Environmental activists are howling worse than a heartsick wolf on a moonless winter night over proposed revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) is circulating a draft revision to the ESA that, according to Defenders of Wildlife Executive Vice President Jamie Rappaport Clark, "takes a wrecking ball to the whole Endangered Species Act."

But taking into account that its goal is to conserve and recover endangered species, the Act already seems pretty well wrecked. Since 1973 some 1,264 species have been put on the Endangered Species list and there are 286 candidate species waiting to be listed. The idea behind listing species is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would devise plans aimed at recovering listed species so their wild populations would grow to the point where they could maintain themselves.

How successful have the Feds been at recovering species? Not very.

Since 1973, only 40 species have been removed from the endangered and threatened species list and only 15 of those have been de-listed because their populations had recovered. The other de-listed species either went extinct (nine species) or shouldn't have been listed in the first place (16 species). Only about one percent of listed species have been declared no longer in endangered or threatened by extinction. Despite this sorry performance, the activist group Endangered Species Coalition hails the ESA as "one of our nation's strongest environmental laws."

One aspect of the draft revisions of the ESA that raises the ire of activists is the proposal to permit compensation when a property owner shows that a government action aimed at protecting an endangered species has diminished a property's value by at least 50 percent. The Center for Biological Diversity tendentiously declares that this draft provision would "bankrupt the federal agencies by diverting conservation funds to pay landowners and corporations to obey the law."

At a recent seminar at Seattle University, Holly Fretwell, a senior fellow at the Property Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, offered some case studies showing why compensation to landowners is not only fair but also in the interests of saving endangered species. Fretwell cited the case of Ben Cone, a tree farmer in North Carolina. Cone owns 7,200 acres on which he raises southern pines in an 80 to 100 year rotation—that is, once he harvests an area, he allows new trees to grow for 80 to 100 years before harvesting them. This kind of forest management is very favorable to wildlife and his woods attracted and sustained a wide variety of animals, including 29 red cockaded woodpeckers. The woodpeckers were listed as endangered in 1970, three years before the ESA was enacted. Red cockaded woodpeckers prefer to make nesting holes in pine trees that are about 80 years old.

Suspecting that Cone's woods might be home to the woodpecker, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) which administers the ESA, required Cone to pay a biologist $8,000 to find woodpeckers in his forests. In 1991, once the woodpeckers had been identified, the FWS prohibited Cone from harvesting timber on 1,560 acres of his land in order to protect woodpecker habitat. The cost to Cone: $1.8 million. Note that the Fish and Wildlife Service paid nothing and the taxpayers in whose names the woodpecker was being protected paid nothing; the only person out any money was Ben Cone. Between 1983 and 1991, Cone had been harvesting 919 tons of timber annually.

Cone, trying not to lose more money and control over his land, increased his rate of harvest on the land he could still access more than 10-fold. His goal was to prevent his pine trees from maturing into trees suitable for nesting woodpeckers. Obviously, this was not good for the woodpeckers the FWS was supposedly trying to help. Later researchers found that as Cone's problems became widely known among North Carolina foresters, many also feared that the feds would some day prohibit them from harvesting their timber. They began to cut their trees on a faster 30 to 40 year rotation in order to prevent woodpeckers from inhabiting their woods. Ultimately, Cone had enough money to hire lawyers to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service for compensation. Afraid that they would lose the case, the feds eventually settled with Cone.

Others have not been so fortunate. Fretwell briefly discussed the economic harm to the impoverished city of Colton, California, caused by uncompensated efforts to protect the Delhi Sands fly. On the outskirts of Austin, Texas, Margaret Rector's 15-acre property plummeted in value from $831,000 to $30,000 once it was declared suitable habitat for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler. As Fretwell noted, "Under the Third Amendment to the Constitution, Americans cannot be forced to quarter soldiers in their houses, but under the ESA Americans can be forced to harbor listed birds, snails, wolves and bears."

The Fifth Amendment also guarantees that private property will not be taken without just compensation. In other words, cities, states, and the federal government can't just take someone's property to build worthy projects like schools and roads without paying them for it. And while it would be far cheaper if the land were just seized, we don't do that and claim that such payments would "bankrupt" government agencies.

Why should the case be any different for protecting endangered species? The draft revisions of the ESA would partially right this current wrong, but why should landowners be compensated for only 50 percent of their losses? We would all think it unjust to give people whose land is taken to build roads and schools only half the value of their property. If the public values endangered species (and most of us do), then it seems only fair that we fully compensate the people on whose land they live for taking care of them for us.