By Donella Meadows
–January 11, 1996–
How much would it cost to save all the endangered species in America? Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) the chairman of the House Committee on Resources recently assigned the General Accounting Office (GAO) to answer that question, not because he cares about species, but because he wants to rub out the Endangered Species Act. He expected the tab to run into trillions, so he could show us that preserving species is simply unaffordable.
The GAO has just issued the report he asked for, sort of.
It’s incomplete, because the government’s work on endangered species is incomplete. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Marine Fisheries Service (charged with protecting land and ocean species respectively) have had time and funds to make recovery plans for only about 400 of the nearly 1000 listed endangered species. About 3000 other species are waiting to be listed. (Congress has put a moratorium on listing new ones.) For its report to Young the GAO chose only 58 of the most threatened species.
The costs to prevent their extinction range from a low of $145,000 for a fish called the White River spinedace to a high of $153.8 million for green and loggerhead sea turtles (one recovery plan for both species). Others are the grizzly bear ($26 million), whooping crane ($48 million), Hawaiian gardenia ($9 million), Gila trout (a mere $816,000), and golden-cheeked warbler ($12 million, a real bargain, says a birder friend of mine: “What would spring be like without Texas’s only endemic breeding bird?”)
So Congressman Young doesn’t have a total, he has 58 examples. (In 1990 the Interior Department did try to estimate recovery costs of all then-listed species. The total came to $4.6 billion, less than what Americans spend annually on video games, less than the $7 billion the Congress casually tacked onto the Pentagon budget this year though the Pentagon didn’t ask for it.)
But the GAO warns us not to take any of these numbers too seriously, because:
1. The most threatened species are the most costly to recover. Typically their populations have been reduced to fewer than 1000 known animals or 100 plants. It’s much cheaper to protect a population that still numbers in the thousands in the wild than it is to breed and hand-feed the last few condor chicks in the world. (The very people who complain about the costs of protection are the ones who fight listings, underfund recovery programs, and drive up costs.)
2. The budgets are only guesses.
3. They lump together apples and oranges — research, land acquisition, monitoring, administration.
4. Land protected for one species provides many benefits that the cost estimates don’t count — hunting, hiking, research, flood control, water quality maintenance, and preservation of other species.
5. Research on one species helps to understand how to preserve others, how to restore degraded lands, and how to protect and enhance agricultural and timber crops.
Washington attorney John Fitzgerald, speaking for several conservation groups, adds some other reasons not to take literally the estimated costs of species preservation:
6. The estimates don’t balance the cost of preservation against the cost of extinction. Some species such as salmon are worth billions of dollars annually. Others may be food or pollinators or pest-controllers for commercially important species. Some may provide crucial biological functions that hold whole ecosystems together. Or contain valuable genes or chemicals. We know so little about most plants and animals that we are not capable of pricing them.
7. Preservation costs should also be weighed against government subsidies of extinction. For decades the feds paid people to poison wolves and shoot eagles and bears. They still pay ranching and timber companies for overgrazing and clearcutting. Our annual subsidy to private loggers on public land is about $200 million a year — while the annual budget for the Endangered Species Act is less than $100 million.
I would add a few items of my own to this cautionary list for Congressman Young:
8. We could save real money by doing what ecologists have been asking for — protecting whole ecosystems instead of species. That way each recovery plan would cover thousands of species, there would be less bureaucracy, and disputes would focus on the real issues — not the spotted owl but the forest, not the snail darter but the river.
9. The reason so many species are in trouble is that we have been taking enormous value from nature without paying any rent back to the source of that value. We have been pricing nature at zero. Whatever we have to pay to save or restore its most tattered bits, it’s a small return for the wealth we have received.
10. When it comes to saving species, as when it comes to saving human lives, protecting national security, or preserving democracy, the issue goes way beyond money. Nature is beyond price. It is the supporter of all life, a treasure of astounding intricacy and beauty, a source of comfort, awe, inspiration, and knowledge, as well as wealth. If we’re going to eliminate its working parts, we should have a much better excuse than an incomplete, uncertain, and unjustified calculation that we can’t afford not to.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996