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Commentaries and editorials

Parts of the Endangered Species Act Endangered

by Andrew Satter
The Bulletin of Bend Oregon, January 27, 2004

WASHINGTON -- If some members of Congress have their way this winter term, the next addition to the endangered species list could be parts of the Endangered Species Act.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., resubmitted to Congress proposed legislation for Endangered Species Act reform last week, signifying another aggressive step by Western congressmen to amend the law. Smith's proposal, which mirrors legislation submitted to the House last April by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., would require the federal government to give greater weight to scientific data when making decisions under the act. Opponents of the act have criticized it for allowing the Interior Department too much discretion in determining when to intervene.

Smith and Walden point to a report by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded the department acted too hastily and without enough empirical evidence when in an effort to save endangered sucker fish it cut off water deliveries to ranchers in the Klamath Basin in 2001.

As a result, more than 1,200 farmers and ranchers in the region were denied irrigation water and the region suffered more than $100 million in economic damages. Under the proposed amendment, decisions made under the act would be subject to scientific peer review.

The law would ask the government to base everything from determining when a species is endangered or threatened to undertaking action to protect that species on commercial factual analysis. Requiring the government to base its actions on more scientific data will help to safeguard the livelihood of every man and creature involved in a particular ecosystem from potentially disastrous repercussions, Walden said.

"As we saw in the Klamath Basin, a scientifically unjustified decision not only brought widespread economic harm to an entire community, but also had the potential to harm the fish species on whose behalf the water shut-off was made," Walden said.

Opponents of the measure question the practicality of the sound science reform. Environmentalists say that the amendment will actually make the government's decision more subjective, requiring it to determine when it has obtained enough empirical data to make its decision legitimate.

"When you are dealing with something as complex as the modeling of an ecosystem as the Klamath Basin, unless you have years of empirical data and anecdotal evidence, you go with the best data and information you have available," said Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the health of Central Oregon's deserts. "Is the science sound or isn't it? Who's to say?"

The act has been in the crosshairs of many Western congressmen for years. In the Senate, Republicans Craig Thomas of Wyoming and Michael Crapo of Idaho, among others, have issued their own assaults on the act.

Frequent complaints include the methods for listing and delisting endangered animals, as well as the gamut of actions taken to preserve and protect those species.

However, while Smith's office admitted that it would prefer more extensive reforms of the Endangered Species Act, they recognized that the more modest proposals have the best chance of making it through the partisan Senate.

"The proposal is something everyone should agree on," said Chris Matthews, Smith's spokesman. "The need for sound science is universal.

Matthews said that the Republican-dominated House has a better chance of passing greater reform than the Senate.

Andrew Satter
Parts of the Endangered Species Act Endangered
The Bulletin, January 27, 2004

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