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"Sound Science" Proposal Opposed

by Larry Swisher
Capital Press, July 12, 2002

WASHINGTON -- As Western Republicans in the U.S. house pushed legislation this week to foster "sound science" in endangered species decisions, environmental groups released a letter of opposition signed by 300 biologists and other scientists.

The scientists instead endorsed a Democratic alternative, co-sponsored by Reps. George Miller, D-Wash., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

The election-year environmental battle between the two parties and their allied interest groups comes on the heels of several controversies over the use and misuse of science in implementing the Endangered Species Act. The designation of the spotted owl, numerous salmon and other species as threatened or endangered has led to restrictions on Northwest private land owners as well as on timber, grazing, mining and other use of federal resources.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., co-author of the Republican "sound science" bill urged requiring endangered species listings and other major decisions by federal officials be undergo "peer review" by independent scientists. He said such a review would have prevented last years tragic cut-off of irrigation water to more than 1,000 farmers in the Klamath Basin of southwestern Oregon and adjacent California.

The Department of the Interior's decision was "based on an incorrect interpretation of scientific data relating to the endangered shortnose and Lost River sucker fish and coho salmon," Walden said. The loss of crops and income caused farmers to go bankrupt and cost the local economy $100 million to $200 million, he said.

But a follow-up draft report by the independent National Academy of Scientists concluded that "the science that led to the government's decision did not support the water shut-off," and the suffering was unnecessary, Walden said.

The House Resources Committee, which began debating the bill on Wednesday, has held several hearings on the Klamath Basin, the planting of false lynx hair samples by biologists in Washington state and other endangered species controversies over the past year.

The Committee vote 22 to 18 on July 10 to report the bill to the full house with a favorable recommendation.

Before Committee approval, the measure was modified to meet some Bush administration concerns that the bill would cause federal agencies to miss deadlines in existing law. Under the modified bill, those deadlines are extended by six months.

Western Republican leaders argue the problem of poor or misused scientific evidence is a national problem that requires amending the Endangered Species Act.

"The fish and wildlife guys have power over everyone," committee Chairman Jim Hansen, R-Utah said. Many Western members want to repeal the whole act, Hansen said. That would be politically impossible," so we're taking this bite," he said, referring to the sound science bill. "Why not sound science? Doesn't that sound reasonable?"

Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., said the bill would also solve a regional disparity in enforcement of the ESA. "This law is applied west of the Mississippi only. Basically, it isn't applied east of the Mississippi," Cubin said.

The ESA is considered unique among federal environmental laws in requiring listing decisions to be based "solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available," disregarding political or economic considerations.

The Western GOP bill would direct the interior and commerce departments to give greater weight to information that is empirical or has been field-tested or peer-reviewed, in contrast to mathematical and statistical models and projections. Also, it would establish a peer-review panel system and require designation of endangered or threatened species to be supported by field data on the species in question.

Miller, who chaired the resources Committee when the Democrats controlled the House, agreed that "we've got a problem" in the administration of the ESA. But he said the Republican bill would created more litigation and controversy by setting new legal thresholds and definition that have no legal precedent. Also the bill would give priority in consultations to landowners and other applicants for species take permits or habitat modifications.

"Their real agenda is to gut the ESA," he said.

Miller said the Democrats' alternative would provide more resources for federal fish and wildlife agencies to conduct research and analysis and create a scientific review process that would not bog down decisions.

Among the scientists who oppose the bill are prominent members of the National Academy of Sciences, including five members of a NAS committee that conducted an in-depth study of the ESA in the mid-19902, and several past presidents of scientific societies.

In addition, 19 of the largest environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, sent a letter urging members of Congress to oppose the bill.

At a press conference with Democrats on Wednesday, David Blockstein, a conservation biologist, said the scientists were concerned that the Western Republican's bill would undermine the credibility of the science, decisions and policies under the ESA. He said the bill would dictate what types of information and peer review are be used and give preference to certain data over others.

"Unless peer review processes and scientific methodologies are defined and managed by scientists, they have no credibility. The hall mark of science is an independent search for truth," Blockstein, who currently chairs the Ornithological Council in Washington, D.C., said.

The scientists' letter urged Congress to allow scientific data used in ESA decisions to be "identified and analyzed by scientists free from political pressure and with adequate resources." There are many species hovering on the brink of extinction and they need scientifically based action to help in their recovery," they said, adding that proposed changes in the ESA would slow crucial decisions through additional delays and bureaucracy.

Blockstein said the United States and the world are facing an "extinction crisis" and that the problem of hundreds of species of plants and wildlife going unprotected was far greater than the problem of a few species being listed under the ESA by mistake.

Larry Swisher, for the Capital Press
"Sound Science" Proposal Opposed
Capital Press, July 12, 2002

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