You know the world has gone topsy-turvy when the federal government spends about as much money funding environmental lawyers as it does to directly protect endangered species.
That startling conclusion can be drawn from an investigation into how many federal dollars cascade into the pockets of environmental groups' lawyers.
Karen Budd-Falen of Cheyenne, Wyo., was curious about that. As a lawyer who defends farmers and ranchers tangled up in environmental lawsuits, she wondered how much money the federal government paid the lawyers who initiated the cases.
What she found was a jaw-dropping number. She found that, from the year 2003 to 2007, the federal government paid $4.7 billion to environmental law firms. That's an average of $940 million a year in federal funding for environmental lawyers.
By comparison, in fiscal year 2007, the federal government spent $922 million directly on the 986 endangered and threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual report. When all of the federal Endangered Species Act-related expenses are included, the federal tab is slightly more than $1.5 billion.
Budd-Falen believes $4.7 billion is not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the legal expenses the federal government pays to environmental lawyers.
"I think we only found that the iceberg exists," she told the Capital Press. "I don't think we have any idea how much money is being spent. But I think it's huge."
There's more. She found that three environmental groups -- Western Watersheds Council, Forest Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity -- filed more than 700 lawsuits against the U.S. government from the year 2000 to 2009. That's an average of more than 70 lawsuits a year.
Who could blame them for going to court time after time? After all, if the money is there, they'd be crazy not to the take their place at the federal trough. Right?
Except for four things.
First, the billions of dollars that goes to lawyers do not go to on-the-ground projects that benefit endangered species. In fact, the lawsuits pull federal fish and wildlife managers away from their jobs and force them instead to spend their time generating responses to the lawsuits. Because of that, it can be argued that the environmental lawsuits do more damage than good to the endangered species.
Second, the federal government is running a multi-trillion-dollar deficit. That billions of dollars go to lawyers who have made a career of suing the federal government makes one wonder whether Congress is serious about ever balancing the budget.
Third, there is no incentive for environmental groups to stop filing lawsuits. In fact, the incentive is to keep suing and appealing until the very last dollar has been milked from each case.
Fourth, farmers and ranchers caught in the cross-fire between the environmentalists and the federal government often have to hire lawyers to defend themselves. That means they pay for their lawyers and, through their taxes, pay for the government's lawyers -- and the environmental lawyers, too.
Talk about a nightmare.
In their defense, environmental groups blame President George W. Bush for the mess. They claim that if his administration had adequately enforced environmental laws, they would not have been "forced" to sue so much.
Further, they say the President Barack Obama's administration is doing a much better job, so the number of lawsuits will drop significantly, presumably to zero.
Let's assume that's correct and that the Obama administration will do a better job that meets with the approval of environmental groups and their lawyers.
If that's the case, Congress should feel free to save billions of dollars by de-funding the Judgment Fund, the Equal Access to Justice Act and any other pot of gold at the end of environmental lawyers' rainbow.