Hearing Highlights Great Divide
by Rocky Barker
The House Natural Resources Committee a week ago continued Chairman Doc Hastings' efforts to highlight the problems of the federal Endangered Species Act.
These hearings have been organized primarily from the standpoint of Westerners caught up in the legal maneuvers by wildlife advocates who use the act to protect habitat and carry out other agendas, such as ending grazing on public land.
Hastings starts from a place where most people on both sides can agree: That it is disappointing that the federal Endangered Species Act, the most powerful environmental law ever written, has not been reauthorized - the congressional process in which laws are updated - for 25 years.
Unfortunately, the Hastings hearing underscored the polarized attitudes within the ESA that prevent serious discussion about reform that would make the law more efficient without removing its teeth.
Most Western Republicans want to extract those teeth, turning decisions about protecting species on the brink of extinction over to states.
Most environmental groups are unwilling to even discuss ending the broad powers of the act, because they believe it will make the law powerless to stop habitat destruction.
People closer to the middle on both sides recognize a need to set better priorities for protection.
You heard no middle ground in Hastings' hearing. His perspective has grown out of long frustration. He isn't looking for common ground.
Hastings' script was to highlight environmental lawyers' strategy to "sue and settle" with the Interior Department over its backlog of listing decisions. These settlements have forced action to protect species and their habitats that many industries and states have sought to delay or avoid.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador's exchange with two of the top endangered species scholars offers a good look at the two sides on this issue.
Reed Noss is a conservation biologist who has worked closely with University of Idaho Professor Emeritus Michael Scott on programs to protect habitat before species are listed. Pat Parenteau, the former director of Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center, has taught a generation of lawyers how to use their talents to protect the environment they love.
Noss said "the threats that led to those species being listed in the first place have not abated, and most of them have gotten worse." That's a fact that science supports.
Noss then said the federal government has never acquired enough money to do what the act said - which, while true, misses the point that all the money in the world won't save all of the species.
During the hearing, Labrador grilled Noss: "So you are asking for more money. Could the answer just be that nature takes care of itself, that maybe we don't know more than nature does? Your answer is to come from up top, telling nature what it needs to do and telling humans what they need to do, as opposed to realizing . . . that some species are going to go and some species are going to stay, and that's just the regular evolutionary process. And you don't know more than everybody else."
Actually, Noss, one of the world's top conservation biologists, does know more about endangered species than almost anyone on Earth. Like most biologists, he says human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Age has caused an extinction crisis.
"Nature is still out there, but its been overwhelmed by the human population and our consumption," Noss replied.
Labrador comes from a position that many of his rural constituents share: That the Endangered Species Act puts the interests of animals like wolves, salmon and squirrels ahead of people. His point is that even the smartest scientists' knowledge is limited.
Labrador asked if Noss still believes as he has written: "The collective needs of nonhuman species should take precedent over the needs and desires of humans."
"I do," Noss said.
Labrador then turned to Parenteau and read what the professor had written: "Humanity threatens to turn the earth into a planet of weeds."
Do you still stand by that? Labrador asked.
"That's what the science suggests," Parenteau answered.
So there it is: The Great Divide.
I met with Labrador Friday, who said he's frustrated by the polarization and doesn't want to simply point to the excesses of environmentalists and agencies. He's directed his staff to look for solutions to resource issues such as endangered species.
"I don't want to talk about this thing for the next 15 years," Labrador said.
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