The delta smelt is a rather unimpressive fish that lives in the San Francisco estuary and measures about 3 inches long. Typically, its most menacing predators are larger, nonnative fish, such as the striped bass and largemouth bass.
But today, it has a more dangerous enemy: Trumpus presidenticus.
The president, you see, hates this fish. His animus goes back to the campaign trail when he complained that environmentalists trying to protect the endangered species had prevented California water resources from being diverted to farms. More recently, he blamed the state’s wildfire crisis on these environmental regulations (a charge that experts quickly denounced).
Let’s hope this poor fish can survive its cage match with the president, and not just because the species is one of the best indicators of the health of its ecosystem, which also supports salmon and other endangered species. The delta smelt must survive because it serves as the perfect symbol for why we can’t trust the Trump administration to reform the Endangered Species Act.
Conservatives, itching to roll back restrictions on land use across the country, have long targeted the act, considered the most extensive set of protections for endangered wildlife in the world. The Trump administration has finally attempted to codify those intentions, announcing a proposal to cripple the law.
Among the administration’s proposed revisions is to allow officials to consider economic impacts when determining whether and how wildlife should be protected. This, the administration argues, is just good governance. Why shouldn’t the government consider all the facts when restricting development, including on privately owned property?
It’s a good question and, in theory, could be worthwhile to consider. But do we really trust this government to weigh all the economic facts fairly? Obviously, no.
Which brings us to the delta smelt. Trump likes to ridicule California’s regulatory protections for the seemingly insignificant species, parroting lines from agriculture interests in the state’s reliably conservative Central Valley. Farmers there complain that “four buckets of minnows” — only a few thousand of the smelt are estimated to remain in the delta — are keeping thousands of acres of land from being farmed.
What you won’t hear Trump talk about are the economic benefits of protecting all of California’s rivers — and thus California’s salmon industry. Or its tourism industry. Or any of the other businesses that rely on the health of the state’s river system.
To be sure, the administration’s proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act won’t affect the smelt, as they would only apply to future protected species. But the smelt illustrates how the Trump administration routinely skews economic evidence to benefit its preferred interest groups or policy outcomes.
Consider the revelation last month that officials in the Interior Department dismissed evidence that national monuments boosted tourism before deciding to shrink a few of them, pleasing Republicans who have complained about federal control of the land. Or consider the complaints from economists that the administration underestimated the economic benefits of clean-water regulations before revoking them last year.
The moment we start allowing the administration to consider the economic impact of wildlife conservation, we let interest groups influence policies that should be grounded in science. It’s not hard to imagine that happening on a much larger scale if the administration’s Endangered Species Act revisions go through. This should be terrifying, not only for people who care about preserving critical biodiversity but also for anyone who cares about fair regulations in a free-market society.
Regulations that protect our natural resources will always generate economic winners and losers. A truly pro-business government would honestly weigh all such costs against all the benefits of environmental protections.
Robert Gebelhoff is an assistant editor for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.