Going Local with the Endangered Species Act
As a bill to update the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act makes the rounds in Congress, Chicago WILDERNESS Managing Editor Don Parker talked with Michael Pasteris, executive director of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. Pasteris recently testified before a Senate subcommittee on behalf of counties and local organizations.
His argument? That the Endangered Species Act be revised to utilize local expertise and to formally embrace the participation of local groups. Pasteris points to thriving collaborations, such as those found in Chicago Wilderness, as good models.
Photo: Casey Galvin
Your testimony to Congress had a regional focus. What were you advocating?
First of all, we advocated that counties, as well as state and local governments, should be full partners in all aspects of implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). We’re lucky here in the Chicagoland area that [federal agencies such as] the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) office in Barrington, the Army Corps of Engineers, and many private and public groups are already very committed to group activity to address endangered species, not only identification but protection, improvement, mitigation, enhancement. That’s not typical in a lot of other places throughout the United States. Local groups are supplemental to the federal government, so we can actually get out there and not only acquire properties, but also talk with landowners, talk with the county about their land use plans, and influence land uses such that there are conservation efforts built into it.
It’s only in Illinois that we have forest preserve districts, these separate special taxing districts that can help focus on these types of activities. Some of the senators found that really interesting. Senator Clinton even suggested that maybe the solution to the ESA was just to establish forest preserve districts throughout the country. It was meant to be humorous, but her point was well taken. There just aren’t county governments well equipped to do this in other spots.
Secondly, we were advocating that science be used more effectively in all aspects of the ESA, that we need to have the best information available to all the players, so that everybody can make decisions. Sometimes, collection of scientific data gets delayed based on how much time FWS staff have, and the process itself is a little overwhelming. The way the current law is written, the FWS is required to establish critical habitat [a protected zone for endangered species to recover] within a certain timeframe. In some cases environmental groups have forced the issue through legal action, and as a result we’re almost forced to make decisions on ESA before we have all our data together. But local agencies could provide good technical information about the local threats to species or habitats, and potentially could be involved in identifying the critical habitat.
These and other more technical collaborative tools that we’re using here need to be codified and actually put into the law, so they can be used in other parts of the country. And that’s another reason why we suggested that if this is a federal priority — and we think it should be — then there should be some federal dollars coming this way too.
We’re also encouraging habitat improvement even before the species gets to the point of being listed. Here in Will County, we have habitat for the eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, one of the few habitats in the United States left for this species. We’re not only part of the team that’s being developed for the recovery plan, but we’ve gotten money to begin habitat improvements so that we can already do some work before the species actually becomes endangered. So we’re trying to be proactive.
Photo: Carol Freeman
How is the ESA working and how is it failing? Are there any good examples in Will County?
The ESA seems to fail in other parts of the country because it tends to pit federal government against local government. In Will County there are some really good examples of how it works. Let’s just use the federally endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly as an example. It has a specific habitat where larvae actually exist. That is protected [by ESA law], and we have to manage that habitat. But we were able to do additional studies that said it’s not only critical to maintain and protect the habitat where the dragonfly actually lives, but that you also need to protect some of the land adjacent to it [to protect the source of the groundwater seeps the dragonflies rely on to reproduce]. (Read “Groundswell for Groundwater,” CW Summer 2004, for our feature article on this effort.)
The ESA would allow the FWS to come in and say [to adjacent landholders], “You have to plug those wells [to protect the groundwater flow].” But we didn’t want to get there. Again, we try and get everybody on board to cooperate. We have not gotten them to adjust their usage of groundwater, but we have gotten them to start considering new methods to deal with stormwater management. Obviously, some municipalities respond much more specifically and much more quickly than others. Some say, “What the hell — it’s a dragonfly, what do I care?” Then you need the federal government to step in and say, “No, this is important, and we will do it.”
How are the endangered and threatened species in Chicago Wilderness faring?
We’re doing a good job in the Chicago area of protecting unique habitats that harbor lots of endangered species. And I think we’re doing a pretty good job of creating large enough habitats that will be able to sustain that population diversity. On the other hand, we’re always going to lose that one species here and there. There was one spot left in Will County where a rare orchid occurred. The spot was less than five acres in size, and it was surrounded by shopping malls. So even if we did own it, we couldn’t manage it successfully, because there are so many exterior influences, pollution, runoff, things that we couldn’t control unless we owned bigger habitats. But if we continue to acquire fairly large lands, I think we will continue to provide at least a good opportunity for not only maintaining existing species, but maybe even improving them in the future.
What’s the value of having those species in our region?
Obviously, all of this is part of the fabric of the Chicago Wilderness area. And as far as I’m concerned, any individual element that we protect is worth it.
It’s hard to quantify, hard to put a dollar value on it.
Yeah, it’s like, it’s part of the world.
What happens locally to a homeowner if her land is designated as critical habitat?
We would work with that landowner to educate her on what’s important about this species and what about her property is important. We would probably also provide additional protection to her property, either through a conservation easement, or buying the development rights. We would assist the landowner with information, technical expertise, and equipment that she could use to help manage her property.
Are there any significant differences in the way the ESA operates in an urban matrix versus a sparsely populated western place?
You know, it’s kind of strange, there’s probably more attention to the protection of endangered species in the Chicagoland region than I see in the West. The West has got huge acreages, so the attitude sometimes in other parts of the country is “Don’t tell me how to run my land.” Here, in this heavily urbanizing area, people want to save those last little elements, they want this mixture of environment and urban development.
Why should we go to such trouble to preserve all of these species?
[Laughs.] Might sound comical, but humans could be endangered and threatened one of these days. You know what I mean? If we keep going the way we’re going, keep polluting our air and rivers, we may be on the list soon. Whoever’s in power at the time, we’d hope for the same logical and ethical treatment of us.