Listing Bird Induces Cutting:

One of the perverse effects of the Endangered Species Act is that it encourages private landowners to make their land inhospitable to potentially endangered species. This effect is well known (as I've written about here and here). Further evidence comes from Boiling Spring Lakes in North Carolina as reported in the News-Observer:

Since word got around this spring that owners could face problems selling land or building houses where the birds lived, people have been rushing to clear undeveloped lots of pine trees and yanking the woodpecker welcome mat.

More than anywhere else in North Carolina, Boiling Spring Lakes is a place where the coastal development boom and the federal Endangered Species Act have collided.

"People are just afraid a bird might fly in and make a nest and their property is worth nothing," said Joan Kinney, mayor of Boiling Spring Lakes in Brunswick County. "It is causing a tremendous amount of clear-cutting." . . .

The urgency for those clearing lots is that federal wildlife officials are drawing a new set of woodpecker nest maps, due any day. The revised maps will increase the identified woodpecker nests from about 15 to 25 and will greatly expand the number of lots where clearing or tree removal is restricted or banned without federal review. . . .

Lea Anne Werder, a real estate agent, said the woodpeckers had scared off several interested land buyers, and she'd lost two sales.

"I have a client whose property I listed," Werder said. "That was two weeks before we knew anything about the woodpeckers. It so happened that it had an active nest in the middle of it. He was told he wouldn't be able to develop his property. He yelled and screamed and called Fish and Wildlife to complain. Until they get this issue resolved, it's basically worthless."

Werder said there still is property in town for people who are ready to build a house, but that buying property as investment in certain areas is more risky until the issue is settled.

Bonner Stiller, a state lawmaker from Brunswick County, has owned a pair of lots as an investment here for more than 20 years. He cleared them recently. Stiller said he was sorry to lose the trees but wanted to protect his investment.

"You had to get in line to get somebody with a chain saw," Stiller said. "I have not a single pine tree left. Folks around here are terrified of the prospect of losing their property. That causes people to get out there and find out what they can do to protect themselves."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on ESA-Induced Habitat Loss:
  2. Listing Bird Induces Cutting:
Houston Lawyer:
Years ago I worked on a team representing one of the groups trying to get approval to open a dog racing track. This was a high stakes operation, with the winner getting the only license to open a track in this part of the state. During a survey of the property someone just happened to discover the carcass of a prairie chicken on my client's proposed site. We strongly suspect that it was placed there by a competitor as sabotage. Fortunately, it turned out not to be the endangered species of prairie chicken.

Those clearing their land are acting quite rationally. In California a few years ago many people had not cleared the brush on their land for fear of violating environmental laws. Others cleared their land in spite of those laws. When the wild fires came, those who had cleared their land were spared being burned out.
8.8.2006 1:57pm
John T (mail):
The principle behind the Endangered Species Act is perfectly reasonable, but these kind of episodes illustrate why some amount of compensation is reasonable for landowners. It makes sense morally too-- if the entire community wants to collectively save the species, a little bit of collective paying for it is appropriate too.
8.8.2006 2:09pm
Captain Holly (mail) (www):
A much better and more efficient way of protecting the species would be to pay landowners a certain amount if they had endangered woodpeckers on their property.

But that would get expensive, mighty fast.
8.8.2006 2:10pm
pp (mail):
Here in California near Santa Rosa an environmental group transplanted several species of endangered plants into a potential development area for the purpose of shutting it down, not realizing that scientist would actually check....
It is easy to be irate with developers but hard to come down on a small farm owner who is trying to protect probably their only asset.
8.8.2006 2:13pm
Sigivald (mail):
Cap'n Holly: But if the payments decreased in proportion to the level of endangerment's decrease, we'd end up with a nice equilibrium, I reckon.

The real question would become, do "we" actually want to pay out for endangered species (especially ones that aren't cute or obviously-unique-and-worth-saving-to-a-layman's-eye) in such an obvious fashion?

Payments in the form of funding ESA enforcement and studies are, I think, probably less controversial and harder to opposed effectively than a direct subsidy for providing habitat. Opposing the ESA is easy to brand as being "anti-environment" or "pro-extinction", but opposing throwing money at providing habitat for a specific rodent in a specific place? That's not so hard to get support for...
8.8.2006 2:27pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
pp, I knew a lawyer in the Santa Rosa area, started taking environmental cases on behalf of neighbors against developers to stop unwanted development. Vernal pools, red tailed mice, more and more EIRs, etc. She became very good at this, always won against the developers.

So with that background, it was fascinating to come to Florida, which was much different. Lately, thought, there seems to be this trend of lawsuits against purchaser and developers of properties in the Tampa Bay area, for failure to disclose the existence on property of endangered species.

Where I kept my disability service horse up until a couple months ago, when I would ride at night near the arena I would hear this exquisite bird call. I later learned it came from bald eagle parents that had a nest neat the one end of the arena. Late last spring, every so often, the baby eagles that were feathering out and learning to fly would miscalculate and crash through the braanches of the trees at the end of the arena.

