House bill slashes the Endangered Species Act
October 1, 2005
SUMMIT COUNTY ” The U.S. House Thursday passed a sweeping set of changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that would speed up the review of projects on federal land, require monetary compensation for landowners affected by the landmark 1973 environmental law and cut mandatory critical habitat designation for rare plants and animals.
Conservation groups and other environmental activists are rallying to oppose the changes, and it’s far from clear whether the Senate will go along with the drastic House measure. The amendments would essentially gut the law by eliminating meaningful protection for rare plants and animals, particularly by cutting a provision that calls for designation of critical habitat, environmentalists charge.
At the same time, many experts acknowledge that the law could be refined and improved.
The bill passed by the House may go too far, said Gary Patton, a Forest Service biologist working on a regional conservation plan for national forest lands.
Patton has had some direct experience with prickly endangered species issues, serving as one of the lead Colorado biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) when Canada lynx were under consideration for listing. The USFWS is the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act and designates critical habitat.
There are some misunderstandings over exactly what the act does and doesn’t do, Patton said.
“The first thing to recognize is that the act has withstood a lot assaults over a long period of time,” Patton said. The law represents a value system that has always enjoyed strong and widespread public support, he said. “It’s fundamentally sound. Fundamentally, it does what Congress intended it to do.”
Patton said the biggest single misunderstanding of the ESA is that its implementation results in a de facto shutdown of activities in affected areas. He said the “doomsday scenario” is so pervasive in the public perception as to have achieved a half-life of their own.
“Every time a species gets listed the firestorm starts up again,” Patton said. “That’s what the people who want wholesale change to the ESA pound on. They rely on that fear factor,” Patton said.
Making it clear that he was not speaking for the Forest Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service, Patton said that, based on his experience administering the law, he does see room for some improvements, especially in the way it’s implemented.
“My personal opinion is that it could be tweaked to allow greater latitude,” he said. “One thing that’s continued to bother me, and this is not strictly a flaw, is the focus on single species,” he said, acknowledging that the law must continue to function as a safety net for species in trouble.
A better approach might be to look at ecosystems more holistically, Patton suggested, singling out the black-tailed prairie dog as an example. Those animals have been reduced down to 1 or 2 percent of their historic population numbers, he said. Yet they’re not so rare that they can’t be found.
“We don’t have any trouble finding colonies, but in most cases, prairie dogs don’t fulfill their historic ecological function. They are no longer the primary shaper of grasslands ecosystems,” he said. With the single-species focus of the ESA, the impacts to other species associated with prairie dogs aren’t given adequate consideration, Patton said.
“It (the ESA) needs to address how the drop in prairie dog numbers is causing the loss of other species. If we’re going to do any tweaking, it should be to look at things from an ecosystem standpoint,” Patton said. “By working on one single species, it can put you at odds with other species.”
Patton also said a more cooperative, incentive-based approach could bring better results than the traditional regulatory hammer approach. In this area, the Fish and Wildlife Service has already made some progress without taking a crowbar to the law, for example by developing habitat conservation plans in collaboration with private landowners or municipalities.
The Pombo bill (by the name of its sponsor, Calif. Rep. Richard Pombo) is of serious concern, said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, since it eliminates habitat protection provisions without any alternatives.
The critical habitat designation is at the very heart of the Endangered Species Act, said Clark, who headed the Fish and Wildlife Service for four years during the Clinton administration.
“It weakens Section 7 Consultation provisions (talks between the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, calling for an as-yet undefined set of alternative procedures, and it completely eliminates safeguards to protect species from pesticides,” she said. “The proposed revisions undermine the scientific process and say one kind of science is better,” she continued, explaining that the bill as passed by the House would give political appointees too much clout over decisions that should, by law, be based on the best available studies.
Some changes to the ESA are probably needed, she acknowledged, but the Pombo bill was pushed through by the lobby for “greedy developers and industry and the property rights movement,” Clark said, calling on lawmakers to develop a broad bipartisan alternative that would include incentives for private land conservation, as well as more of a focus on recovery, rather than simply listing and forgetting about those rare species.
“We’ve got to find more funding for landowners who want to do good things,” she said. “I feel so frustrated for my former colleagues.
They’re being starved into submission and the entire service has been politicized to a degree never seen before,” she added.
“Whether or not to preserve a natural resource legacy for our children shouldn’t be a political issue,” Clark concluded.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228 or at email@example.com.