Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs may be the only ones brave enough to push Endangered Species Act reform

Arizona has a disproportionate percentage of congressional representatives who are members of what can be dubbed the intransigent caucus: Members who prefer inaction to the concessions and compromises necessary for governing.

Three of Arizona’s Republican House members – Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs and David Schweikert – are fixtures in the intransigent caucus. As are Democrats Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego.

That leaves just three members who are willing to be part of what could be called a governing caucus: Republican Martha McSally and Democrats Tom O’Halleran and Kyrsten Sinema.

So far, newcomer Debbie Lesko, who replaced Trent Franks in a special election, seems to have a foot in both camps.

The intransigent caucus, particularly the Republicans, have come in for a fair amount of criticism in this column. The unrealistic positions they take actually end up moving policy to the left, rather than more to the right as they, and I, would prefer. This is particularly true on budget matters.

What it takes to lead on reform

However, the same characteristics that render them counterproductive on things like the budget render them almost indispensable on other things, such as reform of the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act is an assault on private property rights and undermines the multiple use concept that is supposed to govern public lands.

Under the act, the federal government is required to designate species as endangered based upon statutory criteria. It then establishes critical habitat for the species, irrespective of whether the land is private or public. What can be done on land so designated is severely limited.

Moreover, private parties can sue under the act, which has created governance by litigation.

Just in the month of July, the Center for Biological Diversity filed two lawsuits to enjoin the use of land under the act. In one, it is trying to stop increasing the height of a dam in water-starved California on behalf of a four-inch salamander. In the other, it is trying to stop a car manufacturing plant from being built in Alabama on behalf of a one-inch fish.

They’re willing to endure the overreaction

Although the Endangered Species Act is long overdue for reform, on environmental issues the left monopolizes the public discussion with hyperbolic overreaction. Any reform, irrespective of how modest, is denounced as an effort to foul the air and water and kill off the bald eagle.

Republicans in the governing caucus tend to flinch and avoid such fights. Gosar and Biggs are leading with their chins.

Gosar is chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, which recently released a package of nine bills to reform the Endangered Species Act. Biggs is a cosponsor of the bills and the lead sponsor on one.

None of the bills touch the core of the act. Species would still have to be listed according to the statutory criteria. That would have the same consequences regarding the designation of critical habitat. Outside groups could still sue to compel enforcement.

But the bills would attempt to provide leeway on implementation and try to increase cooperation to achieve the act’s aims.

Reforms don’t touch the core of the act

When Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, was secretary of the interior, he did some of that administratively, creating cooperative agreements with land owners for conservation while giving them some greater certainty about what they could do with their land. One of the bills codifies this option in statute, making such voluntary agreements even more attractive and reliable.

Other bills formalize the role of states and other stakeholders in the process and permits delegating conservation efforts to them. Another bill requires that the scientific evidence relied upon in making listing decisions be made public.

The Trump administration has also issued some proposed regulations regarding the Endangered Species Act. Again, none touch the core elements of the act.

One regulation says that the same criteria used for listing species will be used to delist them. Another would not automatically treat threatened species the same as endangered ones, a distinction made in the law. Another would consider the adequacy of existing habitat before recommending an expansion.

Cue the hyperbolic overreaction. The Center for Biological Diversity called the Trump regulatory changes a “wrecking ball” which, had they been effect, would have meant the extinction of the bald eagle, the gray whale and the polar bear. I’m not making that up.

A cheer to Gosar and Biggs, and the Trump administration, for braving such political ill winds.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com.

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