In this two-volume analysis of American policy governed by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), contributor Steven L. Yaffee notes that the law “has fundamentally changed natural resource decisionmaking in the United States.” Few would disagree with that assessment, which is reason enough to make this review of what has been—and could have been—achieved under the ESA in its 30-year existence well worth reading.
The Endangered Species Act at Thirty, edited by Dale Goble, Michael Scott, and Frank Davis, offers a comprehensive overview of the ESA's effectiveness in saving and recovering species and habitat, and examines the interplay of the law with science, land-use planning, and politics. The first volume, Renewing the Conservation Promise, looks at the available data to evaluate the effectiveness of species recovery and habitat protection efforts over the past three decades, and includes an extensive discussion of how policy could be improved in the years to come. The second volume, Conserving Biodiversity in Human-dominated Landscapes, contains more in-depth analysis of specific areas of endangered species conservation.
Editor Dale Goble is a professor of law at the University of Idaho, Mike Scott is a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Idaho, and Frank Davis is a professor in the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Chapter authors include some of the most respected experts on endangered species science, American wildlife law, and biodiversity policy, many of whom have decades of experience with the ESA.
A lot has changed since President Richard Nixon signed the ESA into law with unanimous support in the Senate and opposition from only 12 members of the House of Representatives. Since that time, the ESA has been amended by Congress repeatedly, barely escaping many drastic revisions that would have undermined species protection. Individual chapters address population growth and habitat loss over the last 30 years, but a chapter providing an overview of land conversion, forest loss, resource consumption, and explosive growth in invasive species problems would have been a useful accompaniment to the background on the law's political history.
The first two-thirds of volume 1, essentially a report card on what has been achieved since the ESA took effect, provides an excellent background on endangered species in the United States. Some chapters offer new insights and data on the ESA that are unavailable elsewhere. For example, D. Noah Greenwald and colleagues review the history of species listings, and the analysis by Robert P. Davison and colleagues provides insights into the effectiveness of the National Wildlife Refuge System in protecting threatened and endangered species. Several authors make clear their belief—with many chapters providing quantitative or qualitative evidence to support their assertions—that federal agencies charged with implementing the ESA have repeatedly missed opportunities to conserve and recover many more species. The case studies in these chapters make for interesting reading. Michael J. Bean and other authors describe the bizarre conditions and sometimes daunting procedural requirements that US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service staff have imposed on other government and nongovernment partners attempting to initiate recovery efforts.
Many authors discuss the ESA's shortcomings as if those inadequacies were somehow specific to this one national law. There cannot be many such broad and ambitious measures that have not resulted in similar failures to achieve lofty goals. Whether such efforts addressed the War on Poverty or species protection, these disappointments provide fuel for critics' attempts to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many chapters in volume 1 make clear the positive impact the ESA has had in helping save and recover species—so this baby is worth keeping.
I found the second volume the more thought-provoking of the two, because the content addresses the significantly different world in which the ESA now operates. The United States is home today to almost 90 million more people, with 120 million more cars. Moreover, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the amount of newly developed land has swelled by more than 35 million acres (14 million hectares) during the last 20 of those years. We truly live in a human-dominated landscape where anthropogenic effects of everything from invasive species to climate change affect almost every part of the country. Chapters in volume 2 discuss hybridization policy, ecosystem services, conservation banking, efforts to define and protect distinct populations, and a host of other significant policy issues and opportunities.
Housing and other development activities have given rise to what are probably the greatest challenges to efforts to maintain the ESA's protections in Congress and implement them on the ground. The chapters by David L. Sunding and Thomas A. Scott and colleagues are especially fascinating. The authors used in-depth analyses of case studies of conflicts between development and endangered species to generate insightful reflections on land-use policy. Together with Holly Doremus's review, “Science and Controversy,” these three chapters alone make this volume worth acquiring. Doremus's contribution provides an excellent assessment of how science is used and politicized under the ESA.
Missing from these volumes was a soul-searching analysis of whether and how scientists have responded to America's potential loss of biodiversity by producing the information needed to find ways to preserve it. Again and again, authors note that critical data are missing on habitat, on the effect of land-use decisions, and on the basic biology of species. Shortcomings in these areas are typically attributed to a lack of funding or political will. However, with the exception of a discussion by Peter Kareiva and colleagues in volume 1 about the Nature Conservancy's efforts to prioritize, collect, and use the best information available, it is clear that scientists have not collectively established their own set of research and data collection priorities. I believe that this kind of introspection would have been an important addition to this work.
A minor weakness of this book derives from the strength of the authors, who have such expertise in the ESA that there isn't always enough context to help a casual reader grasp important details. However, many other chapters—such as the one by Mary H. Ruckelshaus and Donna Darm in volume 2 on the use of science in ESA implementation, or another by Gregory M. Parkhurst and Jason F. Shogren on incentives for private lands conservation—offer enough background and analysis for ESA novice and expert alike.
This two-volume set was informed by a conference on the same subject held in 2005. Although the conference had the explicit intent of influencing changes in US government policy, it is difficult to see where The Endangered Species Act at Thirty has yet achieved that specific goal. The good ideas contained in this book are scarcely reflected in Bush administration policy, and certainly not in the 2005 legislative effort in the House of Representatives to drastically reduce ESA protections for species. A 2006 bill in the US Senate, championed by Senator Michael D. Crapo (R–Idaho), does create tax incentives that implicitly reflect the recommendations of Barton H. Thompson Jr. in volume 1 for motivating private landowners to become involved in species conservation. Unfortunately, good advice often falls on deaf ears—a fact of life and politics that doesn't make the authors' numerous recommendations any less insightful or relevant to improving policy. Indeed, these volumes deserve the attention of all current and future practitioners of endangered species law, policy, and science in the United States.