Lawyers rake in $15 million from taxpayers under ESA law
A constant stream of lawsuits filed by environmental groups ostensibly to protect endangered species have cost taxpayers $15 million in lawyer fees from nearly 600 court actions in the last four years.
Those figures are according to the Justice Department, which this summer provided more than 270 pages of documents outlining the lawsuits to Republicans on the House Resources Committee.
“It’s become a cottage industry,” said Rob Gordon, senior advisor for strategic outreach with the Heritage Foundation. “Those trying to compel the government to add some critter to the federal endangered list are often the green equivalent of slip and fall lawyers. It can be a lucrative business,” Gordon said.
When the government loses one of these cases, they are often ordered by judges to reimburse the winning side, the environmentalists, for lawyer fees. A handful of environmental lawyers are raking in the federal cash by charging hundreds of dollars, and in two cases, two lawyers were awarded $2 million in legal fees.
Critics say the green groups and their lawyers are more interested in blocking new development or natural resource exploration for oil and gas than protecting plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Resources Committee, says lawsuits demanding the government create habitat for fairy shrimp have blocked construction of a San Diego, Calif. elementary school since 2006.
“The purpose of the ESA was to help recover endangered species and remove them from the list, not force taxpayers to reward an army of environmental lawyers to exploit vague definitions and deadlines that realistically cannot be met,” Hastings said in a hearing.
“All (Interior) department resources spent defending these suits are resources that are not going to recovery, but rather to lawyers and special interest groups,” Hastings said.
Typically, the litigation seeks to add more species to the federal list or to set aside a multitude of acreage to protect plants and animals already on the list.
These critical habitat designations can be quite extensive. Just last week, the federal government announced it would set aside 50,000 acres in western Colorado to protect three rare wildflowers, effectively blocking future energy development and home construction.
Congress passed the ESA in 1973, and since then federal officials have put 1,391 domestic animals and plants on the list. Only 20 species have successfully been removed from the list, representing a one percent recovery rate.
Species never delisted
“We need to move beyond a system where species are added to the list, but never come off,” Hastings said. “Increasing the number of ESA species shouldn’t be the primary goal. It should be to recover species and get them taken off the list. Litigation that blocks economic activity and public needs, such as building schools, not only impedes recovery, it diminishes trust of taxpayers who are subsidizing that litigation.”
Activist groups are collecting millions in attorney fees from procedural victories or even settlement agreements with the federal government, says Kent Holsinger, managing partner of the Holsinger Law firm in Denver, Colo.
The Center for Biological Diversity has been a party to a staggering 835 lawsuits since 1999, while the WildEarth Guardians filed 180 lawsuits between 2000 and 2009, according to Holsinger and the Western Legacy Alliance.
“Scarce resources are being wasted on litigation driven by a handful of activist groups with little or no real conservation benefits,” Holsinger told the committee.
In a mega-settlement last year of 85 lawsuits, the Interior Department agreed to consider listing 700 species as endangered.
In exchange for the consideration, the environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity agreed to limit future lawsuits against the government.
However, the center filed a new petition earlier this month against the government demanding the listing of an additional 53 species of amphibians and reptiles in 45 states.