The farm was sold for development for condos a few months ago, as were several other farms along the same rural road. Signs went up in front of a farm closeby the end fo the area, with pictures of the condo development that was supposed to go in there. But it never got built. I later heard the purchaser-developer was suing the seller for failure to disclose the farm was within 500 feet of the eagle nest,and therefore no development could occur on that farm.

When the first farm where I boarded closed, I moved to another one around the corner on the other side of the eagles. This farm has a giant lake and nature preserve area. A few days ago, I saw one of the eagles fly over the lake. Very regal. When you see an adult bald eagle fly across an expanse of nature like that, it is easy to understand why they should be protected. They are magnificent.
8.8.2006 2:59pm
Tom Holsinger (mail):
Here in California's San Joaquin Valley the farmers plow fencepost to fencepost to make certain there are no endangered species on their farms. Some even investigated a soil sterilizer which used microwaves to cook the soil.

Their fears are justified. In my area a dairyman who lusted after some duck-hunting money excavated some ponds and marshes on his dairy to attract ducks so he could rent out the land for duck-hunting use in season, only to discover, to his suprise, shock and horror, that those made his dairy a federally protected wetland.

Merced County has some otherwise useless land used for grazing which, due to the proximity of the new University of California at Merced campus, has attracted attention from environmentalists. We have a weird critter called the fairy shrimp which lives only in seasonal vernal pools. Some landowners were required to fence their vernal pools to keep cattle out in order to protect the fairy shrimp. The land is so useless, and the acreage required to graze a cow so large, that the legal requirement to install and maintain these silly fences basically destroys the profit margin, and marginal financial return, on its use for grazing or any other purpose.

I.e., the vernal pool fencing requirement is effectively a taking of the only economically viable use of the land.
8.8.2006 3:09pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I think we can safely say that there are THREE certain hings in this world: death, taxes, and the law of unintended consequences.
8.8.2006 3:17pm
There's an old story from the 70s, possibly apocryphal, about some of the early environmental regulations. As I heard the story, one of the new EPA regulations required that anybody installing a manufacturing facility in an air district had to determine the likely amount of emissions from that factory and then take action to reduce emissions from other sources by the same amount. It seemed perfectly reasonable.

But then somebody tried to set up a furniture-making factory in a poor rural parish in Louisiana. There were no other manufacturing facilities in that air district, so the businessman was at a loss for how to compensate for the small amount of heavy hydrocarbons his factory would release. But his lawyer came up with a bright idea for solving the problem. Many local deciduous trees emit heavy hydrocarbons from their leaves. They therefore purchased a few hundred acres of forest and cut down all the trees, removing the source of emissions.

Needless to say, this was not the EPA's intent. It just goes to show that sometimes a well-written law turns out to be disastrously wrong.

Can anybody confirm or deny this anecdote?
8.8.2006 3:41pm
More unintended consequences:
There is a phrase that is common in the western part of the country: "Shoot, shovel and shut up."

Several years ago they wanted to try to re-introduce the California Condor to the wild near the Grand Canyon. Landowners sued to stop it because they were afraid that they might lose control of their property. In the paper the landowners were quoted as saying that they were all for the condors, but were afraid of what might happen under the ESA.
8.8.2006 7:45pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
My sister-in-law's tiny (really tiny, as in five feet across) backyard koi pond is apparently now recognized habitat of the red-legged frog, a threatened species. This is not a big deal for her, since all she seems to be required to do is leave the frogs alone, not go out of her way to protect them or anything. (That would have been pesky, since the pond is apparently a blue heron's favorite snack site; the couple koi still alive in there are the ones with better sense than to show themselves.) In fact, it was rather a convenience in dealing with the neighbor who demanded that she do something about the frogs because of the noise they made at night. All the same, if she ever wanted to get rid of the pond, she might get into legal difficulties. Which is bizarre, given that the pond (and the house, and indeed the whole subdivision) is only a few years old, and since it's at the top of a high ridge isn't what you'd call normal frog habitat anyway. The real mystery to me is how the frogs actually got in there in the first place, because there aren't any nearby bodies of water.
8.8.2006 8:00pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
MK Day-Petrano: I live in Sarasota. A local fishing magazine that runs a page of "Poacher reports" had a story last week about a contractor for a developer in Lee Co. who just plead guilty to knocking down a tree with a Bald Eagle nest that was preventing construction. His, of course, is a federal rap.

But there certainly are a lot of Bald Eagles, not to mention Ospreys, around here. I see them nearly every day.
8.8.2006 9:41pm
A much better and more efficient way of protecting the species would be to pay landowners a certain amount if they had endangered woodpeckers on their property.

But that would get expensive, mighty fast.
It would be just as expensive as it is now, but the expense would be borne by the taxpayers instead of some random landowners.
When you see an adult bald eagle fly across an expanse of nature like that, it is easy to understand why they should be protected.
Yes, it is easy to understand, when it isn't your money!
8.8.2006 10:20pm
Finding archaeological objects can halt development or agriculture just as fast. Again, there's a perverse incentive to destroy or bury what you find and not report it.

