Conservation Expert Challenges Environmental Protection Dogma

The Endangered Species Act intends to protect the country's most vulnerable animals and their habitats. To that end, the law, in part, gives the government the right to seize land that protected creatures call home-even if that land is privately owned.

"Endangered and threatened species rely on private land for their habitat," says Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve environmental law specialist, noting that about two-thirds of the continental U.S. is privately owned. "Without conservation on private lands, meaningful ecological conservation cannot be achieved."

However, landowners who find themselves playing host to any of the more than 1,300 protected species are legally obligated to forfeit their land to the government to protect the animal and preserve its habitat. And they are usually not compensated for their losses.

Therein lies the problem, Adler says. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which theorizes that requiring the government to pay landowners for the property would discourage government action and therefore limit protection efforts, Adler argues that failing to pay landowners for the intrusion is even more destructive to the creatures and habitats that the act strives to protect.

For example, he says, because landowners know they will not be compensated for land that harbors endangered species, they have no incentive to make their lands suitable to the animals. It is in their best financial interest, he says, to quickly develop their property and eliminate the potential for endangered animals to move in. They will cut down trees that are known to attract a particular species, avoid growing crops that vulnerable animals feed on or take other preventive measures to deter protected species.

"Once land is developed, the threat of regulation drops significantly," he says. "Failing to compensate these landowners decreases voluntary conservation efforts and can encourage the destruction of environmental resources on private land."

Adler is editing the forthcoming book Rebuilding the Ark: New Perspectives on Endangered Species Act Reform, which is set for release later this year.