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Republicans will Push for ESA Amendment

by Larry Swisher
Capital Press - June 21, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Western Republican leaders said they will push for House consideration of a bill to amend the Endangered Species Act, despite a lack of enthusiasm among other members.

Only one member responded to an invitation to the entire House to testify at the Resources Committee July 18 in support of a bill to require federal fish and wildlife agencies to base endangered species decisions on peer-reviewed and field-gathered scientific information rather than model and projections from limited data. What's more, the one witness who was scheduled to appear, Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., did not show up.

Committee Chairman Jim Hansen, R-Utah, author of the bill, C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, and several other panel members argued strongly for changing the basis of endangered species listings, critical habitat designations and other decisions. But Democrats and environmental groups pointed to the empty witness table as evidence that problems with implementing the Endangered Species Act are overblown.

"The purpose of today's hearing was to allow our colleagues to come before this committee and relate ESA horror stories," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat, said to Hansen. "I must say I am rather impressed by the large number of members who chose not to take you up on your kind offer."

Although he agreed the ESA is not perfect, Rahall said it is "not the source of all evil." He compared those who cast it in that light with conspiracy theorists who "hear helicopters buzzing overhead in the night (and) wonder whether they are in fact black helicopters, (who) believe the United Nations really controls America's federal lands."

At the end of the 60-minute afternoon session, Hansen said the committee still planned to act on his bill next week. "This is going to be a serious bill," he said. "We intend to push this and see how far we can take it."

In a boost to the bill's advocates, the Bush administration on June 19 said it would support the bill with modifications.

"We believe that, if implemented, this legislation will broaden opportunities for scientific input and assure additional public involvement in endangered species act implementation," Craig Manson, an assistant secretary of Interior, said. Manson said the bill also would improve the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision-making and increase public confidence in its decisions.

Although officials representing USFWs and the National Marine Fisheries Service in March testified similar bills were not necessary, they said this week that the new bill was an improvement that could be further corrected in negotiations with committee staff.

Old Ground
This week's discussion, which few Democrats attended, was largely a rehash of earlier sessions. The panel, and its subcommittees, has held three hearings this year to criticize federal fish and wildlife officials over several recent scientific controversies, including the planting of false lynx hair samples in a Northwest survey and last year's cut-off of irrigation water in the Klamath Basin.

They said emotion, misconduct by federal biologists and pressure from environmental groups had influenced decisions that were not supported by solid scientific information.

For years, Western Republicans have complained that private landowners and resource industries have been unfairly penalized by enforcement of endangered species laws and regulations. But they failed in several attempts in the mid-1990s to pass comprehensive reform legislation, which environmental groups charged would gut the landmark 1973 act.

Hansen, who is retiring after this year, called the sound science bill "a small step" toward improving the law. Based on earlier versions by Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Richard Pombo, R-Calif., it would redefine the current law's requirement to use of "the best scientific and commercial data available" to give greater weight to information that has been field-tested or peer-reviewed. Also, listings would have to be supported by field data on the species in question.

Klamath Example
Walden, in written testimony, noted that a National Academy of Sciences review of the Klamath Basin water cut-off found "no sound scientific basis" for the action. "How many other communities have to be impacted before we put credibility back into the Endangered Species Act?" he asked.

But Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said the bill would undermine efforts to reduce the high number of species that are going extinct in the world. "The way things are going," future generations will look back and conclude that too little was done to save plants and animals from disappearing, not too much, he said.

Environmental groups strongly oppose the bill, which they call a back-door attempt to weaken endangered species protection.

"It's a wolf in sheep's clothing," EarthJustice attorney Susan Holmes said. "It cynically uses the cover of sound science to change the law in ways that will cause delays and make it harder for scientists to do their jobs and use the science they need. It's like telling a doctor you have to diagnose cancer using a stethoscope."

Holmes said many of the horror stories cited by the bill's supporters were myths. She said the NAS report on the Klamath Basin has been misinterpreted.

Lawsuit Basis
Otter said the law has done more to produce more lawsuits than it has to save imperiled plants and animals. "We've done a better job of helping the survival of law schools and graduates of law schools than species," he said, arguing the scientific standards in the bill would reduce litigation.

Another supporter raised concerns that the bill could backfire under different interpretations. "We don't own the term 'reform' (or) 'sound science,'" Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., said. Republicans might not like the way a Democratic administration would implement it, he said. At the same time, the current law has aroused strong feelings in rural areas, where it has blocked projects and economic activities and stirred public opposition to protecting species. He cited a popular bumper sticker that reads, "Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up."

Larry Swisher , a columnist based in Washington, D.C., writes for Pacific Northwest newspapers.
Republicans will Push for ESA Amendment
Capital Press, June 21, 2002

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