Regulate First, Ask Questions Later

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Gunnison sage grouse a threatened species.  The designation may not do much to protect that particular species, but it does threaten the future of Homo sapiens in America.  By restricting development of a million acres in Colorado and Utah, the designation makes it harder for Americans to feed, house, and clothe themselves.

The Gunnison sage grouse, a smaller variant of the “greater sage grouse,” was designated as a separate species only in 2000.  The range of the Gunnison grouse is limited to an area south of the Colorado River in Colorado and Utah.  There are about 5,000 breeding Gunnison sage grouse in existence.  Ironically, it is the efforts of states and business owners that have helped preserve this species.  Those efforts will now be regulated from Washington – with the same effectiveness and lack of partisanship, one imagines, as ObamaCare and the IRS.

The listing of the Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened species is especially pernicious.  The Gunnison grouse are few in number, but, as FWS points out, they “require large, contiguous areas of sagebrush across the landscape for long-term survival.”  At present, the species occupies almost a million acres, 41% of which is held by private owners.  Those owners, one assumes, must now comply with regulations to be announced in the future by FWS.

According to FWS, the primary threat to the Gunnison grouse is loss of habitat resulting from residential, exurban, and commercial development and associated infrastructure such as roads and power lines.  FWS goes on to say that “other threats” include everything from energy development to recreation – just about every human activity conceivable except hatha yoga.  This statement suggests that future development of human habitat should be halted or limited in significant ways.  

Designation of the Gunnison grouse as a threatened species is entirely unnecessary.  Even FWS admits that states, local governments, businesses, and private landowners have taken “extraordinary” steps to preserve the bird.  If the steps already taken are “extraordinary,” what else does FWS have in mind?  

Perhaps it is just that Fish and Wildlife, along with Obama’s other environmental agencies, have made regulation their default setting.  Instead of calculating the economic cost and working cooperatively with business interests, Obama’s agencies appear to regulate with little if any concern for the human costs.  That, of course, is part of the problem with the Endangered Species Act itself, which focuses exclusively on preservation – and which needs to be rewritten by Congress to protect the rights of landowners and the need for human development.

Surprisingly, even liberals like Colorado’s Gov. Hickenlooper oppose FWS’s designation of the Gunnison sage grouse, as do both U.S. senators from Colorado and officials from neighboring Utah.  Hickenlooper has pledged to sue to prevent the designation from going forward.  Hopefully, he can find a fair-minded federal judge who will put FWS’s actions on hold until after the 2016 election – and hopefully the American people will elect a conservative president who will reverse the current assault on liberty and property rights. 

As bad as the “threatened” designation for the Gunnison sage grouse is, there’s much worse to come.  FWS is “required” by the courts – not that it would take must nudging – to decide by the end of 2015 on designation of the “greater” sage grouse as an endangered species.  Given the “regulate first, ask questions later” attitude of Obama’s regulators, is there any doubt as to what the decision will be?

By designating the much more widespread “greater” sage grouse an endangered species, FWS would extend federal control of most of the private lands in a large section of the western U.S.  Why is it that Obama’s environmental agencies are so fascinated by the sage grouse?  By moving aggressively on the sage grouse – when hundreds of other species are candidates for designation – FWS appears to have tipped its hand.  Is it really the sage grouse that Obama’s regulators are so concerned with, or the potential for further oil and gas development that just happens to coincide with the sage grouse’s habitat?

The sage grouse also shares habitat with all of the fast-growing exurban areas in the Mountain West region.  The Bureau of Land Management, which is working with FWS and other federal agencies, has released a map of “planning boundaries” showing that its regulatory sights are set on nearly the entire Mountain West.  At the very least, designation of the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened and the greater sage grouse as endangered will create regulatory hurdles and unnecessary expense for land development and use.  The last thing the U.S. needs is slower economic growth resulting from a vast expansion of regulatory powers, but this is exactly what is taking place. 

Misguided environmentalists in the administration are attempting to halt development and even to restore America to the pristine wilderness it was before the arrival of man.  As this radical agenda has it, the human footprint must be eradicated from the planet.  Human beings must return to the caves and subsist off the gathering of wild berries – as long as they gather only what is left over after designated species have their fill.  The goal is the destruction of every form of existing and potential human development, from agriculture and herding to the construction of even the most primitive shelter.

Underlying this radical assault on civilization is a violent contempt for the human species itself.  It’s not just that the spotted owl and the Gunnison sage grouse are to be granted equality; it’s that these and all other non-human species are to have precedence.  This antagonistic attitude toward human beings turns thousands of years of human culture on its head.  It is a reversal of Sophocles’s famous line from Antigone: “Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none more wonderful than man,” or of the biblical truth that God gave man “dominion … over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

Instead, contemporary environmentalism is aligned with the “antagonist culture” that originated during the long reign of European romanticism and intensified greatly after the Second World War.  One gets a taste of this so-called culture from Jean Genet’s credo: “What we need is hatred.  From it our ideas are born.”  Or from Michel Foucault’s “Man is an invention of recent date.  And one perhaps nearing its end.”  Or from the German radical writer Christa Wolf: “How sturdy and solid is the floor our civilization stands on?  How many lives with no prospects, shattered and senseless, can it bear the weight of it before it cracks somewhere or other, splits at the joints?”  Or the sarcasm of Elizabeth Warren’s “You built a factory out there. Good for you, but…”

Yes, it appears that Ms. Warren has read her Genet, her Foucault, and her Wolf.  And so too have the theorists of the modern-day environmental movement.

It is obvious that if Fish and Wildlife looks hard enough, it will find an obscure subspecies of some kind residing on nearly every acre of land in America.  Will the agency, along with the EPA and BLM, call for a blanket ban on all new industry, resource development, housing, and road construction?  Will the agency require the destruction of American cities that now occupy potential habitats for snail darters, spotted owls, and sage grouse?

This outcome is not beyond the realm of possibility.  In fact, it is already well underway, as homeowners who have unknowingly built on wetland habitat have been required to vacate their homes or pay fines totaling tens of millions of dollars per year.  The eco-gestapo have their sights set on ordinary American homeowners and landowners, not just on large oil and gas drillers and mine operators.  It is humans who are endangered as the environmental police haul ordinary citizens off to court for the “crime” of wanting a better life.

One reason the better life has not come about under Obama is that he has unleashed tens of thousands of bureaucrats to restrict development in every possible manner.  The Gunnison sage grouse is just the most recent example.  With its plan to protect the greater sage grouse as well, the Obama administration has the entire Mountain West in its sights. 

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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