THE TRUMP administration announced Monday that it is rewriting how the federal government will enforce one of the country’s landmark conservation laws, the Endangered Species Act, raising fears throughout the environmentalist community. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt insisted that the goal is “clear, consistent and efficient implementation” of the act. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross claimed that the idea is “easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.” That sounds plausible, in theory. Given this administration’s shabby hostility toward science and expertise, it is more than worrisome in practice.
Chief among environmentalists’ worries is that the federal government will begin conducting economic analysis as it determines whether to designate species as threatened or endangered. The Environmental Defense Fund’s Holly Pearen likened this to taking economic considerations into account when diagnosing a heart attack. Economic trade-offs might be relevant in shaping a plan to protect a species, but they should have no bearing on the analysis of whether a species is endangered. The Interior Department insists that listing decisions will be made based on science, not economics. So then why waste resources on economic analysis during the listing process?
The administration also would shift how the Interior Department treats threatened species, the level just below endangered. Instead of automatically giving them the same protections as endangered species, the government would tailor plans for each threatened species. This sounds reasonable in theory. But the Trump administration has earned little trust that it would use additional flexibility wisely. This is an administration that regularly derides experts and ignores environmental facts — see, for example, its avowed effort to cut experts from the Agriculture Department by relocating their jobs away from Washington.
A third change would make it more difficult for Interior Department experts to take climate change into account as they decide whether to list species as threatened or consider how to preserve their habitat. Again, it would be easier to accept the administration’s assurances that these shifts would be harmless if its senior members were not hostile to the reality of human-caused climate change. As a recent U.N. report underscored, global warming presents an existential challenge to species across the planet; more than ever, the nation needs a species-preservation program informed by this fact.
To some landowners seeking to develop their property, the Endangered Species Act no doubt looms as a frustrating bureaucratic hurdle. But it exists to ensure that short-term economic considerations do not result in long-term and irreversible ecological damage. It is fair to worry that the Trump administration is once again seeking to focus on the former and ignore the latter.