Bush Takes Parting Shot
by Joel Connelly
WHEN PLANNING TO widen Interstate 90 through Snoqualmie Pass, state transportation brass, federal agencies and greens wisely opted to cut down on road (and people) kill, and to give peace a chance.
The result will be a series of wildlife overpasses and underpasses, and efforts to make Gold Creek a healthy home to the endangered bull trout.
The unspoken trade-off: No lawsuits will hold up or raise costs on work that benefits the economy, and eases the drive to and from Eastern Washington.
Before leaving the political stage, the Bush administration aims to kiss off this kind of modest use of intelligence. It is, said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., the Bushies' "last sour note."
Using the Christmas season for cover, the Interior Department on Thursday issued "revised" regulations designed to shield federal projects from review under the Endangered Species Act.
"I've been waiting and holding my breath for one last awful thing (Bush) would do to be remembered by, and he has done it," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
The administration ignored comments from 300,000 citizens and adopted a policy that would allow federal agencies to ignore one of the nation's basic environmental laws.
It would eliminate some requirements for independent review by scientists -- notably from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service -- as agencies plan projects involving timber sales, road construction and oil leases.
New rules would also prohibit federal agencies from assessing how a proposed project would add to global warming or jeopardize species habitat.
"Nothing in this regulation relieves a federal agency of its responsibilities to ensure that species are not harmed," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told reporters.
"If this rule had been implemented in years past, highway builders could have done what they wanted, without talking to the Fish and Wildlife Service. We would probably not be seeing the improvements on I-90," said Rick McGuire of the Alpine Lakes Protection Society.
"The I-90 corridor has been a Berlin Wall between the northern Cascades and southern Cascades. If you don't make the means to cross a road like this, it's bad for wildlife. And it's bad for people who hit wildlife."
Inslee noted the administration's recent two-step maneuver in the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.
The Fish and Wildlife Service formally listed the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, due to the threat from global warming. Ignoring the listing, the feds' Minerals Management Service proceeded to sell oil leases where the bears live.
The Bush administration finalized a retroactive justification on Thursday. It created a "special rule" for polar bears, allowing oil and gas drilling, as long as oil companies obey the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"Polar bears don't need a listing. They need ice," said Inslee.
Inslee noted the role of the late Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., who backed oil development in the Arctic and helped write the Endangered Species Act.
"Senator Jackson and others had the foresight and intelligence to say: Let us allow the expertise of government scientists to be tapped before decisions are made," Inslee added.
"That's what the consultation process does. It has been used to good effect in our state."
Critics of the Endangered Species Act often substitute anecdote for fact.
They've argued that consultation with government scientists means holdups and more work.
In a filing with the Interior Department, however, the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that no evidence of delay and cost was produced to support relaxing the law.
Quite the contrary.
The new policy nixes informal consultation between agencies intended to determine whether a project needs more formal and detailed environmental review.
The likely result will be "erroneous findings" by agencies, argued the NRDC. What's the consequence? Project opponents will get grounds to sue.
"We will look at the final (rule) language when it is published tomorrow, but I think we will see them in court," said Andrew Welzler of the NRDC.
Putting teeth back in the Endangered Species Act, and reversing the new rule, presents a tricky, time-consuming task for the Obama administration.
The makeup of Obama's environmental team has surfaced in recent days. It is urban, and largely Eastern.
The incoming Environmental Protection Agency boss, Lisa Jackson, has worked as New Jersey's environmental commissioner. Soon-to-be senior White House aide Carol Browner, an Al Gore protégé, is from Florida.
Obama brass would be well advised to turn for help to the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West.
Our government leaders have dealt with tricky issues involving Endangered Species Act listings of Puget Sound salmon runs and orcas.
East Coast environmentalists, in high government posts, proved tone-deaf and clumsy when dealing with endangered species issues in the Clinton and Carter administrations.
What's needed now is political savvy, plus what George W. Bush, in his 2000 campaign, described as "sound science."
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