Albion Monitor /News

Conservatives Attempting Rewrite of Endangered Species Act

by Danielle Knight

Backed by multinational logging, oil and mining corporations
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- One of the corner stones of domestic environmental policy in the United States -- a law that protects endangered species -- is under attack by Congress and multinational corporations.

For a quarter of-a-century, the 1973 Endangered Species Act has protected threatened species and their habitats and also halted the demise of numerous animal species, including the bald eagle, the humpback whale and the timber wolf.

Now, environmental groups say that a coalition of Republicans and some Democrats, backed by multinational logging, oil and mining corporations, is attempting to overhaul and possibly weaken the act.

"Little to show" for hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the name of preserving plants and animals, but we have little to show for these expenditures," says president of the American Forest and Paper Association
Environmentalists declare that the proposed reforms would do more to protect corporate developers and private property owners than wildlife. They also say that the attack on the act is part of a larger congressional strike at environmental laws, including the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty.

Drafted by Idaho Republican Dirk Kempthorne, and supported by Exxon, ARCO Coal, Dow Chemical, Occidental Oil, Georgia-Pacific Corporation, UNOCAL, and Monsanto among many others, the proposed bill attempts to rewrite the original Endangered Species Act.

Congressional supporters of the reform bill argue that while the original act set noble goals, they have proven difficult and expensive to carry out.

"The public believes that it is not getting its money's worth because the current act has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of preserving plants and animals, but we have little to show for these expenditures," says W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest and Paper Association and the main organizer behind the corporate coalition favoring reforms.

Supporters of the Kempthorne bill, including Rhode Island Republican John Chafee and Montana Democrat Max Baucus, argue that of the 1,126 species listed as "endangered," only about 25 are no longer considered in danger -- despite the fact the U.S. government spends $227 million a year in enforcing the law.

Landowners who find endangered species on their property say that they spend much more than that when they have to draw up conservation measures to avoid harming the species. Costly "mitigation measures" sometimes tie up their land for years and has even driven some into bankruptcy, they argue.

The reforms, they say, would provide incentives to landowners to protect endangered species saying that the original act often discourages such actions.

But Washington environmental groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, say the Kempthorne bill is extremely regressive and would undermine protection for endangered plants and wildlife.

The central problem with the reforms lies in the provisions for Habitat Conservation Plans, says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. These plans are negotiated deals in which landowners agree to adopt specific conservation measures in exchange for permission from the federal government to develop a property, even though it destroys endangered wildlife and critical habitat.

Environmental groups also argue that the bill creates "prison camps" for endangered species
The plans allow landowners, for example, to build a strip mall or cut down a forest -- even if it would harm endangered species -- as long as the landowner takes measures to "lessen the degree of harm."

The reforms create only one avenue for correcting failing conservation plans -- the state government must pay the landowner to make the needed changes in a plant to protect the species.

Kim Delfino, an attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, think this wrongly reverses the economic responsibility from the landowner to the tax payer. "The polluter should pay," she says.

Environmental groups also argue that the Kempthorne bill creates miniature zoos or "prison camps" for endangered species, allowing habitat destruction up to the very edge of currently occupied habitat. The area needed for wildlife populations to expand and recover, known as critical habitat, would no longer be necessary under the reforms.

In Utah, for example, Mojave Desert Tortoises are being moved to a fenced-off federal cattle grazing area. Under this scenario, there is little chance for the tortoise population to expand and recover outside their federally mandated zoo.

The Kempthorne bill also fails to clarify a clear scientific and legal standard for habitat destruction, says environmental groups. Therefore, they argue, even if a hydroelectric dam interferes with a salmon's long-term survival and recovery but not its immediate demise, the dam could still be constructed.

The proposed reforms would also impose new complicated and costly requirements for listing and recovery planning for endangered species, says Gregory S. Wetstone, legislative director of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

He says the bill inserts new and burdensome requirements including cost/benefit analyzes and detailed descriptions of rejected alternatives.

"Not only will these mandates divert precious funds from recovery to the administration of these new requirements, they will also encourage expensive time-consuming litigation," says Wetstone.

Part of a larger assault on environmental protection coming out of congress this year
Environmentalists say the reforms also inhibit the ability of federal agencies to monitor endangered species by imposing a 60- day time-limit on the reviewing of development plans.

While the fate of the Kempthorne bill is uncertain, environmentalists say it is just part of a larger assault on environmental protection coming out of congress this year. Other threatened legislation include the Clean Air Act and the Superfund hazardous waste law, which provides a toxic waste clean up program.

Among other anti-environmental action, the U.S. Senate appears bent on thwarting the landmark global warming treaty signed earlier this year in Kyoto, Japan. And a grazing bill intended to head off environmental reforms could actually increase subsidized destruction of Western rangeland, says Wetstone.

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Albion Monitor March 9, 1998 (

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