Frogs vs. Humans
When the Government Chooses Nature
When given the choice between $34 million and frogs, it seems safe to assume that most people would take the money. But Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article exposes how dusky gopher frogs are playing an important role in the United States’ constant race for valuable property acquisition. In the Supreme Court case Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana landowners hoping to profit from their land clash with the government’s environmentalist objective to protect the dusky gopher frog’s habitat. The court is hearing this case because the landowners have sued the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on the economic grounds that the land, if developed, would be worth $34 million. This case, Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, demonstrates an unequivocal clash between groups upholding cornucopian vs. ecocentric values. In this paper, I will summarize the key aspects of the case, then define the clashing stakeholders and expound how they express their values within the case. Next, I will compare this recent case to an older one that demonstrates the same conflict of values, and then I will conclude the paper with the implications of this specific environmental value controversy.
Back in 2012, the United States government ordered for the preservation of a Louisiana private property in an effort to conserve the dusky gopher frog species. This rule has infuriated the landowners who were hoping to profit from their highly valuable properties. Despite the landowners’ lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, the government is still upholding the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that the property be protected as a “critical habitat” for these animals. Scientific reports from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service show no indication that dusky gopher frogs currently inhabit the land, as its conditions are less than ideal for the species. But according to the Endangered Species Act, “critical habitats” are also “‘areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species’ that are determined to be ‘essential for the conservation of the species’” (United States Supreme Court 2017, 17-71, 17-74). The frogs’ absence from their property is frustrating for the landowners because– the way they see it– the only thing stopping them from profiting is the government’s leaning towards the unpredictable possibility that a species of frog may want to live on their property sometime in the future.
According to Judith Layzer in her book The Environmental Case, cornucopians place more value on computable economic changes than they do on conserving biodiversity. And ecocentrists, in Carolyn Merchant’s (1992) framework, view natural conservation as a priority above any destructive human interests. Because it is impossible to demonstrate clear, numerical calculations for the Louisiana property’s biological importance, Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrates extreme manifestations of cornucopian and ecocentric values. The case’s property owners clearly hold cornucopian ideals because it is much easier to visualize the $34 million lost by not developing the property than it is to try and evaluate the intrinsic value of preserving the land for a species that has no significant effect on human populations. The number of frogs occupying the habitat is the only potentially measurable factor to demonstrate the land’s biological importance– and this number is currently zero. For these cornucopians, developing on the land is a no-brainer decision; this makes it difficult for them to try to understand the government’s ecocentric standpoint.
Especially under the current Republican administration, one would expect the government to play its more familiar role of the economist in this case where so much monetary gain is at stake. But surprisingly the government has sided with the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the land’s ephemeral breeding ponds could be essential to the species’ future survival because their reason for endangerment is the destruction of their current ideal habitat (United States Supreme Court 2017, 17-71, 17-74). This is a very ecocentric and preservationist approach because of its push to preserve the land without any underlying human-oriented motives (Merchant 1992).
Ecocentric and cornucopian value groups have consistently been at odds in environmental issues throughout history. A classic example of this conflict lies within the Yellowstone National Park snowmobile case. The Yellowstone case’s cornucopians were the snowmobiling industry and those concerned with local economy. They argued for unlimited snowmobiling access throughout the park because of the revenue and economic growth it constituted. They ranked this calculable monetary gain as a priority above the ecocentrists’ focus on the importance of conserving the park’s natural beauty, without snowmobiles’ disruptive noise and pollution (Layzer 2016). In both the Yellowstone snowmobile case and Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, economic benefits come at the expense of nature. Both cases demonstrate a transparent and difficult confrontation of personal values.
In the United States, the government has always made the ultimate decisions about how private lands are utilized (McEvoy 2001). Although they must honor the Endangered Species Act, the government could easily– as it has in past cases– use its power to deem the area a non-critical habitat, and subsequently designate the land for economic gain. This has been the way in which the majority of environmental cases have ended: economic values beating ecological ones. But in a rare turn of events, the Supreme Court has ruled in nature’s favor, without any foreseeable benefits for humans. Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrates that when conservation causes obvious economic loss for human interests, the government ultimately has the last word on which value group will prevail.
Layzer, Judith A. 2016. The Environmental Case. United States: SAGE Publications, Inc. (February 2, 2018).
Liptak, Adam. 2018. “Supreme Court Considers a Raucous Party and an Endangered Frog.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/us/politics/supreme-court-considers-a-raucous-party-and-an-endangered-frog.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FEndangered%20and%20Extinct%20Species&action=click&contentCollection=science®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection (February 2, 2018).
McEvoy, Thom. 2001. “Private Property Rights: A Look at Its History and Future.” Farming, The Journal of Northeast Agriculture, Volume 4, Number 12 (December), 45-47. (February 2, 2018).
Merchant, Carolyn. 1992. “Environmental Ethics and Political Conflict.” Radical Ecology, 63-87. (February 2, 2018).
Weyerhaeuser Company, Petitioner v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service v. Markle Interests, L.L.C., Petitioners v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 2017. (Supreme Court) https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-71/19828/20171113204340156_17-71%2017-74%20Weyerhaeuser%20Co.%20Markle%20Interests%20LLC.pdf (February 2nd, 2018)
Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 2017. (Supreme Court) http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/17-71-petition.pdf (February 2nd, 2018)
On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.