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Obama Opposes Endangered Species Rule Change

by Dina Cappiello, Associated Press
Capital Press, August 15, 2008

Campaign staff for Democrat candidate will reverse action of Bush administration

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A Bush administration proposal that would eliminate the input of independent government scientists in some endangered species reviews would be tossed out if Democrat Barack Obama wins the White House, his campaign says.

"This 11th-hour ruling from the Bush administration is highly problematic. After over 30 years of successfully protecting our nation's most endangered wildlife like the bald eagle, we should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it," said Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro. "As president, Senator Obama will fight to maintain the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act and undo this proposal from President Bush."

A spokesman for Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, said he had no comment on Bush's revisions.

The Dina Cappiello reported Monday, Aug. 11, details of a proposal by the Interior and Commerce departments that would change how the 1973 law is implemented, allowing federal agencies to decide for themselves - without seeking the opinions of government wildlife experts - whether dams, highways and other projects have the potential to harm endangered species and habitats.

If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of the Endangered Species Act since 1988. They would accomplish through new federal regulations what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: an end to some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.

The changes would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize. Government wildlife experts currently perform tens of thousands of such reviews each year.

"If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.

Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine the probability that a project would jeopardize any endangered species or damage habitat, even if no harm would be likely to occur. This initial review usually results in accommodations that protect better the 1,353 animals and plants listed in the United States as threatened or endangered. It also determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.

The Interior Department said such consultations no longer are necessary because federal agencies have developed expertise to review their own construction and development projects.

Current law requires federal agencies to consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service if a project poses so much as a remote risk to species or habitats.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne defended the changes in a call with reporters Monday, Aug. 11, calling them narrow modifications to make the law more clear and efficient.

In recent years, both federal agencies and developers have complained that the reviews, which can result in changes to projects, have delayed work and increased costs.

The proposed regulations, which were scheduled to be published Thursday, Aug. 14, in the Federal Register, included one significant change from the earlier draft: The public comment period was cut in half, from 60 to 30 days.

"In this case, it was determined that we need to move forward in a timely fashion," said Interior Department spokeswoman Tina Kreisher.

If the proposal should become final by November, a new administration could propose another rule, a process that could take months. Congress could also pass legislation, but that could take even longer.

An aide for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said that panel would hold a hearing on the rule changes when Congress returns in September.

In recent years some federal agencies and private developers have complained that the process they must go through results in delays and increased construction costs.

"We have always had concerns with respect to the need for streamlining and making it a more efficient process," said Joe Nelson, a lawyer for the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, a trade group for home builders and the paper and farming industry.

The Bush administration and Congress have attempted with mixed success to change the law.

In 2003, the Bush administration imposed similar rules to allow agencies to approve new pesticides and projects to reduce wildfire risks without asking the opinion of government scientists whether threatened or endangered species and habitats might be affected. The pesticide rule was later overturned in court. The Interior Department, along with the Forest Service, is currently being sued over the rule governing wildfire prevention.

In 2005, the House passed a bill to modify the ESA, but the bill died in the Senate.

Dina Cappiello, Associated Press
Obama Opposes Endangered Species Rule Change
Capital Press, August 15, 2008

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