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The Planet

September 1997, Volume 4, number 7

Danger, Promise on Capitol Hill

The eastern timber wolf is back from the brink; lawsuits in 1978 and 1985 kicked off the recovery of this creature, one of the original species on the endangered species list. But the survival of other species depends on healthy, abundant habitat and strong legislation.

That star of the 1994 freshman class, Congressman Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), had a simple solution for handling endangered species. "Give them all a designated area,"he suggested, "and then blow it up."

By the 1996 elections -- when it was clear that the War on the Environment was bombing with voters -- Bono and friends had changed their tune. But as someone once sang, the beat goes on. Species and their habitats are again under attack from Congress. And opponents of the Endangered Species Act are proving that they've learned from their past mistakes.

Unlike recent efforts to unravel the ESA -- many of them tainted by flagrant partisanship and lunatic-fringe hyperbole -- a pending Senate bill has the cachet of compromise, as well as the apparent blessing of the Clinton administration. And though its precise language is still being hammered out, a "discussion draft"was released in January.

"If the bill looks anything like the draft,"said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club's ESA specialist in Washington, D.C., "we hate it."

There was much to hate in that early version. Authored by Sens. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) and John Chafee (R-R.I.), the draft reauthorization bill "set alarm bells off everywhere,"said Pierce. If passed, it would weaken current law in four key areas:


Under Kempthorne-Chafee, the decision to list species as threatened or endangered -- the cornerstone of the law -- is more difficult, more politicized and more time-consuming.


The bill eliminates the federal government's ability to protect fish and other aquatic species by reserving water (leaving it in the stream) for their conservation.


Instead of requiring input from biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the bill would institute "self-consultation"-- a free pass for agencies to approve development projects without considering impact on species habitat.


Where current law stresses the protection and recovery of endangered species and their habitats, the proposed bill would restrict federal agencies to those actions that are "least costly, most cost-effective or least burdensome."

The results of such sweeping changes to the ESA -- changes that place biological diversity at the mercy of financial and political expediency -- are painfully obvious. Under the 104th Congress'clearcut rider, for example, the ESA was effectively voided in national forests throughout the country. That was enough for the U.S. Forest Service to approve the Thunderbolt sale in Idaho, where salmon were already faced with extinction. The sale went through without any of the mitigation measures normally required under existing law.

To make matters worse, the Kempthorne "compromise"may bear the imprimatur of not just the historically green Chafee, but of the White House and of two Democratic senators -- Montana’s Max Baucus and Nevada’s Harry Reid -- with records of support for endangered species. The still-unreleased revision "was negotiated behind closed doors,"said Pierce, and can't be amended either in committee or on the floor of the Senate.

House Bill Would Keep Species Robust

But while U.S. senators' hands may be tied, there's plenty of House action on behalf of species and habitat. For example, the key provisions of the Endangered Natural Heritage Act -- a scientifically based revision of the ESA drafted by grassroots activists -- are incorporated in Rep. George Miller's (D-Calif.) Endangered Species Recovery Act.

In contrast to the current triage approach, the ESRA focuses on keeping species robust by preserving their habitat. Based in large part on the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, ESRA focuses on preventing species decline before they become endangered. The goal of this legislation is not to add more species to the endangered species list but rather, to get them off it.

Recognizing that the vast majority of endangered species depend in part on private lands for their survival, this bill was designed with small, private landowners in mind, and offers common sense assistance to encourage species conservation such as tax breaks for landowners who implement proactive conservation measures, and estate tax deferrals for lands enrolled in Endangered Species Conservation Agreements. As we go to press, the bill has been introduced with 50 cosponsors.

A less comprehensive, yet vitally important, tool for protecting species is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, at this writing a source of congressional controversy. Created in 1964, the LWCF provides $900 million annually -- mainly revenues from off-shore oil and gas leases -- for public acquisition of critical habitat. Since 1980, Congress has only appropriated roughly one-third of the money paid into the fund. This year, Congress is poised to appropriate over $900 million for LWCF projects, including the acquisition of New World Mine, near Yellowstone, and Northern California's Headwaters Forest, but the deal is far from done. Environmental opponents will likely oppose the appropriation of these funds and have already succeeded in placing precedent-setting, restrictive language in the bill which could stop the acquisition of New World and Headwaters.

These efforts and others, like those described in this special report, show Sonny Bono and his friends that moves to weaken existing laws will be met with unyielding support for endangered species and their habitat.

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