endangered Species Act has always incentivized good behavior on private property, rewarded private property owners as species recover, provided enormous flexibility to allow reasonable development to occur, as long as we mitigate and minimize the harm that we cause endangered species.

But more broadly, I think it’s important to really understand that when they talk about making the Act work better, it’s just code. It’s code for them to basically say, we’re giving the green light and a rubber stamp to things like drilling offshore and drilling in the Arctic, mining for coal everywhere. There’s nothing reasonable or moderate within these proposals. For example, where they simply say, we are no longer going to protect critical habitat for endangered species that are harmed by climate change, and we’re not going to assess the impacts of climate change on endangered species ever again. That’s not even remotely reasonable.

Reducing the protections for threatened species is basically like saying, if you were in the hospital and you were recovering from a bad injury or a bad illness, and halfway through we said, “Well, you know what? We’re just going to get rid of your medications and just assume that, because you’re on the right track today, it’s going to keep going well.” You don’t end a treatment for a serious illness halfway through because things are going well. You finish the treatment, you get yourself to recovery, and then you move forward. Basically, what we’re going to see is hundreds of endangered species — that were on the right track, moving towards recovery, moving back to healthy populations — get derailed, and be stuck in limbo or purgatory for years to come.

Obama did it too” is a popular parlor game, and it’s important to see where there’s a continuity of policy and impact, even if there’s been an evident change in personality or in approach. You’ve been working on this issue for years, including within Congress. Does what we’re seeing now represent a break, or an escalation, or what? How would you differentiate this administration’s actions on this issue?

I just want to be the first to agree that no administration is perfect, and that the Obama administration fell short, too, in critical areas. But this is far more sweeping, what the Trump administration is doing, than any other president has tried before. It really goes far beyond the realms of the reasonable policy disagreements that normal governments have when parties shift. So I think it’s a pretty dramatic escalation. It certainly aligns well with what the Republican majorities in Congress are doing right now, which is relentlessly attacking every aspect of the Endangered Species Act under the same rhetorical guise of regulatory reform, when it really is just about rewarding special interests and the largest polluters and their richest friends. So it’s in some ways more of the same, but in some ways this is actually extremely dangerous and unprecedented, and hopefully the American people will speak out against it.

I wanted to say about media, I don’t think it’s that they don’t acknowledge that there’s powerful corporate interests at work here. It just feels like they lend — and this is what you are talking about, the balance — it seems like they lend legitimacy to the argument that protecting species conflicts with business and with jobs, and I think partly they do that by painting it as a values thing. You know, it’s elite and out-of-touch to care about, if not the environment, individual species. We remember when “spotted owl” was itself just a punchline. And then it’s very “salt of the earth” to want to cut red tape and all of that. And I think some journalists, who are the same ones going on about the Heartland, may buy into that, when, if they talk to actual conservatives of a certain stripe, they’d hear something different than the argument that they’re putting in a lot of folks’ mouths, wouldn’t they?

Yeah, there’s a lot of rhetoric, and a lot of demagoguing and scapegoating some endangered species. They’ve become, unfortunately, and wrongly, the target of a lot of anti-federal government feelings and sentiments, because they’re easy to demonize. And special interests learned long ago that it’s probably better to villainize them than to try to explain the complexities of our supposedly free markets, when in fact there’s many other reasons that drive a lot of these economic questions. So spotted owls, sage grouse, wolves, have always been blamed for very complex problems, and they’re not responsible, but they’re easy to pick on. And unfortunately, the media buy into it sometimes.

But the reality is that we have over 1,800 endangered species in the United States, 99 percent have been saved from extinction, many are on a path to recovery, and we have been able to do that for decades, while also accommodating reasonable development. So it’s not incompatible, and the reality is that healthy, thriving wildlife benefits people enormously, just as healthy environments do, because we depend on things like clean air and clean water and healthy wildlife to thrive as a society.

I just think even some conservatives are being misrepresented here, people who would define themselves as conservatives who are actually conservationists, as well.

Well, finally, we’ve been saying that people don’t seem to accept these arguments. People support the Endangered Species Act overwhelmingly. What do you see happening over the next few days? What are you going to be doing, and what can folks be doing?

So right now, these are all proposed changes to existing regulations, and that means that there’s a public commentary period, it’s going on for about 60 days, until about late September, and any person, it’s your right as a citizen to write or email and express your opposition or your thoughts about this. The government has to at least acknowledge them or respond. And we will be doing that. And if the Trump administration continues to push many of these changes, which are harmful to the Endangered Species Act, and probably illegal, just like many of the other rollbacks that we are seeing across the board, we will go to court and I think ultimately we will prevail.

We’ve been speaking with Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Find their work online at BiologicalDiversity.org. Brett Hartl, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks a lot. Have a good week.