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Bush Administration Tries to Settle Fish Habitat Lawsuits

by Kat Ricker
Capital Press - March 15, 2002

The Bush administration this week submitted a proposal to temporarily end habitat protections for 19 groups of salmon and steelhead.

The action, affecting 150 watersheds, river segments, bays and estuaries through the Northwest and California, could open parts of four Western states to more development. Officials emphasized federal protection would be retained for the fish, which are on the endangered species list.

Environmentalists, however, said they would oppose the plan, which must be approved by the federal court, to which the proposal was submitted March 11.

The plan came from National Marine Fisheries Service as a way to settle federal lawsuits brought against the habitat protections by the National Association of Homebuilders, the Association of California Water Agencies and 16 other groups.

The proposal stems from a decision in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that required federal agencies to do a better job of analyzing the economic impact of critical habitat protections. The plaintiffs complained that the federal government did not give sufficient attention to economic effects of the provisions.

Andy Anderson, Oregon Farm Bureau executive vice president, sees this week's move as nurturing exactly that approach to species and habitat protection.

'Right Track'
"The Bush administration is moving on the right track to get all of these issues straightened around. We've been watching what NMFS has been doing, and think that the administration is interested in solving problems in ways that fish can be protected so people, ag and natural resource industries can go ahead and not be shut down, like we were in Klamath Falls last year."

Ag and resource people have long contended that it was possible to use resources wisely while protecting species, he said. The industry is seeing more action along those lines from the Bush administration, "rather than the mentality of, 'We have to shut industry down to protect the species," prevalent during the Clinton years, he said.

Glen Stonebrink of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association sees the move as a victory for good judgment and common sense.

"It's because of the lack of good science that we've had undue regulations for so-called habitat protection that really didn't do anything for us."

Despite billions of dollars spent on restoration of salmon and steelhead, he said, "Nobody can point to anything specific we have done with that, and when they recovered, they did it on their own from ocean conditions. It was a huge waste of taxpayer money."

He said he hears a huge outcry from both sides of the political aisle saying that it is wrong to protect species at all costs.

Bill Moshofsky of Oregonians in Action and Save Our Salmon sees this week's proposal as a turning point, and expects to see effects from it at the state level.

"These regulatory bodies need to have proof and justification for what they do." It's "more proof that ESA decisions have not been based on good science or compliance with the law." The administration's indicating it will "take into account economic impacts" when decisions are made.

NMFS said it would spend up to two years reworking habitat provisions, analyzing the economic impact. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in the District of Columbia will decide whether to grant the motion for settlement.

Critical habitat designations are among the most contentious provisions of the Endangered Species Act. In some cases, they allow NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to limit or block activities in areas where threatened or endangered species might be harmed.

Critical-habitat designations the Clinton administration made in February 2000 covered chinook, chum and sockeye salmon, as well as steelhead trout, in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. They could be rescinded immediately if the settlement is approved.

USFWS also said recently that it plans to review, and in some cases set aside, critical habitat designations for as many as 10 other endangered species in the West.

by Kat Ricker Capital Press Staff Writer
Associated Press contributed to this article
Bush Administration Tries to Settle Fish Habitat Lawsuits
Capital Press - March 15, 2002

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