The U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings(R-WA), held their first of multiple oversight hearings today on the Endangered Species Act(ESA). The ESA, originally passed in 1973 and reauthorized in 1988, “provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found.” Chairman Hastings and his committee today examined the impact of how litigation involving the ESA currently is costing the country jobs and preventing the recovery of endangered species.

Chairman Hastings in his opening statement said he believes “it’s the responsibility of this Committee and Congress to ask questions and examine if the original intent of this law is still being carried out two decades later.” He continued onto say that the intent of this set of hearings will be to have an open dialogue to see if there are ways to update the law to make it better for both species and people. In regards to today’s hearing Hastings said, “the litigation mindset that is consuming the ESA has had significant job and economic impacts throughout the West – unnecessarily pitting people against species. During these challenging economic times, America cannot afford runaway regulations and endless lawsuits.”

The panel of witnesses before the committee brought arguments from both sides of the discussion. The witnesses were broken down into two panels. The first panel included Karen Budd-Falen, Attorney for Budd-Falen Law Offices; Doug Miller, General Manager Public Utility District #2 of Pacific County;Kieran Suckling, Executive Director, Center for Biological Diversity; Jay Tutchton, General Counsel of WildEarth Guardians; John Leshy, Professor at UC-Hastings College of Law; and Brandon Middleton, Attorney Pacific Legal Foundation.

Budd-Falen, Miller and Middleton were among those that have issues with the ESA and the impact it has on jobs and the economy. While Budd-Falen doesn’t advocate the complete repeal of the ESA, she said that “rather than saving species and conserving their habitats, the ESA is used as a sword to tear down the American economy, drive up food, energy and housing costs and wear down and take out rural communities and counties.” She went onto question, while some species meet their recovery goals, why do they then remain on the endangered species list.

Doug Miller testified on behalf of Energy Northwest and four public utility districts. He spoke about the Radar Ridge Wind Energy Project, which would have created a number of jobs in the state of Washington. The project was set for land that was occupied by marbled murrelets which are on the endangered species list. After about 3 years of going through the permit process and reviews with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service(FWS), the FWS decided to seek an Environmental Impact Statement(EIS). Due to multiple delays with the EIS, they were unable to meet schedule set forth in the original Memorandum of Understanding(MOU). In the end the Radar Ridge Wind Project had to be abandoned. It resulted in a loss of $4M in project development costs, and a number of potential part-time and full-time jobs lost.

Bandon Middleton testified saying, “Rather than provide incentives for conservation and environmental stewardship, the Endangered Species Act punishes those whose property contains land that might be used as habitat by endangered and threatened species.” He believes the ESA places species above human well- being.

Kieran Suckling, Jay Tutchton and John Leshy spoke in support of the ESA. Suckling said that based on the program, the average species recovery time on the list is 21 years, but based on the program it should be 42 years. So on average the ESA recovery process is working in half the scheduled time. Currently 93% of the species are on a path to recovery, while 82% have been down listed.

Tutchton said that the ESA is needed and has the support of the public. In a survey conducted in February of this year, 84% of the public were in support of the ESA. On the notion that lawyers are filing frivolous suits just to win money, Tutchton mentioned they have to win the case to get paid. And beyond winning they still have to meet certain criteria and a federal judge ultimately determines the pay-out, which is almost always less than what they sought.

Leshy testified saying, “The title of today’s hearing, I respectfully submit, paints a very misleading picture about the Endangered Species Act. It implies that litigation is a dominant part of the Act’s implementation, that it is costly to the economy, and that it, and the Act itself, are ineffective at protecting species. Each of these implications is, based on my experience working with the Act, erroneous.”

The second panel to testify included: Dan Ashe, Director U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Eric Scwaab, Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA). Director Ashe spoke of the benefits the ESA has had over the years. In regards to the focus of the hearing and litigation, Ashe said “We fully agree with the concern that our resources are better spent on implementing the ESA than on litigation.” He went onto say that the FWS is committed to improving ESA and the implementation of ESA.

Schwaab testified of better ways to implement the ESA. He recommended as did Ashe, the need for regulatory improvement as part of Executive Order 13563 signed by President Obama. Schwaab also believes working with the States and receiving more cooperation from them will help with ESA implementation.

For more information on today’s hearing visit the House Natural Resources Committee Website here.