Newt and the Endangered Species Act

by Jonathan H. Adler

Why do many conservatives, free marketeers and property rights advocates distrust Newt Gingrich on environmental policy?  Both because of his record as Speaker and the positions he’s taken.  Consider this passage from his 2007 book, A Contract with the Earth, co-authored by Terry Maple:

Environmental stewardship is everyone’s responsibility, including Congress’s. That is why I worked so diligently as Speaker of the House to protect the Endangered Species Act, historic legislation that has been mired in some controversy. Despite its flaws — and there are some — it is an essential conservation tool. In my evaluation of the legislation, I sought the advice of leading biologists such as E. O. Wilson and Thomas Eisner, esteemed members of the National Academy of Sciences. Good government depends on the counsel of our nation’s best scientists. The Endangered Species Act is an excellent example of the value of civility, consultation, and collaboration. Mediation and compromise by interior personnel in the field (by contrast with office bureaucrats) have produced good results, a function of shared values and democratic ideals.

The ESA has more than a few “flaws” — it is an utter failure on environmental and  economic grounds.  As I detail in the opening chapter of this book, the Act is failing to conserve threatened and endangered species, particularly on private land.  In some cases, it is actually doing more harm than good, discouraging habitat conservation and corrupting environmental science (as I detailed in this recent testimony before Congress).  And the claim that the Act “is an excellent example of the value of civility, consultation, and collaboration” is jut bizarre.  How could anyone say that about a statute that encourages preemptive habitat destruction, tramples property rights, and discourages cooperation between property owners and conservationists?  When Gingrich says he “worked . . . diligently” to “protect” the Act, he means that he prevented House Republicans from enacting reforms that would have protected private property rights and ameliorated the Act’s greatest flaw: The perverse incentives created by the imposition of land-use restrictions on private land.  Why did he do it?  Perhaps because he was snowed by noted scientists who recognize the importance of species conservation but fail to understand the fundamental ineffectiveness and inequities of the ESA.  Whatever the reason, it is important to know why the former Speaker took these steps, and (given his 2007 defense of his position) whether he would do the same today.