By PAUL C. BARTON, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- When the federal government considers protections for threatened plants and animals, the Endangered Species Act requires that economic consequences for humans stay out of the equation.
But as the law nears its 40th anniversary, some wonder how much longer that tenet can withstand growing demand for land, water and other resources.
While the public supports protecting threatened plant and animal life, "at what point are they going to say, 'Can we afford to do this and take care of ourselves?'" says Jason F. Shogren, professor of natural resource conservation and management at the University of Wyoming.
When it was passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was seen as vital to protecting "charismatic" species like the bald eagle.
"It was apple pie," Shogren said.
But now, the professor said, the act is being employed to protect varieties of life that strike many as obscure.
Take for example, the five-year-old fight in California over the three-inch nondescript fish known as the "delta smelt," which is caught up in fresh water pumped from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. The water is treasured by farms in California's Central Valley, which have long carried the moniker "America's Salad Bowl" due to their prodigious fresh vegetable and fruit yields.
It's also a staple to municipal water authorities throughout the state, even Southern California desert communities like Palm Springs. In all, more than 25 million Californians have a stake in the delta water.
But pumping became restricted during certain months of the year after federal officials decided in 2008 that the practice endangered both the delta smelt and the Chinook Salmon. Taking water from the delta, federal scientists said, both altered its salinity in a way detrimental to fresh-water fish and resulted in many delta smelt being caught up in the giant pumps.
Farm groups and other water users immediately went to court, and U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger faulted the science behind the Fish and Wildlife Service's "biological opinion." In response, environmental interests are appealing Wanger's ruling to the 9th Circuit, while the Fish and Wildlife Service is busy working on a new biological opinion due next year.
Rep. Devin Nunes is one several California Republicans who sent a letter a to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar right before Christmas demanding the Fish and Wildlife -- part of the Interior Department -- use the "best available science" in arriving at a new opinion on the smelt.
Nunes, who represents San Joaquin Valley farmers, contends the department's scientists have been "doing the bidding of the radical environmentalists" in their earlier findings and are exacerbating already high unemployment rates in the fertile farming regions. Nunes likens the water restrictions to the taking of private property.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, however, contends the economic losses "are a lot less than what are being bandied about by members of Congress."
Still, if the case results in permanent restrictions on water supplies, Americans will likely find themselves paying more for vegetables -- and eating more imported ones as well, predicts Chris Scheuring, an attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Scheuring said the price impacts could provoke changes to the Endangered Species Act. "If it gets too expensive for too many Americans, I think Congress will change it," he said
He added: "You are going to see farmers going out of business. It will be a big loss for American agriculture."
And land owners nationwide increasingly chafe when the discovery of some little-known threatened species on their property thwarts development.
"When an environmental law doesn't take into account human beings, they are leaving out the most important species," said David Luker, general manager of the Desert Water Agency in Southern California.
Shogren, the Wyoming expert, said more cases like California's can be expected "The more we demand water, the more we demand land, the more we are going to run up against it," he said of the Endangered Species Act. "There are going to be some hard tradeoffs here."
But as proof that public support for protecting threatened life forms remains strong, environmentalists note several unsuccessful attempts of congressional Republicans over the past decade to alter the Endangered Species Act.
And environmentalists say it should be obvious why economic consequences can't play a role in decisions about which species to protect.
"Congress determined the loss of a species that can never be replaced is incalculable," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Extinction can't be reversed."
Greenwald and other environmentalists add that protecting species versus having robust industry and agriculture does not have to be a zero-sum game.
"There are solutions to this," he said. "Protecting the delta does not mean the end of California agriculture."
Contact Paul C. Barton at email@example.com