August 25, 2008
Plan Aired to Restrict Species Law / Mandatory, Independent Reviews of Projects Would Be Eliminated
Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct. The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants. New regulations, which don't require the approval of Congress, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews government scientists have been performing for 35 years, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press.
The draft rules also would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the changes were needed to ensure that the Endangered Species Act would not be used as a "back door" to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. In May, the polar bear became the first species declared as threatened because of climate change. Rising temperatures are expected to melt the sea ice the bear depends on for survival.
"We need to focus our efforts where they will do the most good," Kempthorne said in a news conference organized quickly after the AP reported details of the proposal. "It is important to use our time and resources to protect the most vulnerable species. It is not possible to draw a link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts on species."
If approved, the changes would accomplish through regulations what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.
The changes would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize.
"If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.
Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely. This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.
The Interior Department said such consultations are no longer necessary because federal agencies have developed expertise to review their own construction and development projects, according to the 30-page draft.
The new rules would be imposed before the election.
Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews each year.
The reviews have helped safeguard protected species such as bald eagles, Florida panthers and whooping cranes.
Originally published by The Associated Press.
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