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Animals & Money: How much does the endangered species act cost?

This week President Obama brought science back into the Endangered Species Act, effectively overturning a wild diversion of the law by the Bush administration last summer. Bush decided that federal officials didn't have to bother to consult with scientists when they decided whether logging or mining would impact a species on the brink of extinction. And at the time Bush didn't even want to consult with the public, ramming it though in 30 days, accepting public comment only by snailmail. Rolling Stone called it Bush's last-minute regulatory spree a "final F.U." to the country and the gutting of the ESA "the most jaw-dropping" part. Hundreds of thousands of people wrote in despite the obstacles -- and Bush pretty much ignored them.

"Throughout our history, there's been a tension between those who've sought to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations, and those who have sought to profit from these resources. But I'm here to tell you this is a false choice," Obama said. Republicans, who hate the Endangered Species Act like it was some kind of flag-burning illegal immigrant lesbian, have long contended that the law costs more money than its worth.


And this time is no different. "Our country is in the midst of a terrible economic recession and ...Shovel-ready projects in the trillion-dollar stimulus law could be delayed or halted by this action." fretted Natural Resources Committee Republican Doc Hastings. Of course, Hastings and his fellow Republicans who voted against the stimulus package represented a far bigger obstacle to its effectiveness.

Republicans also want to amend the changes, which are part of the budget, so there's a lengthy public comment period. Hastings calls the change back to the way the ESA has been run for all but three months of its 36 years as "dangerous language" slipped in by a "secret, backdoor maneuver." Everyone, even the Bush administration, knew that the crazy last-minute decapitation of the ESA wasn't going to stand. Instead we wasted Lord know how many millions fighting it--including a lawsuit by California and eight other states--pretending that it was going to change, and now going back to the way it should be. What about the financial impact of all that political theater?

Originally the ESA wasn't supposed to consider financial concerns, something even the Supreme Court agreed. But by 1978 the law changed to say we officially had to start thinking about costs, according to the University of Michigan's Jason Shogren. By 1988, Congress was requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete recovery plans for each species, including recovery times and costs, but the General Accounting Office found in 2006 found only 20 of 107 plans they looked at had cost estimates. To be fair, these estimates would be silly in some cases because the time span for full recovery was often 50 years. Also, the biggest costs, opponents argue, are really all the logging, mining and polluting we can't do because of the pesky ESA. Making money off everyone's natural resources is assumed to be a right.

The economics of the ESA have always been fuzzy, says Andrew Gunther in the San Francisco Gate because we don't know how to count all the good things savings species (and the environment) does for us. How do you put a price on saving the bald eagle? If you just look at all the places around the country people travel to just to see our national bird, you'd think it was paying for itself. Overall we spend $46 billion just to see wildlife and another $42 billion to fish it and $23 billion to hunt it, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2006 the ESA cost $1.6 billion to run, about 10% of which went for king salmon. A NOAA report puts recreational fishing at an astounding $82 billion, with $4.2 billion spent in the Pacific northwest. The 2009 budget for the Endangered Species Act was $146 billion. Which would you rather spend the money on: all the endangered species in the country, or just 1/100th of the $163 billion we've invested in AIG?

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