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Overhaul of ESA Welcomed

by Cookson Beecher
Capital Press, June 14, 2007

The Interior Department's recent announcement that it is considering making changes to the 34-year-old Endangered Species Act comes as welcome news, said American Farm Bureau regulatory official Rick Krause.

Pointing out that 80 percent of the land where listed species live is private property - most of which is farmland or forestland - Krause said farmers have a huge stake in this.

"We're glad the Interior Department is trying to make things work better," he said. "Just the fact that they're trying is a positive sign."

Krause said he knows that the administration has talked about working cooperatively with landowners and using a "carrot instead of a stick" approach to species' protections.

"It would be very welcome to our members if they could back that up with regulations," he said.

The Bush administration says it wants to see changes in the act because, in its current form, it's onerous and expensive for landowners.

Critics, among them Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., have warned that the department is trying to restrict the law through rule-making rather than getting congressional approval.

Steve Robinson, policy analyst with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, agreed, pointing out that any changes must go through the congressional process and be open to public scrutiny. In addition, they must also be subjected to the provisions of the constitutionally mandated treaty law.

"Frankly, the primary problem with the Endangered Species Act is that it's not well enforced," Robinson said. "As a result, it is not unusual for species, under the pressure of pollution, habitat degradation and urban sprawl, to be lost forever."

Many of the proposed changes have been part of legislation that has been defeated in Congress in the past 12 years.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the documents are drafts, not decisions that have been made.

The department's new approach would change the way the law is interpreted. One of the changes would limit extra protection for endangered species to where those species are actually found.

Opponents say that would limit protection for the species because the law currently includes habitat that historically supported a species - even if that species no longer lives there.

In the Northwest, dwindling salmon runs present another concern. Environmentalists have warned that the proposals could lead to allowing more water to pour through the Columbia River dams, thus putting salmon at risk.

Another proposed change would narrow when species can be considered in danger of extinction, changing "in the foreseeable future" to a more-specific timetable of 20 years for some species and a certain number of generations for others.

Opponents also fear that the changes could lead to more logging, development and other projects - as long as they stop short of "hastening" a species' extinction.

The proposal would also give states more authority over protecting species.

For the American Farm Bureau, having landowners play a role in consultations and also in recovery plans is important.

"They're the ones whose livelihoods are on the line," Krause said. "And they're the ones who could provide information about what's feasible and what isn't."

He also said the Farm Bureau believes that incentives would lead to more cooperation on the part of landowners.

"There are people who would like to help listed species, but they're afraid that if they attract the species to their land, they'll be subject to greater regulations," he said. "That approach doesn't encourage cooperation; it discourages it."

In reading the draft proposal, Krause said, he sees elements of landowner participation in consultations and recovery plans as well as incentives for landowner cooperation. "There are possibilities in there that we find encouraging," he said.

Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash.
Overhaul of ESA Welcomed
Capital Press, June 14, 2007

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