By STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT
The Case of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
Consider the Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.) of 1973, which protects flora and fauna as well as their physical habitats. The economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael wanted to gauge the E.S.A.’s effect on the red-cockaded woodpecker, a protected bird that nests in old-growth pine trees in eastern North Carolina. By examining the timber harvest activity of more than 1,000 privately owned forest plots, Lueck and Michael found a clear pattern: when a landowner felt that his property was turning into the sort of habitat that might attract a nesting pair of woodpeckers, he rushed in to cut down the trees. It didn’t matter if timber prices were low.
This happened less than two years ago in Boiling Spring Lakes, N.C. “Along the roadsides,” an A.P. article reported, “scattered brown bark is all that’s left of once majestic pine stands.” As sad as this may be, it isn’t surprising to anyone who has examined the perverse incentives created by the E.S.A. In their paper, Lueck and Michael cite a 1996 developers’ guide from the National Association of Home Builders: “The highest level of assurance that a property owner will not face an E.S.A. issue is to maintain the property in a condition such that protected species cannot occupy the property.”
One notable wrinkle of the E.S.A. is that a species is often declared endangered months or even years before its “critical habitats” are officially designated. This allows time for developers, environmentalists and everyone in between to have their say at public hearings. What happens during that lag time?
In a new working paper that examines the plight of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the economists John List, Michael Margolis and Daniel Osgood found that landowners near Tucson rushed to clear their property for development rather than risk having it declared a safe haven for the owl. The economists make the argument for “the distinct possibility that the Endangered Species Act is actually endangering, rather than protecting, species.”
So does this mean that every law designed to help endangered animals, poor people and the disabled is bound to fail? Of course not. But with a government that is regularly begged for relief — these days, from mortgage woes, health-care costs and tax burdens — and with every presidential hopeful making daily promises to address these woes, it might be worth encouraging the winning candidate to think twice (or even 8 or 10 times) before rushing off to do good. Because if there is any law more powerful than the ones constructed in a place like Washington, it is the law of unintended consequences.
See their comment on background papers