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Endangered Species Rift Evident at Small Farm Conference

ALBUQUERQUE - The Endangered Species Act is especially burdensome for small-scale farmers and ranchers, who lack the time and funds to challenge regulatory actions that may take years to implement, a New Mexico State University policy analyst said during the National Small Farm Conference. The three-day Albuquerque conference ended at noon Friday.

Ric Frost , a policy analyst with New Mexico State University's Range Improvement Tak Force, says the Endangered Species Act is especially burdensome for small-scale farmers and ranchers, who lack the time and funds to challenge regulatory actions that may take years to implement. Frost spoke at the National Small Farm Conference in Albuquerque, which ended at noon today, as part of a panel discussion of the Endangered Species Act's impact on small farms. (09/18/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Ric Frost with NMSU's Range Improvement Task Force criticized what he called a lack of historical perspective in applying the Endangered Species Act during a panel discussion of its effects on small farms. He said the act was designed to take human and community needs into account as well as protect species.

Panelists' presentations highlighted the range of perspectives on the issue: A northern New Mexico rancher said the regulations are putting small-scale producers out of business and discouraging young people from going into agriculture. But a wildlife biologist cited cooperative success stories involving "safe harbor agreements" that seek to allay producers' fears of dealing with regulatory agencies.

The panel discussion was one of several during the conference, which has attracted more than 500 agricultural educators, specialists, program managers and producers from across the nation for a series of seminars, regional tours and speeches from several of the nation's top agricultural leaders.

The number of endangered species listed has soared recently, rising from 790 in 1995 to 1,244 in 2000, Frost said.

Citing a National Wilderness Institute study, he said about 96 percent of the species were listed in error because of data errors, undercounting and mistakes in biological classification. "We must question the science that is causing these species to be listed," Frost said. All too often, he said, regulatory agencies do not spend the time and funds to analyze the economic and cultural impacts of the Endangered Species Act on farming and ranching communities.

For instance, the logging restrictions stemming from the listing of the endangered Mexican spotted owl have functionally ended much of the timber industry in New Mexico, while significantly building up the fuel load in the state's forests and making them more prone to devastating wildfires, Frost said. He said the law's original intent has been largely lost. The act, based on traditional treaties and conventions dating back to1916, was intended to protect the state's resource industries, as well as the wildlife, he said. "It was not designed to protect species unto themselves."

Sarah Rinkevich, a wildlife biologist in the endangered species division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department in Albuquerque, steered her discussion of the act away from controversial habitat conservation plans, such as those involving the Rio Grande silvery minnow, in favor of cooperative success stories. In particular, she emphasized the development of "safe harbor agreements" that were created in the late 1990s in response to private landowners' fears of dealing with federal agencies charged with endangered species regulations.

The voluntary, safe harbor agreements, which apply to nonfederal landowners, may cover millions of acres and create an incentive for cooperation, she said. "With these agreements there's not the fear that the government will come back asking for more."

Other voluntary options Rinkevich highlighted were candidate conservation agreements, which focus on early conservation techniques and reduce the likelihood of future federal action. Another was the High Plains Partnership, a rancher-led program that centers on preservation of four nonendangered species, while allowing the ranching community to stay economically viable.

Andy Giron, a fourth-generation New Mexican cattle rancher from Vallecitos about 40 miles west of Santa Fe, added there was far too little communication between agencies enforcing the Endangered Species Act and those directly affected by it. "We can't make a living with all these new policies and regulations," he said.

The result is that a way of life is being lost in New Mexico, as small-scale farmers and ranchers simply give up the fight and turn to new occupations with less governmental interference, Giron said. "Young generations of New Mexico ranchers no longer see this type of lifestyle as a way of making an income."

In New Mexico, small farms account for about 94 percent of the state's 15,200 farms, according to the latest available USDA agricultural census. But 82 percent of the state's farms earn less than $50,000 in gross annual sales, and three-fourths of those earn less than $10,000.

Small farms and ranches, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics Service defines as operations with less than $250,000 in gross annual sales, make up almost 92.3 percent of all farms in the United States. About one-third of the nation's 946 million acres of farmland belongs to small-scale farmers, and most of them earn only about $23,000 in net cash income annually.