Monday, November 07, 2005

Endangered Species or Habitat?

Chris Bruce:
"There are at least two variants of the argument that biodiversity should be increased. The weak goal seeks only to weigh costs against benefits when choosing the level of protection to be given to endangered species. The strong goal requires that every endangered species be protected, regardless of expense.

Many environmentalists implicitly or explicitly espouse the strong goal, and it is this goal that is embodied in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). What I wish to argue here is, first, that the public has not supported this view. To the extent that they have accepted that increasing biodiversity is a desirable goal, it is the weak goal that they have adopted, not the strong goal. Second, I argue that environmentalists’ support for the strong goal is only the public expression of a deeper goal: the protection of natural landscapes."

[. . . .]

Dozens, if not hundreds, of examples can found of situations in which environmental groups had pressed unsuccessfully for preservation of a habitat, not because it was believed that the habitat was home to an endangered species, but because the proponents wished to preserve the natural landscape. When an endangered species was found to live in the habitat, the presence of that species was used to justify the preservation of the species’ habitat. For example, opponents of suburban growth have discovered new allies in the pygmy owl on the outskirts of Tucson; the golden-cheeked warbler in the Balcones Canyonland on the edge of Austin; Preble’s meadow jumping mouse habitat near Denver; and Orcutt grass and fairy shrimp in Sacramento. And the spotted owl has provided a trump card for those who had previously fought unsuccessfully for preservation of old growth forests in Washington and Oregon.

In none of these cases can the sincerity of the proponents of endangered species protection be questioned. But in each case, and in many others, it is clear that preservation of natural landscapes was of at least as much importance as preservation of species. My argument here is that, in the public debate, it is important to recognise what the true, underlying goal of public policy is. In this case, I suggest that we would be advised to place less emphasis on species and more on landscapes.
Do you think this is a plausible hypothesis? If so, can we expect to preserve landscapes through the regulation and prohibition of land uses, or should we expect government to have to purchase the land parcels that make the landscapes? I think purchase would be required, at least if we are interested in effectiveness and in justice.

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