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Endangered Species Act has kept the water flowing in South Texas and won’t stop the oil, either


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Imagine you’re flying 20,000 feet above a tempestuous sea, fiddling with a stalling engine. As you walk the wing and hunch over the engine, you’re dropping tools and tossing out obstinate nuts and bolts that twinkle briefly in the sun as they fall below and out of sight. As perhaps the most defining force on the planet, that’s the situation the human race finds itself in today when it comes to species management. Before we even understand a lifeform, it has slipped away.

“We don’t know if we’ve lost the cure for cancer, we don’t know if we’re going to upset a habitat, we don’t know if we’re stopping nitrogen fixing in the soil,” said Victor Flatt, director of the Center for Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources at the University of Houston’s Law Center. “There are just things we don’t know, and for that reason and for others, that is why we decided we’re going to do our best to not let species go extinct.”

These days, biologists are racking up so many extinct species on their tally sheets that we’re increasingly warned that we are on the cusp of a global extinction the likes of which the planet hasn’t seen in millions of years. And yet those closest to the event daily, folks like Frank Salzhandler, director of the Houston-based Endangered Species Media Project, are warning that the federal Endangered Species Act is not tough enough. “A species in the United States has to become 80-percent depleted and literally on an extinction spiral before it can be listed as endangered,” Salzhandler said. “Usually a species is already so crippled by the time it’s listed that the chances for recovery are limited.”

That said, what is the value of West Texas’ sand dune lizard, recently proposed for listing under the act? Weighted against unfettered oil development across portions of five potentially affected West Texas counties in the short-term — as all oilfield development in Texas is ultimately a short-term exchange — not much to many.

After the feds proposed listing the three-inch lizard, the Houston Chronicle warned last week that oil production would “slow to a crawl” and quoted Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson lambasting Washington’s “reptile dysfunction.” The tenor around the Midland coffee shops can’t be much different from what we in San Antonio heard when the Comal Springs riffle beetle was listed in 1997, or the Golden-cheeked warbler gained protections in 1990, or anytime local environmental advocates at Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas press against Northside highway development based on the projected impact on protected cave bugs. Lost to the lizard conversation was the not insignificant fact that these bugs and birds, in as much as they reflect the quality of our chief groundwater resource and prized greenspace, are a reflection of our health as a community.

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