Conservative activists are advocating a number of minor changes in federal environmental laws that the Republican Congress and the Bush Administration could undertake to substantially improve the climate for American property owners and businesses. Conservatives are not abandoning the push for major overhauls in environmental law — such as comprehensive reform of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and opening up the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil drilling — but some activists believe the following nine ideas are politically achievable in the short run and could force liberals to either back commonsense reforms or expose themselves as ideological extremists. 1. Expand the Healthy Forests Initiative.
On December 4, President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which will expand logging and clearing of national forests in an attempt to avoid the sort of catastrophic fires that decimated California this year. The remaining problem says R.J. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is that “There are 190 million acres at risk of fire, according to the Interior Department, but only two million acres will be treated each year under Healthy Forests. We’re going to have more catastrophic fires for a long time.” The solution is simple, he said. “Expand Healthy Forests to treat more land each year.” 2. Raise standards for endangered species.
“We should require more scientific evidence before having a species listed as endangered,” said Jim Sims, executive director of Partnership for the West. “Almost all of the species that have come off the endangered list have come off because they never should have been there in the first place,” said Tom Randall, formerly of the National Center for Public Policy Research and now senior partner at the environmental policy firm Winningreen. “The government should set goals so that people can work toward getting a species off the list,” said Sims. “Now, there is no way to know what criteria, like what level of population, will get a species off the list.” 3. Take perverse incentives out of ESA.
As of now, private landowners have every incentive to harm endangered species. If they find one on their land, they have an incentive to “shoot, shovel, and shut up” about it, said Smith. “Landowners have an incentive to sterilize their land. If you have been a good steward and you create a lot of wildlife habitat, you attract endangered species to your land and then you attract the feds to your land.” Instead, the government should “reward landowners for helping endangered species instead of depriving them of the use of their land,” he said. 4. Restore grazing rights.
Many ranchers in the West rely on the good graces of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service to allow them their customary level of grazing rights on federal lands. Sometimes, bureaucrats impose restrictions on grazing and at other times lawsuits by environmentalists threaten grazing rights. Although the Bush Administration could provide some relief as long as it is in office, Congress could pass a law guaranteeing grazing rights—or go one better. “Ranchers have been using this land for 150 years, why not just grant them the title?” asked Smith. “These private ranchers have the incentive to maintain the land.” 5. Privatize some federal lands.
“Why not take several 20,000- to 30,000-acre parcels of national wildlife refuges along the Atlantic Coast and try privatization?” asked Smith. “We could run a five-year trial with the government keeping one section of land, leasing out another section to the National Audubon Society, and leasing another to Ducks Unlimited.” Smith predicted that Ducks Unlimited, a hunters’ group, would do the best job maintaining its parcel and attracting wildlife while allowing Americans most extensive use of the land. “Let’s give control of more land to private groups and not to 9-to-5 government bureaucrats,” he said. 6. Recycle nuclear fuel rods.
“When you use nuclear fuel [in nuclear reactors], you use only 2% of the energy in the fuel,” said Randall. “But then it gets clogged up with waste products and becomes unusable. . . . During the ’80s and early ’90s, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory invented a new kind of processing that has the potential to recycle nuclear fuel.” Private industry does not want to face the “financial and political expense” of trying to build a recycling plant, he said, but Congress could provide the impetus. “It would take only about $200 million,” Randall said. “Eventually, if you built a reprocessing plant at Yucca Mountain, where they want to bury nuclear waste, you could use the reprocessed fuel in nuclear reactors along the California-Nevada border instead of trucking it all over the country.” 7. Legalize DDT.
One of the silliest environmental scares of the 1970s was over DDT, whose public image was blackened by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. But subsequent studies have shown that DDT is safe when used properly, and it is widely recognized as the cheapest, most effective pesticide in the world—and is the best choice for controlling mosquito populations (See “Conservative Spotlight: Dr. Kelvin Kemm”). At a conference at the American Enterprise Institute on December 2, experts advocated lifting the legal bans that forbid the use and production of DDT in the United States and in many other countries around the world. American businesses could turn a profit supplying DDT to Third World countries, where a resurgence of malaria has been caused by a lack of cost-effective alternatives to DDT but where international aid is often contingent on not using the chemical. “This whole movement was based on the fears of Western countries that didn’t need the chemical anymore,” AEI Visiting Fellow Roger Bate said at the conference. But Randall pointed out that new mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus sometimes threaten to spread in this country—and “nothing is as effective as DDT in killing mosquitoes.” 8. Demonstrate drilling in ANWR.
“Why not establish one demonstration well in ANWR to show that oil drilling can be done there in an environmentally sound way?” asked Randall. Said Smith, “They did an experimental well over 20 years ago on Indian lands at the edge of ANWR called the KIC-1 well. When it was dismantled, no one could tell it had ever been there. Maybe the government can do a study to see if KIC-1 permanently damaged the environment in any way.” 9. Kill the death tax.
“Death taxes break up farms, tree farms, and open spaces such as cattle ranches,” Smith said. “Making death tax elimination permanent would help preserve them.” Right now, the federal estate tax is slated to decline to zero in 2010 but then come back in full force in 2011.