Book review: Endangered Species Act at Thirty: Renewing the Conservation Promise, Dale D. Goble, J. Michael Scott, Frank W. Davis (Eds.), vol. 1, Island Press, Washington. 392 pp., Hardback, Price $70.00, ISBN 9781597260084.Endangered Species Act at Thirty: Conserving Biodiversity in Human-Dominated Landscapes, J. Michael Scott, Dale D. Goble, Frank W. Davis (Eds.), vol. 2, Island Press, Washington. 376 pp., Hardback, Price $80.00, ISBN 9781597260541.
These two related volumes provide a multidisciplinary evaluation of the United States of America Endangered Species Act of 1973, thirty years after it came into effect. The chapters cover an extremely broad range of issues. For example, Volume 1 includes reviews of the evolution of the legislation itself, the importance of deciding which species to list, and the Act’s interaction with Reserves, NGOs, indigenous tribes, and state level politics. Many of these chapters remind us of the incredible complexity of environmental legislation: For example, the ESA is just one of over 140 statutes that govern exploitation of the marine environment. Much of Volume 2 falls outside the direct scope of the subtitle “Conserving Biodiversity in Human-Dominated Landscapes”. Instead, the first two-thirds of the book covers issues as wide-ranging as how humans value biodiversity from philosophical and economic perspectives, and an evaluation of the relationship between biodiversity conservation and the protection of ecosystem services. The final third of the book does address current conservation policy in human-dominated landscapes, and examines the potential of new approaches such as conservation banking to conserve nature in the future. As a British researcher working mainly in South America, I was interested to find that many of the issues and lessons learned from the ESA extend far beyond the borders of the United States. Importantly, the ESA reminds us that biodiversity conservation is a political issue that often has to be traded against economic interests. Although the original act recognized “the destruction of critical habitat” to be “the most significant [threat]” to biodiversity, critical habitat has only been designated for around one-third of all listed species. This failure to protect habitats seems to be largely political, and the Department of the Interior has aimed to weaken the act by issuing the disclaimer that “critical habitat offers little additional protection to most listed species”. The book presents convincing evidence to show this is not the case. It is alarming to see how little the world has changed since Aldo Leopold listed “axe, plow, cow, fire and gun” as the main threats to North American Biodiversity in 1933. These two volumes provide a comprehensive and insightful analysis of one the most important pieces of legislation that has attempted to control these threats. The chapters are honest about the Act’s many failings (11 of the 78 species that were originally listed have gone extinct), and the lessons learned throughout the thirty years of the ESA are highly relevant for all conservation planners, and anyone involved in developing effective environmental legislation.