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Stop the Spiral of Eco-Lawsuits

by Staff
Capital Press, July 23, 2004

Federal agencies from the U.S. Forest Service to the Environmental Protection Agency are in the cross hairs of environmental groups that claim the agencies aren’t dotting all of the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s” of the mandates in the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.

This shortcoming would be of passing interest but for one problem: Farmers and ranchers around the West must bear the burden of most penalties or restrictions judges impose on the agencies for not fully doing their jobs.

For example, the EPA has been dragged into court over whether it adequately conferred with other federal agencies about the possible effect certain pesticides could have on fish before approving the pesticides for use near streams. The result: A federal judge has ordered the agency to get its act together, which is fine.

What’s not fine is that the judge has also imposed pesticide-free buffer zones along salmon-bearing streams around the West - a move that is costing farmers and ranchers dearly in lost productivity.

Here’s another example. Just recently, a couple of environmental groups dragged the U.S. Forest Service into court claiming the agency isn’t adequately monitoring fish recovery efforts in the Malheur National Forest in Eastern Oregon.

The groups sought to prevent ranchers from grazing their cattle in the national forest. They weren’t arguing that the ranchers were doing anything wrong so much as they were arguing that the Forest Service was doing a poor job of monitoring fish recovery efforts.

Again, the innocent bystanders - farmers and ranchers - were placed at risk because of the federal agency’s shortcomings.

Though the judge let the ranchers graze their cattle in the national forest this summer, he warned that if the Forest Service doesn’t get its act together, the story next summer could be different.

“Although the defendants offer optimistic assessments (about the current and future ecological health of the allotments) ... such optimism fails to refute plaintiffs’ evidence that defendants have not been, and are not, in compliance with (federal mandates),” wrote district Judge Ancer L. Haggerty. “Though by no means a preferred remedy, the entry of an injunction before the next grazing season remains a viable consideration for this court in the quest for achieving that balance.”

Though there is certainly room to argue over the scope of the Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental laws, one point is not arguable.

The federal agencies charged with enforcing those laws have not been able to keep up.

One part of the problem is money. More and more is being demanded of agencies like the Forest Service and the EPA, yet Congress and the administration don’t provide the money needed to allow them to do an adequate job, let alone a good one.

It’s like building a bigger and bigger truck but putting a Yugo engine in it.

Ironically, environmental lawsuits are another part of the problem, not the solution. Agencies must spend so much time and money defending themselves in court that managers and scientists are pulled away from their primary jobs to work on legal issues.

As that happens, more mandates go unmet, creating more targets for lawsuits, which in turn pull more managers and scientists away from their primary jobs, which ....

You get the idea.

Exactly how that benefits the fish or the environment is anyone’s guess.

If we’re to put an end to this endless spiral of lawsuits and judicially mandated penalties that hurt only innocent bystanders - farmers and ranchers - we need to reach a consensus that the solutions don’t reside in the courtroom. They reside in agencies that have the resources - money and manpower - to allow managers and scientists to make solid, science-based decisions that will meet the requirements of the law

If we can’t agree on anything else, we should at least be able to agree on that.

Stop the Spiral of Eco-Lawsuits
Capital Press, July 23, 2004

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