Opinion Pieces

Columbian: Herrera Beutler: Columbian’s criticism of ESA updates misleading

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Vancouver, September 15, 2019 | comments
As this region’s federal representative, I’ve worked to protect our endangered species — from promoting a healthy Gifford Pinchot National Forest to boosting native salmon runs to brokering collaborative solutions that preserve endangered species such as the Oregon spotted frog.
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As this region’s federal representative, I’ve worked to protect our endangered species — from promoting a healthy Gifford Pinchot National Forest to boosting native salmon runs to brokering collaborative solutions that preserve endangered species such as the Oregon spotted frog.

Given my efforts, I was disappointed in The Columbian’s Aug. 29 editorial criticizing my support for recent updates to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The editorial made critical errors in describing what these changes actually do. In fact, refining the ESA will make it easier to follow, won’t compromise protection of species and can finally help restore responsible management to our forests.

First, the assertion that climate change will now be ignored is false. Yes, rigorous science must demonstrate that a changing climate justifies designating an area not currently occupied by a species as “critical habitat.” But requiring scientific data doesn’t mean ignoring climate change. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued the changes, wrote: “Consistent with our longstanding practice, in all classification decisions, we will consider the best available science and evaluate impacts to the species that may result from changing climate within the foreseeable future.”

Second, the editorial claimed an economic analysis is now required before listing a species as endangered. Putting a price tag on the survival of, say, chinook salmon before deciding whether they were worth protecting really would be a significant weakening of the law. Fortunately, that’s not what the new rules do. A National Public Radio story reported this myth on Aug. 12 … and then issued a correction on Aug. 14.

Federal agencies have clarified they won’t take economic impacts into account when making listing decisions. Economic data can be collected and publicized, but cannot factor into deciding whether to protect a species from extinction. Thank goodness.

Other updates reflect changes requested by previous Columbian editorials. In a 2011 editorial marking my vote to preserve the ESA, The Columbian opined that the law is “imperfect and subject to refinement” and “cumbersome, and protective lists are difficult to update efficiently.”

Improving outcomes

In response to such criticisms, the listing process is now improved. For instance, the same factors used to determine whether a species is endangered will now be used to determine whether that species has recovered. Also, levels of protection across federal agencies for “threatened” and “endangered” species no longer conflict with each other. Making the law clearer and more workable shouldn’t be equated to “weakening the law.”

And while the editorial rightly calls for better forest management, it doesn’t square that need with decades of failed forest policy driven by abuse of the ESA. Decades after the Northwest Forest Plan shut down virtually any management of our federal forests in order to save the northern spotted owl, decline of that species continues. Meanwhile, the owl’s habitat has been decimated by unnaturally severe wildfires from the decaying, disease-infested conditions within unmanaged forests.

In other words, refusing to refine the ESA results in more harm than good for a species we’re trying to protect.

Improving the ESA holds tremendous potential for Southwest Washington. Proper forest management could reduce the size and intensity of wildfires by 70 percent, according to The Nature Conservancy. Preserving trees means more carbon sequestration. Fewer climate-harming pollutants will be belched into the air from uncontrolled wildfires.

These are outcomes we should all desire.

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