We need to set up the incentives so people want to protect the species or allow artifact recovery or whatever. Compensation of some sort is only fair.
8.8.2006 11:07pm
Passing By:
Is the faux-complaint that the trees are coming down sooner as opposed to later? Because nothing in the original post suggests that, absent legislation, the trees won't be coming down eventually.
8.8.2006 11:57pm
Randy R. (mail):
I can certainly understand why property owners act they way they do -- destroy the environment in order to save themselves their investment.

Trouble is, when you read a book like "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, you begin to understand that the environment always wins in the end, and you can't change nature's laws. Call me naive, but in the long run, it is in all our interests to protect our environment, since we are all dependent upon it for our survival. History is littered with the debris of collapsed civilizations that were acting perfectly rationally....
8.9.2006 12:04am
Tom Bri (mail):
A case I recall from the late 1980s in Florida, and elderly lady had a tract of longleaf pines that was threatened with 'protection'. She had it cut down forthwith for the cash value of the wood. She had been saving it as her nest-egg, and could not risk losing it.

I hear a lot of stories from farmers. One is, if you dig a hole for a fencepost, get the post in fast. If any water should collect in the hole you could lose the land to wetlands protection. Don't know if this is true, but the stories reveal the level of fear.
8.9.2006 1:50am
Good point - if people were purchasing these properties for investment or development purposes, would the trees really have been saved in any case? That undercuts the claim that it is the ESA that "encourages private landowners to make their land inhospitable to potentially endangered species". How many of these people were planning on destroying the habitat anyways?
8.9.2006 1:57am
"Don't know if this is true, but the stories reveal the level of fear."

You mean ignorance? By what regulation does a fence post hole become a wetland? Do you ever think you might be to blame for this level of fear by repeating these stories?
8.9.2006 2:00am
Spoons (mail) (www):
It is not accurate to say that the trees would have come down anyways. Some would, surely, to accomodate development, but in all likelihood many would have been left. The socialist environmental laws are motivating people to clear cut.
8.9.2006 6:05am
1. The ESA as applied to the RCW is particularly insane. Not just because of the unintended consequences we've been discussing, but because the alternative would be so dramatically better. The thousands and thousands of landowners out there who now can only be victims or enemies of the program could be turned into allies with a live-bounty program.

2. Maintenance of great RCW habitat and operation of a profitable timber operation (barring ESA punishments) are not at all mutually exclusive. Establishment of long-rotation, selective-cut longleaf pine stands can accomplish both. Takes a generation to get there, though.

3. "The trees would have been cut anyway" may have been technically true, but if there were incentives for other management programs, they would not necessarily have been clear-cut.

4. The positive incentive program must be reward-based, as opposed to compensation-based. For many of these thousands, their (our, actually) connection to what is often family lands is so visceral that it is literally not for sale at any price, and no amount of compensation will be satisfactory for the loss of their freedom.

5. Forget public funding, then. Find a philanthropist or recently glorified CEO who has an interest in it and set bounties for a breeding population that's "certified" (somehow - work it out) for 2 years or so. Two years later the owner is eligible again.

It can be done. The net effects in the long run would be more habitat, more RCWs, better local timber on the market, and a much better relationship between landowners and our regulatory masters.
8.9.2006 9:17am
In the Inland Empire (inland So Cal) a freind who ran a citrus packing operation told me some years ago his SOP was to cut down all the trees not growing the fruit to prevent the Endanger SPecies from nesting, and let the county till the weeds and bill you for it, so if something was killed it wasn't by you.
8.9.2006 12:54pm
The law of unintended consequences meets the principle that people act in their own self interest. Is anyone really surprised?
8.9.2006 1:26pm
Passing By,
Whether or not they would have come down eventually ins immaterial: plans to do something "later" result in occassional clearings, with some sites never (or not in ourr lifetimes, anyway) getting cut. Cutting them all NOW is a serious environmental impact. In other words, even if they were all slated for development "eventually," this result is still worse, environmentally speaking.

Randy R,
"Call me naive, but in the long run, it is in all our interests to protect our environment..."
Yes, and "environmental" laws that STRONGLY encourage BAD environmental practics help this... how?

"You mean ignorance?" Have you seen some of the things that have been dubbed "wetlands"?!? Seriously, it's so completely ridiculous that, while I've never heard of a post-hole being classified such, it wouldn't surprise in the least. Bureaucracy is stupid beyond human comprehension.
8.9.2006 3:49pm
Riskable (mail) (www):
The argument that the land owners acted rationally doesn't add up. There's no rational reason why the land had to be clear-cut. In fact, clear-cutting land can *lower* the price if the intent is to develop it. Having mature trees on the land is much more valuable than a completely empty lot if you intend to build homes.

The environmental regulations protecting the woodpecker don't say, "if you have an endangered bird on your lot, you can't cut down any trees." It merely states that you have to take reasonable precautions to prevent harm to the woodpecker.

So the rational thing to do if you were worried about a woodpecker taking roost on your property would be to cut down SOME of the trees and to make a particular space (preferably out of the way) that is more welcoming to the bird. That way you can have a lot with value, with trees, and with an endangered species.

"I have a license to kill -9"
8.10.2006 2:11pm