AFTER years of bickering and delay, Congress is finally tackling the Endangered Species Act - the nation's strictest environmental law and one of its most contentious political issues.
Critics charge that the act permits the federal government to seize private property in the name of protecting habitat. These critics want regulations to come into play only after cost-benefit analyses, risk assessments, and compensation of affected landowners. The House will soon introduce a bill to this end; later this summer, the Senate will consider its own version.
The act's supporters have pledged to fight these proposals. Indeed, they believe we must strengthen its protections and expand its reach to cover entire ecosystems. Caught in the middle is the Clinton administration, which argues that some reforms are needed but not the ones on the table.
The critics are right: The current law is unfair. By imposing huge (though mostly hidden) costs on private landowners, the Endangered Species Act forces a luckless few to pay for environmental benefits enjoyed by everyone else. But the supporters, too, are right: Protecting our natural heritage is a goal shared by the great majority of Americans.
Yet merely burdening the law with more paperwork, as critics want, will not make the legislation a more effective tool for conservation. Nor will merely expanding its reach over more territory, as supporters want, produce a more equitable system. Here are two reforms that could make the system better.
First, we must separate science from politics. In principle, the Endangered Species Act creates a two-step mechanism. Biologists first determine that a species is sufficiently endangered to be added to the official endangered list. Once a species is listed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with returning the species to health.
Science first, policy second - except that the second step admits only one goal: full recovery. The scientific determination that a species is endangered effectively locks in the legal duty to save it. In this way, endangered species become liabilities for property owners unlucky enough to host them.
Fearing the automatic imposition of restrictive regulations, landowners attack any science that supports a listing. Meanwhile, biologists assume the role of ecological mandarins with the power to bless or condemn a wide variety of land uses.
The endangered list should remain a scientific tally of this nation's threatened wildlife. But it should no longer be tied to the single goal of full recovery for each of its entries. Instead, we must acknowledge that the decision to protect an endangered species may deeply affect people's lives and is therefore inherently political. In many cases, the gain will be worth the sacrifice. At the same time, we must change the act to create a meaningful opportunity to say ''no'' when it is not.
Creating such an opportunity does not mean rejecting all duties to nature. But those duties need not be cast in the simplistic terms of saving a species or consigning it to extinction. Protecting just one part of a species' habitat, for example, will increase its chances of survival but won't provide a guarantee. Similarly, allowing a housing development to fragment its habitat will decrease its chances but not ensure its doom.
The second reform is simpler but equally necessary - and much harder to imagine in today's political climate. We must increase the federal government's endangered-species budget. For too long, members of Congress have had it both ways, publicly supporting the environment while refusing to approve the funds needed for its protection. To improve the law, we must greatly expand the general public's share of the cost of our conservation efforts. We cannot protect nature fairly by giving Fish and Wildlife less than $100 million each year; we need much more.
There is ample evidence that Americans are willing to provide financial backing for nature. Since the 1950s, the number of private land trusts has ballooned from fewer than 50 to about 1,100; they now cover more than 15 million acres. Countless places across the United States have voluntarily removed land from the tax rolls and set it aside as nature preserves. One of the best examples is Preservation 2000 in Florida, a $3.2 billion bond issue that may buy as much as 2 million acres of wildlife habitat.
Although no social program makes everyone happy, these measures have attracted little of the ire directed at the Endangered Species Act. They are almost entirely voluntary; few people are forced to sell their land. We must stop pretending that every species can be saved for next to nothing. Scaling back the law is a first step in recognizing the reality of making choices; going forward with a fully funded, cooperative program to ensure that these choices can be made wisely is the second.