Well-managed forests throughout the United States provide important habitat to a host of wildlife species, including threatened and endangered species.
The National Association of State Foresters (NASF) has supported the goal of protecting threatened and endangered species through the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and will continue to do so. Still, experiences with the act and its implementation have led State Foresters to identify a number of concerns.
NASF has a clear interest in seeing that the ESA is effective at its intended purpose and also supportive of sound forest management. Following are NASF’s main concerns and recommendations:
The Listing Process
The listing process for endangered species has no clear standard for defining the best available science. The mandated time frames for review are too restrictive and don’t allow for additional studies to be initiated that might lead to a more complete body of data. In addition, entities outside of the petitioners can well have a clear interest in the decision, yet have no formal role in a process that could result in a negotiated settlement. NASF recommends the listing process be adjusted to incorporate multiple voices, not only those with the petitioner, so as to help guide the designation. Guidelines on the adequacy of science should also be put in place. If there is no adequate science, no listing should be enacted. All scientific and commercial information during the process should be made publically available.
Critical Habitat Designation
There is debate concerning whether critical habitat designations, as they are currently established, have any great bearing on recovery success. NASF recommends strengthening critical habitat provisions that allow agencies to consider the adverse impacts to current land use as a reason not to designate specific areas as critical habitat. Steps must be taken to provide that critical habitat designation is not required when loss of habitat is not the prevailing reason for decline and ensure that management protocols within critical habitat are clearly aligned with species needs.
Section 7 Consultation
On federal projects, Section 7 consultations can lead to costly delays. Narrow interests have litigated the consultation process in order to undermine other authorizing federal legislation such as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 and others. Even though there is an exemption process for moving forward on federal projects when there is a finding of adverse impact, this process is seldom used. One improvement to the process would be to allow federal agencies with subject matter expertise to make their own findings of adverse impact or jeopardy.
In order to withstand challenges, Habitat Conservation Plans and accompanying Incidental Take Permits must be both legal documents and biological dissertations. Developing them is both costly and time consuming. Agreements allowing state-level management and issuance of Incidental Take Permits are difficult to achieve. Individual properties can have habitat for endangered species that come under the jurisdictions of both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, making cooperative agreements even more challenging to obtain.
NASF recommends that cooperative agreements be seen as the highest agency priority so that they can be completed in a timely and less costly manner. When species under the jurisdictions of both FWS and NOAA Fisheries are involved in a cooperative agreement with a landowner, authority for negotiating and approving the agreement should be given to one agency. Procedures for modifying or opting out of cooperative agreements must be clarified and a greater emphasis on helping states get into a position whereby they manage endangered species under cooperative agreement is needed.
Relationship to Private Owners
Private landowners can fear the regulatory impact of an endangered species designation, leading to passive rather than active management of endangered species and incomplete information concerning endangered species on private lands. There can also be inconsistent or unequal treatment towards various private landowners based on their federal agency region of residence. NASF recommends that the federal agencies work to better involve and educate private land owners on regulations, create more financial incentives for endangered species habitat on private land, and increase landowner involvement in agency decisions. Regional direction on protocols and practices to avoid taking should be subject to national oversight that ensures consistency across regions.
Photo by 2011 NASF Foundation Photography Fellow Josh Birnbaum.