Trump Administration Moves to Weaken Endangered Species Act

The Trump administration has just proposed new regulations that would seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

According to a notice of the proposed changes on the website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the proposal is to be published in the July 25 Federal Register, with the public having a 60-day period until Sept. 24, 2018 to submit comments supporting or opposing it.

The ESA is one of our society’s most widely accepted conservation laws, according to a July 23 article in Vox online by Brian Resnick. A recent poll conducted by Ohio State University indicates that 83 percent of Americans polled, including large numbers of Republicans, support the act.

However, its protections for species that are found at risk of imminent extinction, and its lesser protections for species at less immediate risk that are found to be “threatened,” can impose higher costs and administrative inconveniences on mining, ranching, and oil and gas interests that want to profit from the exploitation of public lands. Many of these economic interests exercise great influence over the Trump administration and the GOP and would like to see the law made much weaker.  

In a recent article in Jacobin magazine, socialist writer Meagan Day writes that one of the key changes that the Trump administration is proposing would “allow the economic consequences of protecting plants or animals to be considered when deciding whether or not they face extinction.” She adds, “If this amendment passes, species could be removed or disqualified from the list because their habitats are desirable to the oil, mining, logging, ranching, and development industries.”

Day further comments that “Democratic politicians, liberal commentators, and environmental leaders are rightly outraged over the assault on the ESA …But in their haste to condemn Republicans — who no doubt deserve every ounce of acrimony — they’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.” Today, for the most part, endangered and threatened animal and plant species are at risk of going extinct because of the activities of profit-seeking corporations, and the threat that such corporations pose to such species is part of the logic of capitalism itself.

The original purpose of the ESA, which Congress passed and Republican president Richard Nixon signed into law in 1973, is to keep profit-driven development and extraction industries from wiping out endangered species forever, Day notes: “There is an implicit recognition in the law that private corporations will naturally seek to destroy wildlife habitats and must be prevented from doing so by state intervention. This is why the original text of the law specifies that determinations about which species’ habitats will become protected must be made ‘without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.’”

But in the service of capitalism and capitalist profits, the Trump administration, much of the Republican Party and a certain number of Democratic Party pols, too, are now proposing to strip out that provision from the law. Widespread capture of the capitalist state by corporate capitalist interests, moreover, is giving them an increased chance of success this year.

Day concludes: “Given the systemic nature of the problem, the Left’s political task in situations like the current ESA assault is not simply to assert the value of precious things against the politicians whose bad bills threaten them. We must go one step further and name the antagonist driving the process: the capitalist class. We must argue not only that things like public lands, biodiversity, and the health of the planet are important, but that they are more important than private profit, for that’s the calculus being worked out in the halls of government.”  For more details, see here.

The Trump / GOP effort to gut the ESA also is the subject of a July 25, 2018 article in Mother Jones by Dan Pinelli. In addition to allowing federal agencies to cite the economic costs of protecting species when the government is deciding whether to list them, Pinelli writes,

“The changes would also shift the balance of authority from federal regulators to the states and strip protections from several animals whose habitats pose a nuisance for developers and oil firms. Stakeholders who benefit from these rollbacks do not reflect the majority of voters, or even the Republican Party, but their viewpoint, closely aligned with the GOP and Trump, has become ascendant in recent years.”

The oil and gas companies are among the corporations that would benefit the most from the Trump administration’s weakening amendments, Pinelli writes in Mother Jones. However, farmers and ranchers and other large landowners also often are annoyed by protection plans for endangered plants and animals, and the Farm Bureau and the Western Governors Association are among a number of organizations lobbying in favor of ESA-weakening language.  One proposed change to the law would allow state officials to submit comments to the government on the behavior of federal employees involved with the ESA – creating an obvious mechanism for intimidating federal employees who are too zealous to make the law effective.

One other provision of the proposed ESA amendments that deserves special mention, as a recent press release from the Center for Biological Diversity points out, would specifically prevent the federal authorities from designating “critical habitats” for species deemed to be at risk because of climate change.

[Kiéran Suckling, the CBD’s director, had lots to say on Democracy Now July 25 about this latest move from Trump. –ed.]


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