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Mon., Feb. 25, 2008

A realistic approach to conservation

As congressional leaders struggle to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the $286 billion farm bill – due to expire next month – President Bush has renewed his threat to veto the bill if it raises taxes or fails to cut subsidies for wealthy farms. Amid this acrimony, the good news is that a small part of the farm bill is winning widespread support across the political and ideological spectrum. This little legislative gem is called the Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2007.

The Endangered Species Recovery Act would create tax incentives for Americans who help protect wildlife on their privately owned land. A broad group of bipartisan lawmakers embraced the bill on its own terms last year – more than 120 members of Congress from 36 states have cosponsored it – and the Senate has wrapped the measure into its version of the larger farm bill. Now that the Senate and the House have started the difficult work of merging their versions of the farm bill, leaders of both houses should make it a priority to include the measure in the final legislation.

The Endangered Species Recovery Act is a pragmatic approach to species conservation that would benefit people and animals alike. Farmers, ranchers and other private landowners provide homes to more than two-thirds of the plants and animals on the U.S. endangered species list. Many landowners want to maintain and improve the natural habitat that rare species need to recover, but doing so can be expensive, and until now it has offered few rewards. Tax benefits could change that, and make conservation a benefit rather than a burden.

Examples of how these new tax benefits could help rare species throughout the country are easy to find. In California, ranchers are restoring breeding ponds for the California red-legged frog. In Texas, a few private landowners have recently begun restoring habitat for the ocelot, one of the nation’s rarest wild cats. In the East, agricultural landowners are restoring wetland habitats for another threatened species, the bog turtle. All of these fledgling efforts could be greatly expanded if the proposed tax incentives were available.

Tax incentives could also change a history of nasty battles over the Endangered Species Act by adding a “carrot” that could balance the “stick” of regulations. Until now, our country has relied heavily on regulatory approaches for conserving rare wildlife. Landowners often dread finding endangered species on their property because of the regulatory burdens they brought. Tax benefits could ease those burdens and give farmers and other landowners the financial wherewithal to be even better stewards of their land. The more we use tax benefits, the less likely there will be a need for stringent regulations to accomplish conservation goals. It would be a welcome approach for most landowners, a practical one for government agencies, and a bright new hope for anyone who believes that what matters most is that rare species survive and recover.

With the farm bill in the hands of the conference committee, we hope the House will accept the Senate’s decision on this particular provision. The House has not yet taken a clear stand on the Endangered Species Recovery Act, but they have a chance to embrace it now, and make both farmers and environmentalists happy. Tax incentives are a winning proposition for wildlife, for farmers, for taxpayers – for the entire country. This bill is an idea whose time has come.

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