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A Few Kind Words for the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse

Thursday, February 12, 2009  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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As listeners to the program and readers here know, when I am not broadcasting or teaching, I practice law, primarily in the area of the federal Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) and related statutes such as the states’ endangered species laws and the Clean Water Act. I have been doing so for 20 years across the western United States, and follow ESA news closely as a result.

When the Washington Times ran a story on a $30 million dollar appropriation to benefit the Bay Area’s Salt Marsh Harvest mouse, I had to smile. Some endangered or threatened species have friends in high places. Others, like the lowly San Bernadino kangaroo rat or theCalifornia tiger salamander, do not.

But conservatives should make sure their aim is steady before beginning criticism of the grant.

I wrote earlier that some of the stimulus could have wisely spent money on relieving private property owners of the burdens imposed on them by the ESA. The ESA has the effect of quarantining land from all use when one of the species it protects inhabits the land. The impact is often devastating and can impoverish or even bankrupt private property owners. The idea of using federal money to actually acquire such properties from such owners, thus spreading the cost of the ESA across the entire country that benefits from it makes a lot of economic sense and would return some fundamental fairness to the system. I urged such an approach on Oklahoms’s Tom Coburn last week and he actually seemed interested in it.

What isn’t fair, of course, is for one set of landowners burdened by the ESA to win the stimulus lottery –if indeed any of them won at all. Lots of ESA money flows to the community of species activists and the programs they run which often fail to address much less compensate landowners burdened by the Act. Scrutiny of the mouse’s windfall should deepen, but critics should take the time to note that the idea of paying for burdened property rights is a good idea, not a bad one.

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