August 20, 2008

Improper Threat to the Endangered Species Act

George Bush's presidency trickles to an end in five months, and already some members of his administration are acting like tenants who know they are going to be evicted and doing as much damage as they can before they leave. But no one has dared to go as far as Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who's trying to place the Endangered Species Act on the extinction list beside the dodo and the passenger pigeon.

Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and senator, got a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters in five of his six years in Congress. He is famously reluctant to add to the endangered and threatened species list.

Earlier this month, in an attempt to do an end-run around Congress, Kempthorne proposed drastic changes to the rules governing the Endangered Species Act. No longer, if the secretary gets his way, will federal agencies like the Army Corp of Engineers, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Land Management and Office of Surface Mining have to submit proposals for projects to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and other environmental agencies for review. Instead, each agency, using ostensible in-house expertise, would decide whether any harm would be done.

Only if the answer is yes would the agency have to consult federal offices charged with protecting species.

To further weaken the law's protections, the Fish and Wildlife and other environmental agencies would be given a maximum of 120 days to study and to act. That's faster than the current timetable and too little time to do comprehensive environmental assessments.

The notion that agencies whose missions are building roads and leasing land and waters for mines and oil drilling have the objectivity, let alone the expertise, to honestly assess and effectively gauge environmental harms is laughable.

The independent environmental reviews that are mandated by the Endangered Species Act have helped scores of species' recovery and brought some, like the California condor and the Florida panther, back from the brink of doom. The act has also forced changes to projects and led to curbs on development. That, however, is a tradeoff that must be made if humans are going to share the planet with other species.

Kempthorne's proposal was apparently made to head of any further attempts to use the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gases and the climate changes that are melting the polar ice caps.

In May, the impact of the vanishing sea ice on polar bear survival forced Kempthorne to add the bears to threatened species list. The act is not the perfect tool for addressing the bears' plight, but it's one of the only tools in the box.

If, at the end of a 30-day public comment period that's already begun, the rule goes into effect, it will, like other Kempthorne attempts to weaken environmental laws enacted by Congress, probably be tossed out in court - if the next president and Congress don't act first.

The attempted change should be seen for what it is: a final Bush administration gift to those who benefit when environmental laws are weakened.

Originally published by Monitor staff.

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