By State Senator Jamie Eldridge & Former State Senator Pam Resor
For over 20 years, the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA) has helped ensure the continued survival of the Commonwealth’s most imperiled plant and animal species. One of the most important and effective environmental laws in the Commonwealth, MESA protects 176 species of animals and 256 species of native plants that are officially listed as Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern. Protecting these species is critical to preserving the natural habitat, open spaces, and beautiful lakes, rivers and streams that are a key quality of life for Massachusetts residents, not to mention a primary driver of the state’s tourism industry.
Unfortunately, a small group of developers has been trying to destroy this law. This growing movement is attempting to gut the Endangered Species Act by passing legislation (S1854, “An Act Relative to Land Takings”), that would limit the authority of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program by taking away their ability to protect endangered species and their habitats, except in very limited circumstances. The bill is opposed by a wide swath of conservation and sportsmen groups, including Mass Audubon, the Sierra Club, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Sportsmen’s Council and the Gun Owners Action League.
Habitat loss and increased pressures from poorly planned development, pollution and the impacts of a changing climate are all putting some species in Massachusetts at risk of extinction. Although extinctions occur naturally as a consequence of evolution, humans have accelerated this rate by hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Now, more than ever, we need strong, well-enforced law to protect our natural environment.
“An Act Relative to Land Takings” would take us in the exact opposite direction. This proposed law would place burdensome, unprecedented requirements on the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, which enforces MESA, that would effectively undo current protections, and inject uncertainty, delays and unnecessary conflict in the project review process. This law would create an unworkable, prohibitively expensive and unnecessarily complicated system — and make the Endangered Species Act essentially unenforceable.
No program ever works perfectly, but since its passage in 1991, the Endangered Species Protection program has worked remarkably well — and when problems have come up, the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife has proven flexible and willing to make regulatory adjustments. Gutting the law is not the solution.
Proponents of S1854 argue that the endangered species screening process is an impediment to development. In fact, DFW’s current regulatory system has a proven track record of protecting state-listed endangered species while allowing development to proceed.
The vast majority — nearly 80 percent — of projects that go through the screening process proceed as planned. The rest require some mitigation or simple project modifications to protect endangered species before moving forward. Effective development is not incompatible with environmental protection, but it does require thoughtful planning and awareness of potential problems and ways to avoid those problems. This is precisely what our current endangered species protection program does, and it should be preserved.
“An Act Relative to Land Takings” would roll back 20 years of protections afforded by MESA to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable native plants and animals. It should be rejected by the Legislature. Massachusetts has never stood for the simplistic aim of uncontrolled development, and it shouldn’t start now.
Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, serves as State Senator for the Middlesex & Worcester District. Pam Resor represented the same Senate district from 1999 to 2008.